Political possibilities lie at the intersection of legacy RSOs and small student groups

What’s up everybody, it’s dǰ pišpiš. Last month, my friend sent me a screenshot of a now-deleted tweet from a fellow student activist. Basically, it claimed Asian Americans for Mental Health (AAMH at UW; formerly API Cares) changed its name because it didn’t want to try to include Pacific Islander students. After a brief consultation with me, my friend wrote back, pointing out Pacific Islander student advocacy and thoughtful consideration of the term “API” went into the name change. It was at that point the student activist understood, chose to remove the misinformation, and carried on.

There is a little more to the story beyond the positive Twitter dialogue though. In her retraction tweet, the original author brought forth very valid concerns about the name change, saying, “I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of now not having a space for PI students or not taking that opportunity to build with PI students after the name change.” This was an issue I specifically explored in an article last Summer while taking a grab at then-API Cares. The main argument of the article still stands today: Pacific Islander students are—and have still been—tackling issues of mental health in the community by holding space for intimate conversations and inviting students whose circumstances generally preclude them from regular participation in RSOs.

The retraction raised an interesting question for me, one that I think student activist communities should carefully consider as they plan their post-pandemic activities. Why do we fail to acknowledge the power of small student groups that fall outside the community’s ecosystem of RSOs? And what can student leaders do about it?

Let me preface this by saying RSOs are political workhorses of BIPOC student communities at UW. In the decades since the infamous Faculty Senate sit-in by Black Student Union, legacy RSOs accomplished many big policy feats. These student organisers are what Kendi call hardcore activists: people who fought for antiracist policy changes at the systems level. The decades of student organising allows legacy RSOs to provide social, political, educational, and leadership opportunities for students in underrepresented communities. For example, First Nations Powwow and the Polynesian Student Alliance Polynesian Day both remain important tools for recruiting Native and Pacific Islander UW freshmen applicants.

But legacy RSOs only tell part of the story of how underrepresented students address difficult emerging issues, like mental health. The journey of AAMH and its associated Twitter critique even shows the limitations of addressing such issues in the Pacific Islander community through RSOs in general. This is not because the community as a whole simply does not care about mental health. Local grassroots organisations like Pacific Islander Community Association (PICA) of Washington and the Pacific Islander Health Board of Washington (PIHBWA) are examples of how Pacific Islanders continue to address many dimensions of health in the community outside UW during COVID 19, including mental health. Instead, RSOs privilege the voices of a subset of Pacific Islander students: four-year students who make the meetings, often held during the evenings after commute hours.

As a former student, I was often frustrated by the lack of non-traditional students in student activist communities. Though the general definition of “non-traditional student” encompasses older students and students with caregiving responsibilities, I’ve expanded the definition in my prior research to include those in Indigenous communities who are transfer students and intercollegiate athletes. This is important because on the account of age and familial status, non-traditional students make up 40% of the undergraduate students nationwide. Intercollegiate athletes and transfer students also make up a sizeable proportion of the Pacific Islander community at UW (though the exact figures are not known). In short, non-traditional students navigate various circumstances that can interfere with their full participation in University life, including being part of RSOs.

The lack of diversity in Pacific Islander legacy RSOs as well as the compartmentalisation of the community through institution policies hampers student leaders’ ability to recognize and address community issues from the standpoint of non-traditional students. Yet, traditional and non-traditional students alike already began to bridge that divide in understanding by creating small, inclusive student groups to address specific issues in the Pacific Islander student community. For example, Dr. Barker’s Polynesian Culture and American Football course brought together two factions of the Pacific Islander student community that traditionally remained seemingly separate: student activists, and football players. It was an important generational opportunity to build community and heal wounds caused by the University’s failures to fully support the Pacific Islander community. But even more important, through community building, students gained a multidimensional understanding of the shared issues Pacific Islanders face and how to address them.

As a member of legacy Pacific Islander RSOs and smaller student groups at UW, I had the privilege of seeing just how powerful smaller organisations are in addressing issues of mental health. I also see student organisers continue to be successful in addressing issues of racism in UW policy—especially as they relate to the recruitment and retention of underrepresented students. But they cannot address emerging issues like mental health without the help of smaller RSOs and supporting non-RSO student groups. When the Pacific Islander students feel the different parts of their community are interconnected—RSOs and Research Families; traditional and non-traditional students; athletes and non-athletes, etc.—the political possibilities for student organisers to address shared issues expand exponentially. Student organisers should take a cue from groups like Research Family and the Football class by recognizing the broader scope of service and activism that inherently cannot be accomplished by RSOs on their own.

That’s it. See you.

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