March 8, 2021

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, a common proverb says. For the civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, this doesn’t mean one bite after another. Rather, “everybody’s biting at the same time.”

Pressuring the system simultaneously with multiple strategies, Mckesson said, is the only way to change societal structures—policing among them.

After a year of racial justice movements against police violence and economic turmoil exacerbated by a pandemic, it was an auspicious time for the Intersectionality Conference, an annual tradition hosted by the SIPA Students of Color. The weeklong series of events wrapped up with a January 29 keynote address from Mckesson, co-founder of Campaign Zero, an organization dedicated to finding policy solutions to end police violence. In his remarks, Mckesson spoke about his group’s work to reform policing and provided insight into joining movements for change.

Mckesson said policing is like any other system of oppression, like racism or homophobia, in which a set of people with power make rules, policies, and practices, and enforce them upon people without power. Explaining that Campaign Zero emphasizes the importance of using data to shape policy solutions, Mckesson highlighted recent trends in police misconduct, such as the fact that police violence is declining in cities while increasing in suburban and rural areas. In fact, he said, most police killings take place in suburban areas. Also, he continued, most killings take place when police respond to mental health crises, traffic violations, domestic disturbances, or other nonviolent offenses—a circumstance that challenges the idea that only violent situations escalate.

Audience members were eager to know how they, as policy students, can effect change in the world. When the conversation turned to Q&A, one attendee sought advice for organizers and activists who get the opportunity to meet with high-profile policymakers.

“Make sure you actually know the content well,” Mckesson said. “Know it in and out.”

Mckesson elaborated: While the emotional narratives and arguments about a problem are important, legislators have often already heard them. Instead, policymakers are looking to understand exactly what organizers want and the steps they need to take, Mckesson said.

In a similar vein, another attendee asked how regular folks can be allies to movements against social injustice.

“The best way is to roll up your sleeves and start to do some work. There’s a ton of work to do,” Mckesson said. In particular, he added, “in the social justice space, there’s infinitely more work done on the problems than the solutions.”

Mckesson explained that he often sees explanations of why a problem is harmful, but people are far less likely to propose policy options or map out how to solve the problem, because those questions are so difficult.

“The ‘how’ is hard, it’s messy, it’s imperfect,” Mckesson said, but it needs to be done.

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Exemplifying the theme of “alliance,” SIPA Students of Color collaborated with 20 organizations, from both SIPA and the wider Columbia community, to host this year’s conference. 

The weeklong series of events began on January 25 with Gender Quotas in the Private Sector, a panel discussion exploring ways to achieve gender equality in corporations. On January 26, Professor Yumiko Shimabukuro hosted a lunchtime reflection on Asian identity, gender, and allyship, and sociologist and research scientist Alex Hanna led an evening discussion of ethical AI following a film screening of the documentary Coded Bias.

On January 27, a diverse panel of experts from Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and East Asia gathered to discuss Colorism Across the World, examining the discrimination faced by members of the same race with darker skin tones. January 28 featured an anti-racism workshop, a panel conversation about anti-occupation activism in Palestine, and an intimate healing circle for people of color. Ahead of the keynote address on Friday was a panel about navigating LGBTQ+ identities in global workplaces, and two yoga sessions were held throughout the week to provide conference attendees with calm and relaxation.

The conference, typically held in person, gathered attendees online this year.

“SSOC felt the need to keep the conference alive for the benefit of new Seeples, but also because we’ve seen that conversations can still be impactful in a remote setting and alliances can still be accomplished,” Shani Ogilvie MPA ’21, president of SIPA Students of Color, said to SIPA News. “SSOC was amazed at the turnout for all the events and we are hopeful for the takeaways from the conference.”

— Aastha Uprety MPA ’21

SIPA Students of Color Intersectionality Conference
January 25-29