By Emily Bruzzo, Staff Writer
Published in print Sept. 17, 2014
Last Saturday at the Stand Up, Fight Back Youth and Student Organizing Conference, roughly 50 students and organizers from across the state came together at N.C. State University in Raleigh to discuss the future of education and a wide array of social issues.
Present at the conference were members of organizations such at the North Carolina Student Power Union, Ignite NC, the Youth Organizing Institute, the Dream Organizing Network and others.
The conference began with a student panel, with speakers each addressing their specific agendas.
The panel’s first speaker was Elizabeth Brown, a student organizer for the Student Power Union at UNC Chapel Hill. Brown’s focus was on the UNC Board of Governors and its decisions regarding tuition.
In 2012, the Board of Governors passed a policy calling for the removal of a cap on tuition increases, allowing for tuition to rise as much as 10 to 20 percent in universities across the state.
Brown also discussed the new “Freeze and Cap” policy, which was passed by the Board of Governors at the beginning of the year.
According to the University of North Carolina’s official website, the policy came from a Board of Governors Working Group on Financial Aid and Tuition, which was asked to examine the status of financial aid in the UNC system and how to aid students while better economizing funds derived from tuition.
The working group advised the Board of Governors to call for an end to what the UNC website called, “the practice of linking tuition increase revenue to need-based financial aid.” The proposal limited the percentage of tuition revenues that could go towards need-based financial aid to 15 percent.
“What we’re seeing is this systematic process of these people in charge trying to limit our access to higher education. Personally, what I really think this is a root of, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the purpose of a university is,” Brown said.
Brown argued that the leaders of the UNC system view the university as, “a place where you go to get job training.”
Brown asserted that the Student Power Union’s main focus is to stand up against such ideas of higher education and to fight for university systems that are used to enhance surrounding communities and prepare students to become active members in their culture and society.
“The school exists for us,” Brown said. “It exists for our community. We think this is a public investment, not a private investment.”
Ultimately, Brown says the Student Power Union is “fighting for getting an education without being shackled by debt.”
Following Brown’s talk was Lelaa Ali, a student at N.C. State University and a member of Ignite NC.
Ali’s focus was on voter laws and the recent changes that have been made.
The new voter ID law that was passed by the North Carolina General Assembly and Governor McCrory in the summer of 2013 created waves of contention and many student organizations, such as Ignite NC, rose up to combat what they saw as a challenge to voters’ rights. “This law creates a lot of barriers and disenfranchises a group we might classify as the rising American electorate, which consists of low wage workers, people of color and students,” Ali said.
Ali discussed some of the changes made to the voter law, saying that it eliminated same day registration and shortened the early voting period from 17 days to 10 days. However, after suggesting that voters must have only a North Carolina issued ID to vote, Ali did not clarify that voters may use other forms of identification.
According to the North Carolina General Assembly’s index of statutes, N.C. Gen. Stat. 163-166.13 states that, though student IDs are not accepted, IDs such as United States passports and U.S. military identification cards are allowed. Additionally, driver’s licenses or non-operators ID cards issued by other states are permitted as long as the voter’s North Carolina voter registration occurred within 90 days of the election.
Ali asserted that the efforts to educate students about the changes to voting laws were lacking, and she argues, “Students are not apathetic. We’re misinformed.”
Oliver Merino spoke next. Merino is a member of the Dream Organizing Network, an organization that works with the immigrant community, specifically undocumented workers and students.
Merino, not citing any particular source, claimed there have been 2 million deportations over the last six years, a time frame which falls under President Obama’s administration.
Merino asserted that his organization does not support political parties because the group feels both Republicans and Democrats alike have been responsible for deportations in the United States.
“For us,” Merino said, “It’s not about politics. It’s about families.”
In talking about the conference, Merino said, “All of us here are angry, but the problem is, how do we turn anger into action and that action into change. That’s the difficult part.”
Recently, Merino’s attempts at action have been working for in-state tuition for undocumented students in North Carolina.
Faculty senates at UNC Asheville and UNC Chapel Hill have passed the resolution. The next goal is convince other UNC system institutions to also pass the resolution and to eventually bring it to the UNC Board of Governors for consideration.
After Merino, Ajanae Willis, a student at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) and the sophomore class president, spoke on the struggles her institution has faced.Willis claims that the leaders of the UNC system are attempting to bring ECSU down, but not in any obvious way. “They are stepping back and watching us destruct on the inside,” Willis said.
According to Raleigh’s News and Observer, last year, the N.C. Senate passed a budget that contained a provision mandating the UNC Board of Governors to dissolve campuses where there was a 20 percent drop or more in full-time student enrollment since 2010.
ECSU was the only university in the UNC system that fell within these parameters. However, after an uproar from the faculty and student body, an amendment to the budget was passed that eliminated the provision.
Willis spoke about the layoffs of 46 ECSU employees, the cuts to three science programs and the attempts to eliminate history programs. Willis contends that the faculty and staff members who were fired were actively vocal opponents of the UNC system and their expulsions were no coincidence.
“That leads us to believe there’s a conspiracy behind all of this,” Willis asserted. “They’ve eliminated every last person who were in the fight to save our school. Now we’re left with people who are submissive and not willing to fight back against the things they want us to conform to.”
For Willis, a call for conformity came with the Board of Governor’s request to change the university’s name to UNC at Elizabeth City.
“Once we change our name,” ‘Willis argued, “They are going to start removing us of our history. And we’re not settling for that.”
The last speaker on the panel was Qasima Wideman, an organizer with the Youth Organizing Institute.
The Youth Organizing Institute is an education and leadership program that was founded in 2010 as a response to the attempts in the Wake County school system to dismantle the diversity policy.
Since then, the organization has grown, now focusing on helping high school students develop skills in organizing.
The group’s current focuses are on school push-out, which is a theory suggesting that students— particularly black students and students of color— who are not identified as contributors to a school’s goals are “pushed out” of the system.
The organization also works on other issues within high schools such as: school discipline, police presence in school systems, LGBTQ rights, the struggles of undocumented youth, the school-to-prison pipeline and intersectionality.
However, the organization is particularly focused on the police’s presence as a disciplinary force in high schools.
The Youth Organizing Institute is collaborating with past members of the organization as well as community members to obtain a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions and, as Widemean put it, “to replace these punitive polices of suspensions and arrests with restorative justice.
“This is a form of conflict resolution,” Wideman said. “Instead of punishing or removing people from an environment, look at the root causes of why they might be causing other people harm or what harm they might be experiencing and address that. All of this is done in a way to help people move past it all and to not be simply disposed of.”
The panel concluded with a few words from Ignite NC fellowship coordinator, Irving Allen.
“Organizing is a way of life,” Allen said. “Organizing is something that you need to do.”
As the room broke out in a chant of “I believe that we will win,” the student organizers began their long day of workshops aimed at tackling the social and political issues facing North Carolina and the nation.