Recent graduates leave behind on-campus legacies

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In their four years at Occidental, these six members of the class of 2017 made their mark on the community, playing critical roles in numerous organizations across campus.

Izzie Ojeda

President of the Muslim Students Association, Membership Chair of Mortar Board Society and ASOC Junior Class Senator

When Izzie Ojeda first stepped foot on Occidental’s campus, she expected to pursue a degree in literature or writing. Yet after attending the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI) the summer before she began her first year, her plans changed.

“I quickly shifted my attention to sociology after I had Professor [Richard] Mora at MSI,” Ojeda said. “And I cannot express how critical sociology has been in helping me formulate my understanding of systems of oppression.”

In her time at Occidental, Ojeda acted as president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA), membership chair of Mortar Board Society and Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) junior class senator, in addition to general involvement in Multi, La Raza and Beauty Beyond Color (BBC). Ojeda also worked off-campus at the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women, where she compiled data to improve resources for the transgender community and document police misconduct against women of color. At New Ground: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change, she used events and social media to facilitate interfaith dialogue. Her work both on and off campus has centered around intersectional social justice issues.

“It’s really special to be able to have a deep discussion with Multi, plan Latinx Heritage Month events with La Raza or take a study break with Beauty Beyond Color,” Ojeda said. “Sometimes those moments of unity are the only thing that can get us through tough times at this institution.”

Under Ojeda’s leadership, MSA hosted the Being Black and Muslim panel during Black History Month and started a traditional spiritual reading group for Muslim students called a halaqa. The group met weekly Spring 2017 to discuss religion, spirituality and culture. After graduation, Ojeda intends to attend law school and eventually enter the field of public interest.

“I feel like I came in [to Occidental] a shy, rule-following teenager and now I am leaving an outspoken, strong-willed young adult,” Ojeda said. “I have everything at Oxy — the good and the bad — to thank for that.”

Chloé Welmond

Co-founder of Occidental Students United Against Gentrification

The concept of space and place is central to Chloé Welmond. Coming from an immigrant family, Welmond knew when she arrived at Occidental that she would have to find her own community and identity through meaningful connections with her neighbors rather than settling within the restrictive confines of the Oxy bubble.

“We live in this very constructed world, with people that are basically all the same age as you and primarily white, upper-middle class people — it’s so toxic,” Welmond said. “How are you supposed to know yourself if you haven’t seen, experienced, loved difference?”

When Welmond witnessed the impact of gentrification on Highland Park, she took action and helped found Occidental Students United Against Gentrification (OSUAG) Fall 2015. A student group with horizontal leadership, OSUAG’s mission is to talk about and organize around gentrification on the local, national and international levels. OSUAG collaborates directly with the North East LA Alliance (NELAA), a group made up of local residents, to mitigate gentrification in Highland Park. Since its inception, OSUAG has participated in several protests, provided materials to local organizers, assisted with apartment inspections and volunteered at numerous planning events and workshops. The group recently assisted NELAA with the Stop Royal Marmion Evictions project to advocate for residents living across from the Highland Park Metro station who are fighting to keep their homes.

OSUAG is particularly concerned with the effect that Occidental has on the greater Northeast Los Angeles community. Last semester, OSUAG focused its efforts on removing Berry Bowl, a relatively new business on York Blvd., from the Marketplace. Welmond said she doesn’t understand why Occidental is not supporting local, long-standing businesses instead.

“Who can afford Berry Bowl?” she said. “The ones that are moving into this neighborhood and raising the prices of these restaurants, these shops, these homes, evicting people, making people homeless. […] This is war on the poor.”

Despite a petition that garnered 246 signatures, the Marketplace has yet to remove Berry Bowl products. However, Welmond is excited about the future of OSUAG after she graduates and believes that the new leadership will continue advocating both on and off campus.

“I think the most important part of the club is its focus on relationships — especially off campus,” Welmond said. “People have to remember that these movements are larger than ourselves and you can never fully know how you are impacting a community and people’s lives.”

Raihana Haynes-Venerable

Student organizer and speech writer, Diversity and Equity Board Academic Liason and Master of Reporting, Students for Justice in Palestine executive board member, Green Bean Supervisor and Orientation Student Coordinator

During the occupation of the Arthur G. Coons administrative building (AGC) in Fall 2015, Raihana Haynes-Venerable found her voice as a poet. Working as a student organizer and speech writer for the movement, she found herself responsible for drafting a piece in response to the Board of Trustees’ announcement that they supported President Jonathan Veitch on the third day of the occupation. She intended to deliver the address to the 300 students who occupied each floor of the administrative building.

“While writing that speech, I broke down, heartbroken by my naiveté, by my idyllic image of the world. I asked myself repeatedly, was my writing going to make any difference?” Haynes-Venerable said. “I picked up a pen and began to write, and when I read the page back to myself I realized I had written a poem.”

A Critical Theory and Social Justice (CTSJ) major, Haynes-Venerable said she is intent on making tangible changes and intends to attend graduate school for creative writing. Though she arrived at Occidental intent on studying politics, she found CTSJ to be more expansive and felt that it offered new possibilities for creating a more equitable future.

In addition to her involvement in the CTSJ department, she worked as both Academic Liaison and Master of Reporting for the Diversity and Equity Board (DEB), served as executive board member of Students for Justice in Palestine, acted as a Green Bean Supervisor, lived in Queer House and worked as an O-Team leader for two years before becoming the Orientation Student Coordinator in Fall 2016.

During her term as O-Coordinator, Haynes-Venerable helped to bring in new speakers for the sexual violence prevention talk and created new questions for the “Embracing Differences” event. Though Haynes-Venerable highlighted the need to review orientation materials in order to keep the program relevant and engaging, she believes her work aided the development of a more equitable and comprehensive orientation.

“There is always room for improvement,” she said. “I think the work I did will put the next years on a track to keep pushing forward to create a program that reflects the college’s mission statement [which is anchored by four cornerstones, including equity].”

Haynes-Venerable built extremely strong bonds with her housemates in Queer House and claims that those relationships will be her largest takeaway from Occidental.

“We’ve become a family that is intent on taking care of one another,” Haynes-Venerable said. “I’ve learned about how to be a friend, what it means to show love and the importance of having a safe environment.”

Olani Ewunnet

Oxy at the UN participant and Black Student Alliance member

Olani Ewunnet does not believe graduation will mark the end of her educational journey. Her interests while at Occidental have been multifaceted and interdisciplinary, leading her to participate in the Oxy at the UN Program, Black Student Alliance (BSA) and in the printmaking and music studios. By tying together a diverse array of disciplines, Ewunnet said, she is in the process of learning how to approach questions of both personal and political importance to her.

“I am interested in understanding my history as a second-generation Ethiopian in the U.S.,” Ewunnet said. “So that means I’m exploring this politically, sonically and visually. I’m trying to get the full picture, you know? And I want to bring that depth and nuance to what I create after Oxy as well.”

Ewunnet and Waruguru Waithira (sophomore) co-curated “Azmari x Kikuyu,” a visual and sonic exploration of East African resistance, love and revolution April 10. Ewunnet DJ’d resistance music while Waithira exhibited five paintings depicting scenes from her tribe, the Kikuyu. Ewunnet’s soundscape featured music and sounds banned following the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution and allowed a room full of fifty visitors to interact with a sonic landscape imbued with a history of resistance.

Last semester, Ewunnet, an Urban and Environmental Policy major, took part in the Oxy at the UN program, where she worked for the UN Development Programme’s Sustainable Development team. During her internship, she covered intergovernmental negotiations on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and Habitat III, a UN attempt to set global priorities for urban development into the future. However, Ewunnet said that although she is interested in learning about the organization of systems like the UN, she doesn’t necessarily want to participate in them moving forward.

“I am all about system learning […] so that I can understand how [a system] impacts the world and where I fit in,” Ewunnet said. “So while at the UN I wanted to focus my experience on understanding the UN holistically as a system and expose myself to topics I care about post-Oxy, specifically African urbanism, in the UN context.”

After graduation, Ewunnet will head to Addis Ababa to lead an interdisciplinary music and arts program. She said she hopes to continue to dig deep across different modes of knowledge in order to continue engaging groups of people across their disciplines.

“I think there is so much more richness in our work when we are informed and collaborating with one another,” she said. “I dig it when my policy folks are learning and building with my art folks — and my art folks are learning and building with my science folks and so on. Shout out to the liberal arts one time, right?”

Chase McCain and Malena Ernani

Planned Parenthood Club executive board members

When Malena Ernani and Chase McCain initially joined Planned Parenthood club, they had no idea the impact it would have on their college experience.

Three years ago the club existed only in name, but Ernani and McCain have since worked to recruit and grow the club into a sustainable organization on campus. Planned Parenthood is now a space that advocates reproductive justice, helps connect people to Planned Parenthood’s resources and operates as a support group.

“We have a group chat of E-Board members going 24/7 and it’s been like that for three years,” McCain said. “I think the relationship we have as a small group has really helped to establish in our entire e-board a vulnerability so that we can support one another.”

Planned Parenthood meets weekly and puts on a variety of events on campus. This past semester, the group organized their second annual Period Party, which raised $500 for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. Coupled with the revenue from Fantastiprov’s X-rated show, the group will be donating over $2,000 to Planned Parenthood.

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, the group became more intentionally political in their events.

“Trump lit a fire under our asses,” Ernani said. “We felt we needed to keep doing programming. Even though we were exhausted, we wanted to keep the momentum going.”

McCain agreed that the types of events Planned Parenthood sponsored on campus changed in tone.

“I think Planned Parenthood is always fighting for very basic rights,” McCain said. “But on campus, we would do more events that were fun-oriented, whereas after the fact [of Trump’s election] we hosted the IUD event and focused on getting people what they needed. It has definitely shifted what we’re focusing on.”

In the future, Ernani and McCain say they hope that the club will begin to make more off-campus collaborations, but that they are excited about next year’s E-Board, who they believe also wants to get more involved in the Eagle Rock community. Over the past semester, Ernani and McCain have allowed newer members to preside over meetings and plan events. They both hope that Planned Parenthood will continue to operate as a safe, supportive space after they leave.

“It really is a support group,” Ernani said. “You go into a meeting and you don’t have to perform for anyone. You can just be yourself, and I’ve never found a space quite like that. Even when I come out of a meeting, there’s such a dissonance and I feel like I have to perform again for the world.”

Both McCain and Ernani hope to eventually work in education. McCain is specifically interested in continuing to educate on sexual health, which she has done not only through Planned Parenthood, but also in four years of working for Peer Health Exchange. Ernani does not plan on necessarily teaching sexual education, but she does want to use the political activism she engaged in while at Planned Parenthood to inform her professional goals.

“Because I felt empowered through the work that I did [at Planned Parenthood], it revived my faith in political advocacy,” she said. “I always thought it was a childish dream that a couple people could change the world, but now I have faith that that’s possible.”

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