By Lucy Martirosyan
“Building Bridges” started as an idea by Stephnie Igharosa who realized that there is a lack of coalition building among student organizations and cultural centers at UMass Amherst.
As the Student Government Association’s secretary of diversity, Igharosa wondered, “why are we not talking to one another enough?” The cultural centers on campus — The Josephine White Eagle Cultural Center, Latin American Cultural Center, Malcolm X Cultural Center and the Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center — not to mention, all the other student organizations like the Stonewall Center, are all nearly a mile away from each other. They’re “inaccessible” as Igharosa puts it.
She decided to collaborate with the Racial Justice Coalition, as she is already part of their committee, and the Center for Education and Policy Advocacy (CEPA) to put together an event that would encompass the original meaning behind Building Bridges — an opposition to the Trump administration’s rhetoric to “build a wall.” Together, the student organizations planned to set up an open mic and an open forum at the Malcolm X Cultural Center for students of multicultural and multiracial backgrounds to express themselves about diversity concerns and issues on campus.
That’s when Igharosa met Amberly Lerner, a freshman English and legal studies major who felt strongly about the separation and inaccessibility of the cultural centers since the day she set foot onto campus. Lerner is queer, Chinese and Jewish. She calls herself “intersectional” — a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw.
“I’m very intersectional. I have a very intersectional identity – there’s a lot of parts to it. So when cultural centers don’t collaborate, it’s very much like trying to pick a side. Or trying to pick an identity. Like, which event should I go to today? Or which identity should I get more in touch with today?” says Lerner.
But Igharosa says it’s not the cultural centers fault that they don’t collaborate. It’s that there’s a lack of funding and attention from the administration onto these centers.
On April 4, Igharosa’s idea for a Building Bridges event turned into a reality. Students of all different multicultural and multiracial backgrounds signed up to perform in front of the microphone — including Ro Sigle, who was the co-chair of the Racial Justice Coalition and recently graduated as a masters student at UMass.
Sigle preformed a poem about preserving the youthful ambition to keep organizing and standing up against oppression in society. Sigle also helped create the guidelines that were used for the open forum at the end of the event where audience members broke down some of the topics that were brought up in the art, music and poetry that were performed that night. Many of the themes included colorism, lack of solidarity on campus and feelings of isolation as minority students at UMass, a majorly white university.
“Building Bridges, so to speak, takes a tremendous amount of work and commitment. And I think we all have to be willing to go there with each other,” Sigle says. “But I think back to my poem — we all have to do it with grace and compassion and with joy in a way that honors ourselves and each other.”
Igharosa is confident to keep pursuing projects for Building Bridges. On May 10, banners that read “Building Bridges” in various different languages were hung on the Fine Arts Center at UMass Amherst.