I Cannot Sit Idly By

Sarah Lilly, ’17, Information Systems, is Speaker of the UMBC Student Government Association Senate.

sarah-lillyThe most common question I hear from other students when talking about UMBC’s Student Government Association is, why do you do it? That, or the more frustrating what’s the point?

Well, I am so glad you asked.

Yes, I have a lot on my plate. Occasionally, it’s even overflowing. I work full time at a government agency, attend school full time, try to have a social life, and am heavily involved with student government.


Right? That’s quite a bit of responsibility.

Out of all of these commitments, by far my favorite is the one I have made to SGA and to the UMBC community. Throughout my undergraduate journey, the one consistent theme that has emerged in many ways at UMBC is this: If you don’t like something, change it. It is honestly that simple.

Yeah, right.

No, but, like, for real. For 50 years, students have been a part of every decision making process. Soliciting student feedback is expected here. For students not to be included in campus changes would violate our norms. Everything from making choices about food services to planning new buildings to developing policies – you betcha students have had a hand in them. Case in point: I am currently passionately on fire about Title IX issues both at UMBC and across the University Systems of Maryland. Student government gives me a network of fellow students, faculty, staff, and partner organizations to help me address my concerns. All it took for me to get all of this rolling was (1) having a concern (2) talking to other people about that concern and (3) gathering the concerned people to talk about what we can do.

But SGA is where baby politicians go to practice.

L O L. Did you forget that I already have a job beyond UMBC? While #SGAisLife may be true, SGA does not necessarily mean a commitment to being a professional politician after college. Our current SGA President is a music major and our Vice President is an aspiring engineer. Yes, we are socially and politically and *insert adverb here* active. But we’re not politicians. We’re students with a real desire to make effective change on this campus. So we get together and do that thing.

Okay fine. But adults don’t listen to you.

Wrong again. Wanna know why? Spoiler alert: we’re adults too! Adults listen to other adults. We don’t whine to get what we want, we have meaningful discussions. It would be very easy to cry and say “The dining hall doesn’t have the specific chocolate cake my great-great grandmother used to make, therefore I am never going there.” Well, I’m sure your great-great grandmother was a lovely person, but if you don’t talk about that concern, how will it ever get addressed? And you’ll never get the joy of a delicious omelette from Omelette Guy on the weekend. It’s a give and a take. You bring more to the table than you recognize.

Great, but I don’t care about dining or Title IX.

I am going to pretend I didn’t hear the Title IX comment. But SGA has a ton of different departments including Environmental Affairs, Health and Wellness, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and more. It’s really, really cool to be a part of a unique collective of students who just care about stuff. We keep each other on our toes with new updates, initiatives, ideas. I get to be an active member of an organization that represents 11,000 people. That is insane! I absolutely love my SGA family. We laugh together, we cry together, we learn together, and we grow together. Sure, it can be frustrating at times, but at the end of the day we are always a team.

Nice ad for SGA.

Thanks! I’m our biggest fan, aside from my aunts, who love my SGA-related Facebook updates. SGA just so happened to be where I found my home. I feel as though I’ve been “called to serve” or whatever in this community, and in all of my communities. If SGA isn’t your home, there are over 270 other organizations you can join. I cannot sit idly by with all of this passion and all of these feelings and just hope something will change. I need to be an active part of the change. I am empowered in this organization and I hope that I empower others too, growing with peers as we better our institution. That’s why I do it.

Contact the author, Sarah Lilly, at slilly1@umbc.edu.

Criticize Injustice, Not Resistance

Jasir Qiydaar, ’18, Media & Communication Studies, was a member of UMBC’s 19-member delegation to Imagining America’s 2016 national conference.

Jasir Qiydaar

Too often when marginalized communities resist oppressive systems, people criticize the act of resistance without addressing the issues these groups are speaking out against. In fact, the victims of injustice are often more heavily scrutinized than the sources of their oppression are.

Some accuse members of these groups of perpetuating or even creating the problems they’re fighting against. Others may claim their protests are being carried out in the wrong way or at the wrong time.

Recently, this ideology was present in the backlash against NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality against African-Americans. Kaepernick’s protest consisted of him kneeling during the national anthem before each football games, and many Americans were upset by the gesture. Some completely disregarded the existence of police brutality in America, and instead criticized him for the timing and method of his protest.  

These critiques are flawed since there should be no incorrect time or manner to stand up for human rights. Those who are being oppressed are under no obligation to minimize their protests to the most convenient and palatable form. The people who make these arguments are essentially privileging their comfortability over the well-being of others.

As an artist from Milwaukee’s TRUE Skool collective said at this year’s Imagining America conference, “Injustice breeds imbalance.” Behind any sociopolitical expression is a social problem that infringes on the rights of a certain population. Many tend to overlook that social movements are responses to issues that cause individuals great amounts of suffering.

These problems, like institutional racism and sexism, are systemic. They exist on a large scale, and they harm countless individuals from a variety of backgrounds.

The effects of these issues are validated by both lived experiences and empirical data. Therefore, it is counterproductive to dismiss them.

Additionally, at their core, social issues are the result of an abnormal lack of regard for human rights. It stands to reason that responses would be unconventional as well.

We should criticize systems of oppression as strongly as we criticize those who speak out against them. At all times, we should empathize with individuals whose human rights are infringed upon, not with the agents of their oppression.

Contact the author, Jasir Qiydaar, at jaqiy1@umbc.edu.

We Are Alive: Reflections on Imagining America

Andrew Thompson, ’19, Gender and Women’s Studies, was a member of UMBC’s 19-member delegation at Imagining America’s 2016 national conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In a time of cynicism dressed as realism, when it feels like the world might be falling apart around us, I believe there is reason to be hopeful, optimistic, and idealistic. Socially, politically, and personally I’ve felt many defeats, but come back to the realization that this is our world to make. Consider the many victories, small and large that have been going on around us these last couple of years. There’s a lot left to do, but we should feel hopeful that we are the ones who can do it, and we can do whatever we want. – Taylor Rice, The Local Natives

andrew-thompsonI first read that quote back in July of this year. It resonated with me, beyond just being from someone I admire, because it captured so much of what I feel. I was hopeful, optimistic, idealistic, and resilient, but in contrast to Rice, I also felt powerless. What could I do to change the things in this world that I truly believe are hurting us?

I will proudly say that I’m a feminist, I support Black Lives Matter, that I’m “here and queer” yet still I see the same pains in our world nearly every day. I walk through the Baltimore Harbor area and watch police officers casually swing their batons like fashion accessories. Old classmates of mine back home overdose on heroin, yet our drug education classes never even whispered about opportunities to get clean needles or supervised injection sites. Two young Black men are shot with a BB-gun from a speeding pickup truck, called the n-word, and the shooter’s defense attorney thinks public service and watching Selma constitute an appropriate punishment for a hate crime.

It’s crushing.

Often I sit with anger, sadness, and confusion. It seems, and truly is, so much bigger than me. How can I possibly solve these injustices? Obviously not alone, but who would I even talk to? For a long time, the questions I’d ask myself would hang in the air and then eventually vanish, leaving me to return to my routine.

Attending Imagining America‘s 2016 national conference in Milwaukee last month helped me answer some of those questions, and affirmed who I am and what I believe in fighting for. Here I was hundreds of miles away from home, surrounded by hundreds of other people who wanted to change the world too. People who were like me, just beginning to figure out how to do it and what the world looked like to them. There were people who had done amazing things to move towards a world that was more just, people with successes and failures, people who believed that the world wasn’t over, that we all had work to do.

For nearly 4 days straight, I had the most remarkable conversations about what mattered to me most. I talked to PAGE (Publicly Active Graduate Education) fellows, people who are using their Masters and PhD education to be civically involved and deeply connected to marginalized communities while actively empowering them. This was a new side of academia to me, one that wasn’t completely stuck in a bubble that floated from campus to office building and back again.

I also attended a bunch of sessions on topics ranging from ethical architecture that engages the community from planning to completion, using theatre as a means of activism, personal healing through discussion circles and safe spaces, to ways of enriching political discourse and having civil discussions about controversial issues. I took away a lot of concrete, useful techniques like problem mapping, discussion moderation, creating art with a positive impact in communities, and how critical it is to just simply listen.

Throughout the entire weekend, I soaked up so much more than I have in a long time. The conference was almost overwhelming at times, but I brought back so many new tools and learned so much about myself and my values that it was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. What lingered with me most though, was a feeling of hope. The conference helped me see that I do have power to make our world better, that we are the ones who can do it, and we can do whatever we want.

I’m going to close out my reflection with a poem that I wrote the Friday night/Saturday morning of Imagining America. I think that it reflects my newfound hope in a very raw way that was captured at that very specific moment, so I hope you enjoy it!


My GPA is two-point-six-five

But I am very much alive

I stumble through my relationships

I burn through friendships

And sometimes I am blind

To those who truly love me

Every night I see it


And I begin to wonder


Why do I wear this rainbow pin?

Why does the ceiling spin?

Why won’t they let me in?

You tell me that I am safe here

Yet you hold my tongue and leer

You cut me into thirds

And mash me into words

So that I may be more digestible

For our masters

But I am very much alive

I hear he she, they, them

And these words are lost on me

But I am not lost

Because we share our community

And build ourselves to take us higher

I do not always know

How to speak what I feel

Or how to feel what I speak

But I do know

At three-oh-five

That I am alive

We are alive.

Black Issues are Retriever Issues

Vanessa Barksdale, ’17, Social Work, is the UMBC Student Government Association’s Assistant Director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.

Vanessa Barksdale[Cross-posted from To UMBC, For UMBC]

Can I be candid? Sometimes being adamantly and publicly pro-black is hard. Particularly when you’re supposed to be the one that has a snappy comeback for every single high profile and racialized incident having to do with Black people. Its almost impossible. The gravity, immensity, and depth of always addressing Black issues, speaking for “The Blacks,” or being “a Black” is exhausting, and I don’t want to do it. That’s not my job. But it is literally my paid job to speak up to social injustice, and I’m honored to do that.

Since I’m being candid, I have to acknowledge my that I am indeed human. I’m a human being with flesh and bones and eyes and ears and a weird taste in music and a large obsession with kale smoothies. I am a lot of things. I’m also proudly a Black woman, in every sense of that word. Down to my full lips, my broad nose, and my kinky curly hair. I am not naive to my history.

I am also not naive to the fact that my Jackson Five nostrils and full lips subconsciously communicate about me to strangers first, and the actual content of my words come second. I am not naive to the fact that people like me scare or aggravate some people before I ever get a chance to utter a word from my mouth. Just like my sisters and my brother and my cousins and my mother and my father.

And so I have to consider death, perhaps a lot more than someone who doesn’t look like me. I have to consider my perceived image a lot more. I don’t have the luxury of downloading anonymous apps where anyone can post their dislike for “niggers” or “those ghetto affirmative action babies,” and not feel personally attacked or vehemently paranoid or uncomfortable in a room of strangers. I don’t have the luxury of walking into a store and shopping alone without having the store owner watch my every footstep. I don’t have the luxury of turning on a TV and seeing the dead bodies of people who look nothing like me. No, I don’t get those things, and it’s damn exhausting.

The ability to pretend and oversimplify are simply luxuries; I don’t get either. Getting to say “All lives matter,” believe it or not, is a luxury. You don’t have to think about differences in racial experiences, or think about whether Black people are set apart, or if we actually aren’t a unified collective of people who all face the same problems indiscriminately, and if we really all are nonetheless valued. That would be cute. Instead, I have no choice but to assert that Black lives matter. I acknowledge the fact that we are not the same, and I fight for our ability to acknowledge that. I will fight for my right to be treated like I actually am nonetheless a valued person.

I’m not divisive for saying Black Lives Matter. Like it or not, divisions stemming from imaginary assumptions about one’s race have always existed. They’ve existed since the very conception of slavery. But until you recognize what is broken, you can’t fix it. Until we recognize that we are hurt, we will never get well. And I am not going to apologize for saying that this country is hurt and bleeding.

I am truly proud to be a UMBC Retriever. But I am also proud to be a Black Retriever, amidst proudly queer, straight, Muslim, Sikh, Israeli, Irani, and Dominican retrievers. I am proud of what I am and where I came from, amidst many Retrievers who feel the same about themselves.

But what is most profound, most unifying, most important, is that we are all Retrievers. Black issues affecting Retrievers aren’t just Black Retriever issues. They’re Retriever issues, significant to the whole of us. Exclusion, ignorance surrounding social justice issues, and the fostering of environments where the discussion of cultural differences is discouraged aren’t things that we can pass off as someone else’s problem anymore. They are our problems.

Amongst many different things, I will use my position to make sure Retrievers are educated on Black issues. Black Retrievers matter too much.

Contact the author, Vanessa Barksdale, at vanbark1@umbc.edu.

All That Power

Bentley Corbett-Wilson, ’17, Music Education, is President of UMBC’s Student Government Association.

BentleyA friend came up to me last night and asked me, “How’s it going with all that power?” I thought for a second, and I said something along the lines of “You and everyone else who’s a student here are the ones with all that power. I’m just a primary voice for the power.”

I want everyone to know that YOU as students are the ones who can make this campus better. It is your ideas and passions that help drive this campus community, and I want you all to feel comfortable and inspired to use SGA to make those visions become reality. We want to do the work WITH you all, not FOR you.

So far, it has truly been an honor representing the student body, and SGA as an organization has started off the year on an AMAZING note. The SGA retreat was incredibly successful, and full of motivated and empowered student leaders. We welcomed new students to the campus by hosting Bubble Soccer. I had the honor of speaking at the Convocation, and (hopefully) inspired new students to make UMBC their home and pave their own ways to success.

I want to thank everyone who helped this summer to make sure that SGA started off on the right track this 50th anniversary year, and to everyone has shown their support and continued to have faith in me. I’m excited for all that this year has in store for myself, SGA, and UMBC!

Contact the author, Bentley Corbett-Wilson, at bcorbet1@umbc.edu

I Will Not Demean Them

Laura Nieman ’18, Pre-Nursing, is Secretary of the UMBC Running Club and a test proctor for UMBC Student Support Services.

Laura Nieman 2It always shocks and troubles me when I hear of people I grew up with, not even necessarily as close friends, but still grew and matured alongside nonetheless, getting arrested, incarcerated, or killed.

It’s just, wow… Wasn’t I just laughing with you a few years ago? Didn’t I just see you faithfully playing basketball every day in the court by our neighborhood? Weren’t you just really into skateboarding? Weren’t we just kids with hopes and dreams? We rode the same school bus. We ate the same terrible cafeteria food. You were a part of my childhood because you were a child like me, who I saw every day and could relate to. 

Now they won’t get the chance to finish growing in the way they should. So many opportunities just gone in an instant.

I am sad for them more than disappointed. I know it is not as simple as them “choosing” to be “criminals”– what an ugly, powerful label. I will not refer to them by it either. I only wish they had the guidance they needed to steer clear of that life.

I will not use them as a reminder to “stay focused” because that implies that they lacked self-discipline and motivation, and how can I judge the character of someone whom I have not spoken to in years? Who am I to talk about self-discipline when I have indulged and procrastinated, and sometimes just want to ignore all my responsibilities?

I will not use them as a lesson of “what not to do.” I learn from my own mistakes; I will not selfishly and self-righteously use theirs to build up my work ethic.

I will not demean them. I will pray for them.

I’m thinking of you, old friends. I hope this unfortunate moment does not define your life. And rest in peace to those who have lost their lives before they really ever got to live.

Contact the author, Laura Nieman, at la16@umbc.edu.

Reflections on Imagining America: Change the Paradigm, Change the World

Andy Clark, ’19, Biological Sciences, participated in Imagining America‘s 2015 national conference as an Imagining UMBC Fellow.

Andy ClarkThe bus to downtown Baltimore was due to leave the UMBC campus at 8:00 a.m., but I was not at the stop when it arrived. To make a long story short: I missed the bus twice and had to take the one at 10:00 AM, getting me to the door of the Walter Art Museum just in time for the my first discussion to start.

Not only was this my first experience with the tribulations involved in using Maryland transit, but this was also my first experience as a college undergrad at an academic off-campus event, though not my first-ever conference. Anyone who has ever been to more than one conference has probably felt that sense of dread that comes when seeing the word “lecture” on their itinerary, regardless of how interesting the topic may be. After about 45 minutes of being talked at, inevitably my feet start to tap my mind starts to wander.

Plot twist: Imagining America was not like this. I was pleasantly surprised by the format of the talks I attended, as most of them were discussion-based, and I was involved in the talks. I was not an observer but a participant, and this conference, I can say, was not just interesting, not just enlightening, it was fun. The novelty that comes with one’s first time being surrounded by people who are willing to discuss things that they enjoy, find interesting, and are passionate about…it is indescribable but nonetheless a feeling I am positive others have felt and can understand. Not only was I able to hear others share their innovative ideas, but I was able to share my interests and receive feedback on how to go forward with them. Just amazing!

My favorite experience of the conference was music-based: a seminar/performance called In Search of One Big Union: The Role of Folksongs in the U.S. Labor Movement. I am a music person. All types of music have the possibility to inspire and entrance me, whether with melodic symphonies or bellowing voices. I am simply enamoured of the power of music, with its ability to elicit strong feelings (good or bad), prompt the need to dance (again, good or bad), and give voice to feelings many have trouble expressing. Profound was the sense of serenity I felt during this session and it is absolutely wonderful that Imagining America provided a platform for such a performance to take place. (Shout out to Corey Dolgon for a fantastic set!)

Overall, I was pleased with my experience at Imagining America, especially because I was able to connect with people all over the nation whose interests align so well with mine. Sometimes, I feel like just one voice in seven billion, with ideas that do not correlate with those around me, but IA reaffirmed my beliefs, and provided overwhelming evidence that there are others who think as I do.

To change the world, we must shift the paradigm for ourselves and those around us. We cannot continue down our same path and hope for change: That is literally insane. I look forward to working with the other undergraduate Imagining UMBC Fellows to help implement our new ideas in ways that will be organic and sustainable. Even though the first day of the conference started off poorly for me, I appreciate that it turned out to be better than I could have imagined (and worth missing two buses and walking a mile in the rain uphill), and I am thankful to have been able to participate at all!

Change the paradigm. Change the world.

Contact the author, Andy Clark, at clar2@umbc.edu.

Reflections on Imagining America: An Undergraduate Voice

Manisha Vepa, ’18, Economics and Global Studies, is Arts & Humanities Editor for the UMBC Review, and was a member of UMBC’s Imagining America conference planning committee.

IMG_0475-2For me, the recent Imagining America conference was the culmination of ten months of meetings, conversations, and logistics planning with other members of the UMBC community. Historically, IA had a low turnout of undergraduates, which was partly why I was invited to the planning committee. Throughout the ten months, I had worked to introduce an undergraduate voice and tried to start a conversation about undergraduates participating in the conference. Having this background, I imagined that there would be a slight shock when I introduced myself to other conference participants as a student, especially because I was leading a workshop and facilitating the closing plenary session. I steeled myself to answer a lot of questions about my credibility, and to prove that I actually have a voice.

However, I forgot that I was entering a space with a lot of artists, who are extremely good at going with the flow. Any time I introduced myself, I was immediately accepted into the space. No one jerked backwards in surprise or batted an eyelash and questioned my credentials. Instead, I was just another member at the table. For an organization without undergraduate representation, this was a progressive view. I was pleasantly surprised and surprisingly pleased by this adaptability.

From the opening plenary session onward, I felt that there was a frank tone to the conference. From the conversations between Dr. Hrabrowski and the other panelists, I could tell that any social issues would be tackled head on without the usual political correctness or academic stuffiness. And as I learned, the conversations would be real and intimate and intense wherever I went. I attended sessions with great conversations about engaging students and creating a sense of agency within a community. Although these conversations were directed primarily at faculty, I felt like I made significant contributions.

On the last day, I facilitated the closing plenary session. I led a reflection session in the UMBC Concert Hall, which was a surreal experience. I, a student, was on a stage challenging people much older than me to be more inclusive when they went home. Even as a student who has contributed to change initiatives before, I felt powerful recognizing that I was making a difference. And I was inspired to keep talking and sharing my voice so that I could keep making a difference.

The conference was a large leap and a great source of momentum. Working with the students I have met from outside of UMBC and within UMBC, I am ready to imagine a program for undergraduates to attend future IA meetings. I am also ready to build on the momentum from the conference and convert it into action here on campus. We’ve made progress, but still there is more imagining to be done.

Contact the author, Manisha Vepa, at mvepa1@umbc.edu.

Reflections on Imagining America: Empathy for Baltimore (and Beyond)

Jasir Qiydaar, ’18, Media & Communication Studies, participated in Imagining America‘s 2015 national conference as an Imagining UMBC Fellow.

Jasir QiydaarAttending the Imagining America National Conference was an excellent experience. Doing so allowed me to connect with like-minded individuals who came from a variety of backgrounds about social issues. Through my interactions with other conference attendees I was able to learn about others’ life experiences and tell them about my own. Ultimately, the common thread in all these conversations was empathy. Even though we couldn’t completely relate to every aspect of each other’s lives, we made efforts to truly understand each other.

Here at UMBC the pursuit of academic achievement often distracts members of our community from practicing empathy. This was especially clear to me in April and May when the civil unrest surrounding the death of Freddie Gray was happening in Baltimore. I witnessed numerous people make light of the situation or dismiss those involved as “thugs”. This was disappointing to me because as a resident of Baltimore City, I am aware of the underlying issues that led to this unrest. Because I have this personal experience, I knew the assumptions made by certain members of the community were completely false.

I also came to the conclusion that just as there were underlying causes for the unrest in Baltimore, there is a hidden cause for the lack of empathy present at UMBC. A lack of personal exposure to other cultures and backgrounds before attending UMBC creates an environment in which those groups are often looked at as the “other”. As a result, stereotypes dictate the ideas held about these underrepresented groups and they are often reduced to being seen as a set of characteristics rather than being seen as people.

I believe that as members of this institution, we all should realistically evaluate how stereotypes and biases shape how we treat others. After this self-reflection, we should take steps to change any negative behaviors that may result from our preconceived ideas. By doing this we can become more empathetic to those who aren’t like us and become better global citizens.

Contact the author, Jasir Qiydaar, at jaqiy1@umbc.edu.