UCI Alumni Reflect on Activism, Inspire Next Generation of Activists

By: Mariah Castaneda

During a time of student protests against tuition hikes, the Cross-Cultural Center and ASUCI hosted an event in an effort to encourage student activism. “Empowering Oneself to Speak Out: Sharing Stories of Activism” drew over 50 students last Thursday night to the Cross’ Dr. White Room and aimed to address factors that may discourage student activists, including social pressure, risk and the stigma surrounding protesting.

Panelists Sabreen Shalabi, Patrick Chen, Lisa Lei, David Hollingsworth, Melissa Gamble and Hui-Ling Malone shared their experiences with activism as well as some of their inspirations. The panel’s members, all UCI alumni, came from diverse backgrounds, each unique in how their experiences shaped their activism.

Hollingsworth, the son of a drug-addicted father and a single mother, experienced unjust situations at a young age, such as the hardships that ensued after the divorce of his parents, and being raised in a single-parent household. Instead of letting his circumstances get the best of him, he spoke out against the injustices he saw as a youth. This activist streak would continue into his adulthood, where he continued to rally for positive change in college. Hollingsworth would go on to speak out against a corruptly-run student senate at Palomar Community College.

For Chen, he continues to apply ideas he learned as an activist while working in the tech industry. He expressed a desire to help diversify the largely white and Asian-dominated field.

“In the tech industry there lots of opportunities to apply social justice in work. Advocating diversity is protecting underrepresented minority groups, such as women, Latinos, Blacks and the LGBT community,” Chen said.

As a child, Malone attended protests with her father, a minister. The first protest she attended was in 1995; she was still a kindergartener. Looking to a central figure in her religion, she believed Jesus taught love and acceptance. Loving others, for Malone, meant standing up for their rights as well. “If we turn a blind eye to someone who is suffering, its like turning a blind eye to God and God is love,” she said.

The organizing she did with the students and workers largely colored Lei’s experience as a student activist. During the protests against the appointment of UC President Janet Napolitano, 75 students engaged in a peaceful protest and were met by 20 policemen. According to Lei, the students tried to enter Donald Bren Hall, but the police managed to keep the crowd out of the building. After this, protesters dispersed. Lei, who stands at 4’ll”, was later accused of battering a 6’1” police officer, and the obstruction of a police officer, despite a lack of evidence. Lei felt that as a student organizer, she was targeted and criminalized for standing up for student’s rights. She was never arrested for the alleged crime nor was she charged. Lei never received a concrete explanation as to why she was picked out of the crowd of 75.

“It was the police and administration that made me feel unsafe and (provided) an urgency to demand change,” said Lei.

Videos presented at the event showed activist success stories. One success highlighted in the film was about Black students’ protests in South Africa, where they demanded educational opportunities equal to those granted to their white counterparts. The film showed students marched for a better future amid gunfire and tear gas, in the name of what they believed to be right. Years later, according to the video, South Africans had a better chance at equal education because of the stand these students had made. Tracy Onyenacho, a participant in the event, said that this example of activism showcased what it was like to stand up for a better tomorrow despite frightening circumstances. The suffering that may come with activism is one that some may pay in order to pave the way for future generations.