Local activist Renee Saucedo was hired as College of the Redwoods’ director of student equity largely to allow students of color and other historically marginalized minorities to have a voice, and if yesterday’s demonstration was any indication, she succeeded.
A group of students — along with a few faculty and supportive community members — gathered on the steps of CR’s administration building yesterday afternoon to demand the immediate reinstatement of Saucedo, who has been placed on administrative leave for undisclosed reasons.
Holding colorful signs and banners and speaking into a megaphone, the activists took turns testifying bout how Saucedo has improved social and race relations on campus. They also issued demands and vague threats.
A student named Donel Arrington read a prepared statement: “We, the unified students of Humboldt County, have called this press conference to demand the immediate reinstatement of Renee Saucedo as director of student equity,” he declared. “When this press conference is over we will be walking to the boardroom to deliver our petition that has over 460 signatures on it to [CR] President Keith Snow-Flamer.”
He went on to say that the situation reflected a larger problem of institutionalized racism at CR and Humboldt generally.
“We demand that Renee Saucedo be reinstated immediately,” Arrington said, prompting cheers. He continued:
“We demand that an apology we issued by the president and the board of trustees to both Renee and the students. We demand the multicultural center that we’ve been promised be built by October of 2017. We demand answers to the following questions: Why was Renee Saucedo fired? And who fired her?”
Officially, Saucedo has not been fired. She remains on the payroll while on administrative leave. Earlier this week CR officials declined to comment beyond this emailed statement: “Redwoods Community College District personnel matters are confidential and we are therefore unable to comment.”
Arrington wrapped up his written statement with a warning. “We demand that the College of the Redwoods hire more faculty of color, and cultural sensitivity training for all College of the Redwoods employees,” he said. “If these demands are not met, we will take escalating action as we see fit.”
Standing under drizzly skies, the activists voiced defiance and determination. “Higher education institutions have been used historically to oppress groups of people,” said student Sierra Timmons. “The actions taken against Renee further that oppression.”
As several protesters noted, this situation bears a striking resemblance to a student uprising at Humboldt State University in late 2014/early 2015 over the firing of Native American science educator Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman. HSU students occupied the university’s Native American Forum — and unofficially rechristened it “The Bolman Forum” — for more than a month and issued a list of demands, including the immediate reinstatement of Bolman. The protest ended peacefully, though Bolman was not reinstated.
At CR’s protest, local activist Daniela Vargas, who works with the Latino group Centro del Pueblo, also tied their activities to the recent stabbing death of HSU student David Josiah Lawson. “People of color in Humboldt County are mourning,” she said. “It’s really difficult to walk through Humboldt County as a person of color.”
A student named Manuel, who attends CR’s Crescent City campus but came down for the protest, said Saucedo empowered minority students.
“She said these people of color behind me? They are not another diversity statistic in our report,” he said. “They are not another commercial that we can get on TV. She viewed us as potential leaders and organizers of the future, and that’s how change happens — not by tokenizing us students of color but by actually listening to us and acknowledging that we have family members that are undocumented. We have family members that are in the LGBTQ-plus community. And you need to respect us. Cuz we’re not playing.”
After their demonstration in front of the administration building, the protesters quietly filed inside and up a flight of stairs, proceeding peacefully into a board room where President Snow-Flamer was meeting with a few members of the college faculty to address this very issue.
Arrington led the way, accompanied by his sign-carrying compatriots, many of whom crowded into the room while others stood outside, propping their protest signs in the frames of the office windows. Snow-Flamer stood and nodded politely as Arrington read the group’s statement and list of demands.
What ensued was long and largely respectful group conversation. Initially it seemed like the confrontation might not advance beyond the fundamental impasse — protesters demanding to know what happened while Snow-Flamer held firm saying it was a confidential personnel matter. But gradually the two sides began inching toward common ground. Here are some video highlights of the meeting, which lasted for more than an hour:
Above: A sampling of the conversation between students and administration | AG
Click video to play. Problems on iPhone? Turn your phone sideways.
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Occasionally things got a bit testy. One student referred to speculation that Saucedo had been placed on leave due to something she wrote in an email that she’d been ordered to write.
“Why is she being scapegoated if it was a top-down order?” the student demanded.
Snow-Flamer remained composed but said, tersely, “There was no such order, but that’s all I’m going to say.”
He seemed to gain some respect as he revealed his own efforts to improve the campus community’s treatment of minorities.
Manuel, the student from Crescent City, asked Snow-Flamer what he was going to do about institutionalized racism at CR. “What are you going to do about professors that stand neutral in these classroom environments that are harmful to students of color?” he asked.
“That is the most salient question I’ve heard,” Snow-Flamer responded. He explained that he’d had conversations with Saucedo about the fact that CR, as a countywide institution, “has as its fabric an institutional racism piece. … And quite frankly I was subject to that myself.”
Such discrimination has been part of higher education for 200 years, Snow-Flamer said, and it will take a long time to deconstruct.
“What that means is we need to change the fabric of the institution — our hiring practices, our hiring policies, our evaluation processes — and really change hearts and minds, not just put rules in place,” he said.
At another point Snow-Flamer said he respects and supports the protesters’ cause. “If I wasn’t the president I’d be with ya,” he said. “In my past I’ve been fired and jailed and beat up for doing what you’re doing.”
But he reiterated that he had a process to follow, a process dictated by law and institutional policy — and a process that doesn’t include students.
Many of the students remained skeptical.
“You’re looking at a room full of students of color,” said Timmons. “How are we, students in these marginalized groups, supposed to trust a process that was built to oppress?”
Snow-Flamer said, “I hear you,” a refrain he used repeatedly in the meeting, and he promised to respond to the group’s demands publicly. He also insisted that he, too, supports Saucedo. He was in her corner when he hired her, he said, and he added, “I’m not out of her corner even today.”
Before filing back out of the board room, more than an hour after they went in, the students thanked Snow-Flamer for his time. As they processed into the anteroom, a few people — faculty or staff, it wasn’t clear — applauded them.
But if Snow-Flamer or anyone else thought that the students were placated after this peaceful encounter, that didn’t appear to be the case. After walking out of the board room, the activists found themselves standing in a group on the second floor of the admin building, and they fired up another chant: “Reinstate Renee! Reinstate Renee! Reinstate Renee! … .”
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Below: Local artist Johnathon DeSoto sends along video he shot of the rally to reinstate Renee Saucedo. He also alerts us to the Societies for Poetic Action-created website, reinstaterenee.com, with more information about this situation.