Underrepresentation in Visible Positions of Power Matters

This time a year ago, I was involved in a
group called Slate that worked to get
students of color on Pomona College’s Senate. I ran for President of the Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) primarily
because I thought it was important for a woman of color to contend the seat,
and I was lucky enough (I do think luck was involved) to win. But this year
turned out to be an often brutal test of my pedagogy: Is consensus important?
Can students organize for change? Can multiple progressive groups build
solidarity? How do I bridge theory and praxis?

My year on Senate has been more
personally difficult than I could have ever imagined a year ago. It has also
led to me to seriously question to what extent students can bring about tangible
change through electoral politics. But despite my serious doubts I remain
convinced of one thing: Electing students of marginal identities to visible positions
of power is vitally important. This way, they have the power of interacting directly with the institution.

Let’s go back to basics for a second. More than 100 years ago, sociologist (and poet, communist, race
theorist, social critic) W.E.B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk and articulated a concept called
“double consciousness.” This is a theory that people living in a white
supremacist society who are not white will always look at themselves through
the lens of domination. 

In his class, “The Problem of Evil,” Africana and religious studies professor Darryl Smith talked about what this idea
means in practice. Smith asked us
to think about: What sort of political actors are people who live cut up by
color lines? Or are pushed to the borders by class concerns? Who are rendered
invisible because of our obsession with straightness? Or who make their homes
in the margins? 

Smith pushed our class to think about these actors—the most marginal among us—as our prophets. Maybe the most excluded, the politically inconsequential, the powerless,
the paperless, are the most intimately connected to the many and interrelated systemic
institutions at the center that enforce the margins. If marginalized people understand
how systems of domination operate the best, they might also be the smartest and
sharpest critics, the most equipped to transform the very institutions that are
doing the dominating. Maybe the most unlikely leaders among us have the most
potential to bring about change.

Pomona can be an extremely difficult place
to navigate for people of color—a trait inherent to many institutions today.
Now I am graduating (I’m trying really, really hard to graduate) exhausted and
scarred. And many of my peers are graduating exhausted and scarred.

But even though I often encountered
hostility and violence, there were always people behind me, witnessing me,
helping me heal.

A good friend of mine, an activist-critic
possessing many marginal identities, once told me that she led her best life at
Pomona. I think that’s true of me too. College is where I first read Du Bois,
Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa. At Pomona, I first heard the term
“Afro-Latina” and cried because it took me 18 years to claim and name all
the parts of myself.

I was loved here like I’ve never been
loved before in my life. I was taken seriously as a scholar for the first time
in my life. And after believing myself invisible, I finally saw myself in
literature, history, film, art, poetry and political theory. 

Over these four years I’ve met lots of
people who share the same feeling: “I want to fight to make this place
different because I have both struggled here and been loved here.”
That feeling of tension and that knowledge that this place was not necessarily
meant for me but that I have been loved here have ultimately led me to do the
work that I do at Pomona. It led me to the Queer Resource Center, to the Draper Center and
finally to ASPC. 

In all of those positions, but especially
in ASPC, I’ve tried to follow the Theodor Adorno idea that the condition of
truth is to allow suffering to speak. These spaces have taught me to listen
hard to the people whose voices have been disregarded. 

We need hybrid thinkers—students who can see both the beauty and brutality of elite institutions—in
positions of power. The individuals best equipped to see these nuances are the
ones navigating the world with marginalized identities and their allies, who
take the struggle of race, class and gender seriously. These are the people
who are best able to imagine and sustain spaces of hope.

I am ridiculously and often
problematically idealistic, but I hope this short message can be a sort of
call to action to all unconventional and messy leaders; to anyone who takes seriously the conditions of the
marginal; to all who want to create change and are OK with possibly failing
spectacularly.

Candidate sign-ups close at 5 p.m. April
1. Feel free to contact president@aspc.pomona.edu for more information.

Rachel Jackson PO ’15 is a politics major
from El Paso, Texas. She is currently the president of ASPC.

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