Affirmations, resources, and tips, for Black students in higher education

by Jamara Wakefield 

Let’s keep it real, there are few radical resources available for Black students when experiencing oppression on campus. It manifests in a variety of forms: from explicit aggression to microaggressions to institutional policies to interactions that feel “off” but aren’t easily quantifiable, in part because the campus environment justifies these actions. 

What you are experiencing on campus is rooted in the tradition of colonialism.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” This is true for other fundamental rights, as well, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) created a helpful Know Your Rights reference guide to your legal rights as a student. 

RELATED: Black women student leaders often feel unsupported in their roles

The problem is that campus environments create siloes of secrecy, where acts of abuse can still be hidden despite being in public view. This guide is a love letter of wisdom from some artistic organizers who want Black Students to feel loved and supported. It’s to remind Black students that you are never alone, you do not deserve oppression of any kind, and students are powerful change agents.

Quotes have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Guiding question #1: How do Black students apply pressure to institutional power?

Black college students are simultaneously insiders and outsiders, and this can be a good thing. People with institutional power often retract or become numb interacting with people they deem as “strangers,” but as Black students, you are not strangers (even if you are being treated as such). You have a right to speak up, be heard and be seen by way of your granted access to the campus space. Employ the strategies of outside organizers and sit at the table and confront power as insiders when you can. Sitting at the table doesn’t always mean your demands will be met, but it is a level of access outsiders are not afforded. Therefore, it is important to leverage these moments of access as students. You are in a unique position to resist power and strategically influence power at the same time. What you are experiencing on campus is rooted in the tradition of colonialism.

Strategy #1: Come together and organize yourself.

According to the students at Ryerson University, they were experiencing “years of anti-Black racism” on campus. The Black Liberation Collective (BLC) and the Indigenous Students Rising (ISR) at Ryerson University came together to send an open letter to Henry Parada, director of Ryerson’s school of social work. In it, they demand he step down following an incident of anti-Black racism and misogynoir. These students had clear plans to expose larger issues of anti-Blackness within the School of Social Work collectively. Building a solidarity community creates a way to subvert institutional power. 

Jo-Ná A. Williams, Esq., reflects on her college experience, saying, “I think one of the most important things you can do is listen to the people with whom you’re organizing. Even if you don’t utilize every idea presented when people feel valued and seen they are more likely to cooperate when it’s time to execute on the selected ideas and direction of the collective.” 

Guiding question #2: How do Black students apply activism in and out of the classroom?  

A series of racist acts prompted University of Missouri students to lead the 2015-2016 movement on campus. They created a list of demands, staged on-campus protests, held a hunger strike #MizzouHungerStrike, created the film Concerned Student 1950, and leveraged social and mainstream media #ConcernedStudent1950 to make their demands visible to the administration and the world. This level of activity is not possible without assessing your resources both in and out of the classroom. Therefore, use every resource available to you.

Strategy #2: Use what you have. Period. Your voice, your assignments, your resources, your talent, your media, and your campus. Use it all strategically. 

According to artist, organizer, and educator Marz Saffore, “The first step in applying pressure to institutional power is to remember that you are not alone! Collectivity is key. Think, who are your political accomplices? They may not look like you or be in your same department—they may not even ‘belong’ to the institution at all—but it’s essential that they think similarly as you when it comes to institutional liberation (not merely institutional critique) and liberation more broadly. What’s your target or goal? Think big and think long-term. Start by positioning yourself within the institution and think through the everyday struggles you endure. What struggles do you have in common with your political accomplices? What struggles are different? How does the institution produce multiple, interlocking struggles? How are these struggles kept isolated from one another? Your job is to unite these struggles, not to lose each one’s specificity, but to hit the institution on all sides. This is coalition building. Institutional liberation isn’t about reforming the institution—similar to nation-states, institutions can’t be reformed, only dismantled—it’s about tearing it down to build something entirely new in its place.”

Guiding question #3: How do students apply pressure that ripples and creates social change? Strategy #3:  Connect campus struggles to other liberation struggles.

American Higher Education is an unstable business model that requires the oppression of the other to be fiscally operable. If you are experiencing oppression on campus, others are too. They may experience it in different densities or with different levels of awareness but at the root, it is the same oppression. After all, the American Higher Education system was founded on stolen land, relied on the genocide of Indigenous people and was underwritten by Transatlantic African slavery. Colonial settlerism is not only a land practice, but it is also a mindset that validates cheap labor and dehumanization. At The New School, when cafeteria worker’s rights were under attack, students stood up and fought back. The New School planned to replace unionized cafeteria workers with low-wage student-workers. The cafeteria workers would lose their jobs, pensions, and healthcare if the administration moved forward with their plan. For 396 hours, students occupied the cafeteria with the understanding that their liberation is deeply connected to the liberation of the cafeteria staff. 

Conor Thomás, a community organizer who teaches Africana and American Studies at College believes Black students “can apply activism in the classroom and the university by drawing from and remixing strategies from the 1960s and 70s: when Black, Latinx, Asian, and Euro-American students created coalitional power that occupied campus buildings across dozens of universities in order to desegregate and decolonize admissions, curriculum, and higher education’s relationship to U.S. empire.” Here are groups he sees as eroding boundaries between campus and community struggles: The Demands.org, The MOvement for Black Lives Platform, The Dream Defenders, the Anti-Columbus Day Tour hosted by Decolonize This Place, and the BYP100 campaign called “She Safe, We Safe” to end sexual violence against women, girls, and gender non-conforming folk in Black communities.

RELATED: Georgetown’s student vote on slave reparation fund signals a needed change in higher education

Guiding question #4 How do students practice self & community care amid oppression.  

Strategy #4: Resting for resistance is a thing. Escaping and taking breaks is OK.  

During a conference panel sponsored by HuffPost the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, titled “Mental Health and Wellness for Students of Color: Transitioning to College,” panelist confirmed that students of color are marginalized on campus and are less likely to seek mental health services for common stressors never mind the invisible often unidentifiable stressors of systemic racism. Yes, students should organize, apply pressure to power and activate change but organizing efforts can never be at the expense of Black life, Black wellness and Black Joy mattering.  

In closing, Imani Keith Henry, a radical activist since 1990 based in the Republic of Brooklyn, NY shares that “it’s just a historic fact that young people start revolutions. It is ‘developmentally on task’ for young people to question authority, fight injustice and rebel against the status quo. Your leadership and activism are vital to our peoples’ liberation. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Us older folks need to know that the struggle is in good hands … so please carry on.” #IBelieveThatWeWillWin 

Suggested resources for Black students:

Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder. Wilder’s work provides a historical framework for Black students to locate themselves in the education liberation struggle.

Rules for Radicals Schooling the World provides 10 lessons on how a community organizer can accomplish the goal of successfully uniting people into an active grassroots organization with the power to effect change on a variety of issues. 

“Flood the System” is a 35-page booklet and has everything you need to know about organizing an event to #FloodTheSystem. They envision Flood the System as a step towards building the DNA of a robust movement that has the collective power to challenge global capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and oppression. 

The solidarity organizing tool kit and The Washington Peace Center’s Anti-Oppression Resources list provides anti racist readings and exercises to be done collectively. 

THE CANON is a participatory bibliography and collection of articles, books and book chapters on themes of indigeneity, colonization, settler colonialism, racism, white supremacy, cis-privilege, and hetero-patriarchy.

These are resources for Black student wellness. Rest for Resistance by QTPoC Mental Health creates art, writing, and meditation spaces. They provide support groups and workshops in Brooklyn check their calendar for details. Liberate a meditation app to support the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color community in healing to thrive with love. 

“The Safe Place” Is a Minority Mental Health App available for Apple and Android users, geared towards the Black Community. 

Racial Trauma and Self-Care in Tragedy provided by The Division of Student Affairs at University of North Texas. 

Tool kit: Healing in the face of cultural trauma created by Community Healing Network. 

adrienne maree brown’s talk on pleasure activism, her podcast How to Survive The End of the World, and her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

To help find mental health practitioners check out Clinicians of the Diaspora and Therapy for Black Girls.


Jamara Wakefield is an art and culture writer. She currently writes for publication and stage.