Stanford alumni talk 21st century activism

Sept. 26, 2014, 3:20 p.m.

“Where do you find your space in activism?” asked Jan Barker Alexander, associate dean of students and the director of the Black Community Services Center.

The attempt to answer this question brought out over 100 students to the Black Community Services Center on Thursday night to listen to three alumni discuss their own experiences with community activism.

The event, called #HandsUpStanford, brought Kelsei Wharton ’12, Dereca Blackman ’91 and Rahiel Tesfamariam ’00 to campus to discuss the new wave of online activism and their own personal stories engaging the communities they assist.


Online activism in recent years

The first question by the moderator was on the concept of trending hashtags and so-called “passive activism” where people post messages but are accused of enacting little change. Following the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson, the hashtags #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #BlackLivesMatter gained national attention on Twitter and Facebook.

Tesfamariam, though acknowledging such passivity can exist, did not agree with the sentiment that social media is an ineffective means for change.

“Social media is seen as something teenagers do for recreation,” said Tesfamarian, but she added that if you take the “social” out, it is just media like any other traditional news.

“People don’t recognize social media as a social movement because people understand social movements as the 1960s,” she elaborated. “Evolution is changing the way in which we mobilize and people are still valuing old methods.”


Early starts as activists

For both Blackman and Wharton, the origins of their activism came out of considering their own identities in the framework of the society they found themselves in.

When Blackman was admitted to Stanford, many of her peers at her Massachusetts boarding school suggested her acceptance was contingent on her being a black woman.

“I never felt unworthy of Stanford, and I think Stanford was lucky to have me,” Blackman said, of her time here. “And it was clear there were a lot of people that needed to talk to me.”

Both in her high school and at Stanford, people asked Blackman about her hair or about her community at home, and it was in these interactions that she found herself educating others on matters of race and class.

“I was an activist when I answered people’s questions,” Blackman said. “People challenged my own experiences and authenticity.”

For Wharton, it was pervasive images of black men getting arrested on his television screen that lead him to seriously consider race and racism in America.

“It made me start questioning my future as a black man,” he said of these images. Currently, he works with the Black Youth Project, helping people who, like him in his teenage years, may have similar concerns about race in this country.


Causing change

The three activists stressed the importance of being mentored and mentoring others. Tesfamariam said that the mentors she had in her life expected an exceptional work ethic in return for their mentorship. Blackman echoed this sentiment, saying that she only mentors the people who come to her offering assistance.

“There is no success without a successor,” Tesfamariam said. “You need mentors who reflect the different parts of your ideas.”

Blackman advised that keeping a diverse circle close to you will also allow movements to more easily launch around significant events.

“The dreamers, the builders, and the sustainers—that’s the core you need to build a real movement,” Wharton said.

“If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” Blackman advised the crowd.


National outreach

While many students asked about how they could best go home and apply their activism to their communities, the panel suggested that activism can take many forms and occur in many places.

“Your community is bigger than where you grew up,” said Blackman who found her call to activism not in her hometown of Detroit, but thousands of miles away in Oakland.

Similarly, Tesfamariam no longer works on the ground with communities, but says that her work as a writer may be equally as fulfilling, noting that the internet allows activists to have a global capacity for change. She cites pieces like her recent “10 Ways to Make Activism a Lifestyle and Not a Fad”  as ways that she may be indirectly fueling and helping local campaigns.

Though change sometimes occurs around large events, the panelists insisted that change can happen everyday either by organizing a network or actually launching a campaign,

“Reflect on your communities,” Wharton asked, calling for action. “What kind of action can you take today?”


Contact Alex Zivkovic at aleksa ‘at’



Alex Zivkovic is a Desk Editor for the news section who likes to cover stories on academics and student activism on campus. Alex is a sophomore studying Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity with an interest in representation of gender in literature and visual art. He is from Irvine, California. To contact Alex, email him at aleksa ‘at’

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