The Black Lives Matter movement has the potential to be the largest movement in U.S. history, according to The New York Times. The political and social unrest in Wisconsin echoes shock waves felt around the world. Amid the enduring fight for Black lives and racial justice, a coalition of young voices in Madison are pushing to the forefront as the face of the movement.
Rising to the moment
For University of Wisconsin rising sophomore Djamal Lylecryus, it was about being more “active” in his activism.
From his home in Los Angeles, Lylecyrus watched as the world erupted into a roar in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
As the BLM movement manifested in mass demonstrations, political action and public discourse, Lylecryus took to social media to make a difference close to home — the UW campus.
Lylecryus is the founder of the rapidly growing Instagram account BIPOCatwisco. The account’s goal is to share the experiences of Black, Indigenous and people of color on the UW campus in order to give them a direct platform and increase the visibility of issues faced by BIPOC.
“When racial injustice happens on campus, often times students look at the university and are like, ‘well what are you going to do about it?’” Lylecryus said. “The university really only can do so much, and even though they can [do more], they’re not going to and they’ve shown that time and time again … We feel like it’s a conversation that needs to start with the students, that isn’t even being had.”
Lylecyrus now runs the account with two other UW students, Jordan Joseph and Brooke Messaye. Their ultimate purpose is to change the conversation surrounding racial issues on campus by sharing the personal stories of BIPOC. Seizing the momentum of the BLM movement, Lylecyrus joined the ranks of other university students across the country raising awareness to the experiences of BIPOC students through social media.
Lylecyrus said his biggest inspiration came from the Black at USC Instagram account, which similarly shares students’ anonymous stories for anyone to read. Even as other comparable accounts exploded in their following, he said he did not expect his account to gain as large of a base as it has — accumulating over 7,500 followers in just two months.
“When I noticed that our student body had not yet created an account in the same nature [as other universities], I took it upon myself to do so because if it wasn’t me, then who would?” Lylecyrus said. “I was very overwhelmed and pleasantly surprised by how fast and large the following has grown. That said, I would still love to see it grow much more in the future.”
The stories shared on the account range from blatantly racist interactions to microaggressions — defined as thinly veiled, everyday instances of racism, according to NPR. Based on the experiences shared by other students, Lylecyrus said he feels it is these microaggressions that BIPOC students, including himself, feel most harshly and frequently on campus.
Among all the diverse narratives shared on his account, Lylecyrus said some of the most shocking came from white UW students who had never interacted with a BIPOC before coming to campus. In this context, he said he believes facilitating conversation is especially important so that these students can understand the struggles BIPOC face on campus.
“The students need to see the harm that they’re causing from [other] students, whether it’s conscious or unconscious,” Lylecyrus said. “They need to see this is something that is affecting people … You need to see what you personally have been doing that is harmful or what you can do in the future to stop causing more harm than you already have.”
Samad Qawi, recent UW alumnus and former forward for the Wisconsin Men’s Basketball team, is one student directly impacted by the campus’s racial climate. Qawi said he struggled to find a sense of belonging on campus for his first two years of college.
It wasn’t until he joined the Wisconsin Association of Black Men that it really hit him — if he felt like he had no resources or spaces to express his identity as a Black male, others must have felt the same way. Consequently, when fellow student-athletes Madison Cone and Armoni Brown encouraged him to join other student-athletes in making demands to UW Athletics and the UW Administration, Qawi resolved to use his platform to wield influence over campus.
“I joined the [Wisconsin Association of Black Men] my junior year … and I truly, at that point, understood that if I felt alone like I did, then I know there are even more people who felt just as alone or even more alone,” Qawi said. “That’s what kind of pushed me to, you know, make change to those kinds of issues back then.”
In coalition with other student-athletes, Qawi participated in efforts to change the white ‘W’ crest on athletic uniforms to black — which UW Athletics subsequently adopted. Additionally, Qawi and other student-athletes recently released another demand to create a $2 million scholarship fund for underrepresented students on campus.
Qawi said the power of the nationwide BLM movement has brought students together to make change at UW. While there have always been many student-driven initiatives to address racial inequity on campus, Qawi said he believes the general student population was widely unaware of these movements.
“I think [the BLM movement] was a good ignition … you know, people wouldn’t even listen or even care about these types of movements, situations or problems,” Qawi said. “I’ve seen an insurgence of support, and I can only hope that it grows because all of this is good to see.”
As individual students strive to make change, both insurgent and established student organizations have stepped in to address racial injustice on campus and beyond. For UW juniors Kashish Jain and Yahvi Mahendra, they hope to tackle systemic racism by reviving a lapsed social justice organization.
The newly refounded UW Chapter of Amnesty International, an affiliate of the larger nonpartisan international organization, strives to make actionable change in the Madison area’s fight for human rights and equality, according to the chapter’s Instagram. The founders’ main goal for the fall is to reach out to new voters and get students registered for the 2020 election. Jain hopes the org will generate excitement for issues on campus and reach a lot of students, since it is not politically affiliated.
“We don’t associate with any party, which I know a lot of the orgs on campus do,” Jain said. “Anyone and everyone can come to our club, like we don’t care what party you’re part of or what your political views are. Everyone can want to protect human rights.”
Jain and Mahendra said they have been planning to start the org since February, but a wave of energy and enthusiasm behind human rights issues prompted them to start up the chapter’s operations ahead of schedule.
The pair launched the organization this summer to provide resources and guidance to students striving to make a difference right here in Madison. Jain and Mahendra said they believe students need a launching point for activism, and they are hopeful Amnesty will energize students to dismantle institutions of oppression — specifically those correlated with police brutality and systemic racism.
As a resident of a suburb outside Minneapolis, Jain watched the BLM movement unfold in close proximity to her home. While the protests, riots and social media storm have died down, Jain said she will not easily forget May’s revolution when she returns to campus.
“I saw the boarded up stores, the smell of burning buildings, the ashes of the police precinct and the graffiti of talented artists in pain,” Jain said. “During those 15 or so days of protests, I could not find any peace. It was only through activism that I truly felt like things were going to be okay … After working on my community, I knew that UW-Madison had to be next.”
But it is not just new student organizations making waves across campus. The India Student Association — one of the oldest cultural organizations on campus in Madison — leapt into the battle for racial justice as an ally to the BLM movement. The 40-year-old student group hosted an event on the South Asian perspective on current BLM issues with the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities ISA chapter and raised $4,600 for the Know Your Rights campaign through working with Google.
UW sophomore and ISA External Communications Head Ravina Sachdev said she felt neither herself nor ISA could remain silent as the BLM movement swept the nation. Sachdev said the fundraising campaigns from ISA and other student organizations around the country are rooted in support at a local level — proving how big even the smallest effort can become.
“We were just all so happy that we could make an impact — just literally sitting at home, reaching out to people, Venmo requesting and posting things on social media,” Sachdev said. “That’s all it took to raise nearly $5,000 for this campaign … It wasn’t like the stamp of ISA that we wanted, like ‘we donated $4,600,’ but it was more like ‘we were able to make an impact, how could you?’”
As a life-long resident of Waukesha county outside of Milwaukee, Sachdev said BLM opened her eyes to the prevalence of racism in ways she did not see previously. After recognizing the current movement was about more than just police brutality, Sachdev is noticing more injustices in her own community that previously escaped her.
Going forward both in her own life and her work for ISA, Sachdev said education is crucial to recognize the hardships faced by Black and Indigenous people — whether or not the issues directly affect the South Asian community.
“The BLM movement has just highlighted so many areas of our world and society where there’s racism … and it’s just very prevalent and I don’t even notice it because it doesn’t affect me,” Sachdev said. “I’m privileged in that way.”
Sustaining the movement
From their different organizations and positions in the BLM movement, all of these young student activists thought UW should do more to hear and support BIPOC on campus. Some of UW’s actions and statements during the recent movement have come under fire from student organizations and groups on social media, including the installation of the black ‘W’ crest in place of the white one.
Though some of UW’s actions have been substantively criticized as performative rather than actively creating change, Manhendra believes drawing attention to issues is still an important step. Jain said some of the change must start with students who can tackle actionable items, an opportunity she hopes Amnesty International can give them on campus this fall.
Lylecyrus believes the switch was “100%” an example of performative activism. While the symbol captured the right sentiment, Lylecyrus said many students would have liked to see concrete action alongside the change. Sachdev said she feels the switch to the black crest was not a tangible action, if even an action at all — echoing Lylecyrus’s sentiment about not settling for a symbol.
“I think a lot of UW students, many of whom are in the multicultural community at Madison, are just not okay and not happy with that,” Sachdev said. “People expect more, people want more. I was going to a comment section of that post, and it is just filled with criticism and discontentment … so I think Madison and the student body overall is pretty not impressed.”
As one of the students a part of the movement to get the black ‘W’ crest adopted, Qawi said the change to the black crest was significant to him because the administration made an effort to hear students’ demands. To him, the change serves as a broader symbol — proof that it is possible to create change with the help of the administration.
Qawi welcomes and validates the criticism that came with UW’s installation of the new crest, noting his personal support of every student effort to make campus a better place. Students are working in different ways towards what Qawi views as the same goal — positive change of the culture and the campus experience for all underrepresented students.
“I got a couple of texts and DMs about performative actions and what I’m saying is I love this… I always want criticism when it comes to initiatives because, of course, we can always do better in how we try to get out our message and our motivation,” Qawi said. “It may be performative, but it wasn’t as if we were going to stop there, and I don’t think we ever will stop until we get closer and closer to what we want.”
In addition to making the ‘W’ crest black, UW Chancellor Blank released a statement about what the administration is doing to address racial inequities on campus. The plan covers new and ongoing initiatives in the areas of enrollment, campus history, educational support, research and policing. Additionally, University Health Services will examine the police hospital transport system in response to a BIPOCatwisco post.
Manhendra believes one of the biggest priorities to address racial inequity on campus is reimagining the support systems on campus — a process Manhendra said will require UW and its students to recognize the historical and current systemic issues in education.
“Support systems at UW tend to be geared towards white students rather than towards BIPOC, and that’s just something that’s existed for centuries,” Manhendra said. “A lot of these problems are systemic, and they exist in secondary education as well as higher education. So a lot of these policies are like [how] underfunded high schools lead to less people of color getting into these higher education colleges … and that’s not even UW’s fault alone.”
Sachdev said cutting ties with Badger State Industries, a Prison Industries Act program that provides supplies to UW that are produced with prison labor, needs to be addressed as well. Yet, UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone said that Wisconsin statute currently prevents the university from doing so.
An important issue Lylecyrus hopes UW addresses is the calls for more representation of BIPOC on campus in faculty and the student body.
Qawi echoed Lylecyrus’s thoughts on diversifying the campus. Increasing the funding of admissions and diversity programs for BIPOC is one step he thinks UW can take to achieve this goal. In addition to providing an opportunity for underrepresented students to attend UW, Qawi said he believes the programs provide academic support and incentive for students to succeed.
“I would not be able to go to this kind of prestigious school without the scholarship that I was receiving,” Qawi said. “So I just push for accessibility to be able to actually go here and prove that we’re no different from any other student, that the only difference is where we come from or what we have in need of actual accessibility.”
While many questions remain unanswered about the next steps, Manhendra said progress from the university is difficult to see when students are not on campus. Manhendra and Jain both hold out hope things will be different when they return to UW this time around.
As a graduate leaving UW, Qawi is hopeful students will take action to create the change they want to see on campus. Whether it is joining multicultural student organizations or learning different perspectives from students of different backgrounds, Qawi said students who venture outside of their bubble will make an impact in the campus community.
“Madison has its own little world, and it may be a very one-identity type of world … but I encourage students to step out of their own world and explore others,” Qawi said. “If you want to see change, you have to be the change. It’s a lot to talk and have feelings about these types of scenarios of social justice and racial inequity, but I think the biggest way to actually create change is action.”