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Student Organizing At UCLA—Lessons Outside The Classroom

Byline: Corey Matthews
Program Assistant and Student Intern 
Immediate Past Chair, UCLA Afrikan Student Union

Corey - headshot

I remember vividly the very first protest I participated in at UCLA.  It was fall 2006. I was a freshman, and it was the first day of class.  “What’s all the commotion about?” I wondered. I walked by the protest and saw members of the Afrikan Student Union (ASU) yelling something on bullhorns.  I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I felt their passion and conviction and was impressed by the hundreds of students they had organized. 

This was my first glimpse at successful organizing, which would eventually serve me well—both as a UCLA Afrikan Student Union leader and later as a program assistant/intern at Liberty Hill.

Corey instructing

An ASU member spotted me and convinced me to skip class--my very first day! “We’re organizing to pass the new admissions review that would give more students like you”—meaning African American—“the opportunity to come here and go to class.”

During the protest I learned that members of the Afrikan Student Union and other student organizations believed adamantly that the current means UCLA admissions staff used to consider applicants was unfair. This unfair process was responsible for the deplorably low number of African American students enrolled.  In the freshman class of 4,852, a mere 96 African-American students.

At the time, Admissions assessed applicants by comparing them based solely on GPAs (grade point averages) and  SAT scores, without regard to the disparities in the quality and availability of resources from one high school to another.

The ASU and other organizations had formed a coalition to push for a very different process, the “holistic admissions review model.” This better model would require Admissions to take into consideration the diversity in students’ high school preparation.  Listening to various speeches and chants, I realized they were organizing for ME.  For high school seniors like ME. 

I read newspaper articles reporting that UCLA’s current admissions model had led to the lowest enrollment of African Americans in decades, and it all began to make sense to me--that this student organizing just  might help to increase our numbers  in the years to come.

All that organizing paid off:  UCLA adopted the holistic admissions review model already in place at Berkeley, and in just one year African American enrollment rates more than doubled.

This victory as a freshman turned me into a believer. I realized the power of organizing and advocacy to forge real change. By the time I came to Liberty Hill, three years later, I was equipped not only to help coordinate Liberty Hill’s Wally Marks Leadership Institute but also to share my insights into challenges that grassroots organizers face.

During my freshman and sophomore years, as I developed into an ASU leader, my perspectives on issues evolved. I realized that issues I’d once thought were specific to campus life, such as diversity and equal opportunity, were also connected to the greater community. And I came to realize that students could have an impact upon community-wide issues such as voter education and engagement.

In my junior year I was appointed the Afrikan Student Union’s access coordinator.   One responsibility was to oversee SHAPE, our student-run, student-initiated educational outreach project in Inglewood. SHAPE provides tutoring, peer advising and mentoring to students in South Los Angeles and Inglewood. Almost immediately after being appointed, I learned that the city of Inglewood planned to cut $65,000 from SHAPE’s budget.  I had to respond fast! In just one week I organized UCLA students, high school students, parents, and community members to flood the Inglewood City Council meeting and demand that funding be restored so the project could continue.  That night, the City Council voted to return $40,000 of the $65,000 to the budget. For me, this was a defining moment, my first experience as an organizer.

At the end of my junior year, I heard Kafi Blumenfield deliver a riveting speech at the Afrikan graduation. She spoke to the graduating seniors about the importance of using their diploma to make change and a sustainable impact in whatever field they selected.

Finally I was a senior!  And I was elected chairperson of the Afrikan Student Union –a position responsible for organizing and mobilizing African American students and community members and advocating on their behalf for a more equitable UCLA. My first major task was to do a “stakeholder analysis” of our support.  The information we gained would enable us to foster relationships, build coalition with one another, and cultivate power through alliance building.

And what did we learn? That we needed more off-campus allies to reinforce and support campus-based campaigns, particularly campaigns for UCLA to increase African American high school students’ access to UCLA and a better campus climate for all students. I began searching for additional allies.

Independent of this search, I learned about an internship opportunity with the Liberty Hill Foundation.
I immediately remembered Kafi’s speech and thought, “That would be a great place to intern!” After an interview with the director of programs, Shane Goldsmith, I was hired to coordinate the Leadership Institute, a program of trainings provided to select grantees to increase their capacity. 

In this role, I became quite familiar with a number of progressive, community-based, grassroots organizations and organizers. When I spoke with grantees, and they learned that I was ASU chair at UCLA, many of them were eager to see how we could work more closely with one another.

Due to my involvement, the Afrikan Student Union (ASU) built relationships with the Community Coalition, the Courage Campaign, Tom Hayden, and other organizations and organizers.   When the ASU was fighting the UC budget cuts and student fee increases, for example, groups like the Courage Campaign helped us push for adoption of an oil severance tax and other legislation to generate more money for education.

The ASU had already understood the connection between California’s sociopolitical climate and UCLA students. Thanks to Liberty Hill, we gained access to community grass roots organizers, and that has inevitably strengthened the fight for justice on campus and beyond.

  Corey_crowd scene_UCLA

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