Mustafa Ali-Smith

We live in a world where political correctness is killing our right to freedom of speech. Our current state conforms to black and white limitations of systems of power and oppression that constricts our ability to discuss the grey areas of political correctness. Social issues have become polarized to be one or the other, leaving those grey areas untampered.

I thought about these very statements for a while before I started to form this article. How was I going to define today’s systems? What was my scope going to be? I decided to be honest no matter the outcome.

My goal here is not to please anyone, but to challenge the status quo so we can effectively organize and change the current systems.

Today, we face several challenges ranging from systems of oppression and privilege, to systems of exclusion and educational circumstances. The problems of these systems are that they run deep, and are widely rooted, so much that you may think that it is impossible to change them. For those who do believe this narrative, you are wrong.

I was recently approached with the question: “How do you (effectively) change something that is so systematic?” A few months ago, I wouldn’t have had a true answer for this. My cliché response would have been to educate and be active in the community.

Upon my recent experiences and campus news, a spark went off in my head about what is actually going on and how we can work to change these systems that oppress minority communities. To clarify, when I speak of minority communities, I do not defer to African-Americans, but all people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, gender and everything in between.

So where does change start? Changing a system begins with understanding the power dynamics of the system itself.

For the sake of this article, I will keep it brief about power. That might be an article for a later time.

Power comes in all shapes and sizes ranging from violence and wealth to written law and social norms. You must be able to identify the forms of power in order to address them.

Furthermore, you must be able to identify who calls the shots. Who is the person, group, etc. that makes the decisions and its rules? The “who decides” question is one of most important questions you must ask. It drives direction of who you’ll be organizing against. The rules define the narrative and what the agenda is presumed. The thing about rules that many people might not consider is that they can be changed.

We move to organizing.

Organizing should not be difficult. To demonstrate this, I give you a small excerpt from, Rules for Radicals, a book written by community organizer Saul Alinskey. He imagined a conversation between an organizer and a resident in the community:

Organizer: Do you live over there in that slummy building? Answer: Yeah. What about it?” The organizer continues to suggest that the resident should demand that the building be repaired and if not, the resident should not pay rent. The resident countered by saying that he would just get thrown out because other people were waiting to live there.

“Hmmm. What if nobody in that building paid their rent?” Answer: Well, they’d start to throw… Hey, you know, they’d have trouble throwing everybody out, wouldn’t they?”

You should have seen a transformation in the tone of the resident. The three-dot ellipsis indicated when the spark in the resident started and he realized the potential of collective activism and organizing. The resident later asks that the organizer meets a few of his friends to talk about this. The resident has become an activist, joining the beginning steps in organizing to ultimately change a system.

I give this example because its relevancy is important to past circumstances of the university – times when we successfully organized and times when we didn’t.

We were successful in March of 2016 when the #UTDiversityMatters movement and activists organized the University of Tennessee Basketball walkout. We redefined the narrative and provided an alternative – What if UT Diversity Mattered?

How did we do so? We walked out in numbers, leaving the area once occupied vacant, symbolizing that diversity was no longer present at the university. This was all strategic.

We were not successful in September of 2018 with the recent appointment of Randy Boyd (for all individuals in opposition of his appointment). Broadcasted on social media were intentions of class walkouts. A few from a class here and there participated - most didn’t.

See the difference?

The difference here is collective organizing and activism. Though diversity at the University of Tennessee is still demanding with many systematic barriers still in place for marginalized students, we are changing the narrative. We have begun to describe what the new normal could be through our values. More and more students are speaking up about diversity, equity, discrimination and everything in between. The agenda is changing.

I am by no means the know it all or omniscient of organizing activism and changing systems. What I do know is that we are the co-creators of our prisons. Author Eric Liu describes a time when he saw a billboard that read, “You aren’t stuck in traffic, you are traffic.” We shouldn’t get upset at the system or marginalization. We are those things. We have authored them, but we can always rewrite the narrative.

When I say we authored them, it’s important to understand that we have the option of choice. Even when you don’t make a choice, a choice is being made. When we find ourselves constrained to a system of marginalization, the choice is to be complacent or to advocate against the system. Within both actions, we contribute to the result.

So, let’s think about this differently.

We are the co-authors to our freedom.

We must start to think about power differently and its intersectionality into systems. It’s about time we start to put power back into the people’s hands, but more importantly, we should recognize that any of us can wield power to change our current systems.

It’s not just for the mighty or the organizational “leaders.” This message goes to everyone reading and those who are not – it is you who can be the tipping point in organizing change.

Mustafa Ali-Smith is a senior pursuing a degree in Public Administration with a dual minor in Leadership Studies & Political Science. He can be reached at malismit@vols.utk.edu.

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

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