Let this exist as a testimony of how I found my voice, how I lost it, and how I found it again. I am a reflection of, and contributor to this community while simultaneously standing in direct opposition to it. It is in that conflict that I continue to struggle and succeed. It is in that dissonance that I continue to survive.
I will never say that any one place “gave” me a voice nor taught me how to use it. That skill, I developed on my own, but the institutions that have been forced upon me turned my voice, my body, into protest. In their inability to love me as my full self, these pressures pushed me into the great tradition of activism and liberation. Intentionally or not, white supremacist heteropatriarchal culture sought to destroy my essence, but has only enhanced it.
In 2010, I started my senior year here at Wesleyan. That year began with a MACROaggression concerning the hyper sexualization of the Latina body in a promotion of Latinx Affirmation Month published on Wesleying. Shortly after (or before, it’s all a blur), the campus Republicans hosted an affirmative action bake sale where cookies were sold at specific prices based on your race and gender, mirroring what they believed was affirmative action practices. That year started in a very similar way as this 2015 school year, with institutionally supported structures telling me that I didn’t matter and didn’t truly belong here. It was then that I realized that message, this feeling of being otherized, was one I had experienced before.
In 7th grade I boldly refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, sitting defiantly in my Catholic school uniform. The teacher sent me to my principal’s office, where they promptly called my father under the presumption that he would scold me. I didn’t say it then and I haven’t said the pledge of allegiance since. Fast forward to the 12th grade and there I am, 17 years old standing in front of my predominantly white private high school’s student body with every black and brown student, staff and faculty standing beside and behind me as I read a statement about how the unconscious racism on campus could no longer go unnamed. You see, I have always had a voice, but something was lost in my transition to college, something I wouldn’t get back until it was almost time to graduate.
Navigating the treacherous waters of white supremacy as an adolescent was draining, so I actively chose to find community with other students of color at Wesleyan. I needed space and time to figure out what it meant to be black, Latina and a young woman in an institution that was not built for me. I found pieces of myself in Early African American History. I found pieces of myself in Caliente and Ujamaa. I found pieces of myself while taking residence in Malcolm X House and it was in the community that was the class of 2011 women of color, in our conflict and our joy that all those pieces came together. Calling on that strength, that connection with who I am and those that came before me, I found myself standing on top of a table in an Usdan takeover, at the affirmative (RE)action following the bake sale to proclaim the I earned my place. I belonged here.
I have now completed a little over one year as a member of the Wesleyan staff and the biggest part of my learning as a professional has been how to use my voice strategically. It is much easier said than done, especially within a hierarchy where the power lies at the top and you exist towards the bottom. It is hard to watch my students struggle with the same white supremacist heteropatriarchal culture that I had been unconsciously navigating for years. That culture now has a name, a voice, a face, and we have the ability to hold a mirror up to it and demand better. It is in that great tradition of liberation that I seek to challenge inequity around me. It is only out of love for this place and the people in it that I push, sometimes clumsily, sometimes strategically, connecting the “why” with the “how” is “the work”.
Over this year, I have watched my students do the same, wrestling with questions I had five years ago. Being told to be “strategic” in how they use their voice because it’s not an issue of community building, it’s politics. They have cried in my office believing they don’t matter, feeling like they don’t belong. They are finding themselves, like I did, in the places that reflect them the most, amongst people that reflect them the most, even when those places or those people harm them; where else would they go?
I must name that even in writing this, I am exposed and at risk. My voice is under scrutiny and surveillance; let us not forget, in this culture, even in this institution, people can be treated as if they are disposable. It is also living and learning at this institution that I learned to question everything; to think critically, to speak up even when it is risky or difficult. I must use my voice as alumni, as a woman, as a black person, a queer person, a Latina, first generation/low income, a member of this administration, and a member of this community. I love that Wesleyan is a place that holds space where voices can be heard and I will continue to use mine to create a Wesleyan where we all truly feel we belong.
“Remember: Oppression thrives off isolation. Connection is the only thing that can save you.
“Remember: Oppression thrives on superficiality. Honesty about your struggles is the key to your liberation.
“Remember: Your story can help save someone’s life. Your silence contributes to someone else’s struggle. Speak so we all can be free. Love so we all can be liberated. The moment is now. We need you.”
– Yolo Akili
Ramiz is the Assistant Director of Student Activities & Leadership Development and New Student Orientation at Wesleyan University.