In light of last spring’s tense racial climate at Westmont and the demonstration that occurred on March 6, 2020 outside Murchison Gym, the Alumni Alliance for Racial Justice (AARJ) made its first social media appearance on Sept. 18, 2020.
Founded by several Westmont College alumni, the AARJ webpage describes itself as “a 501(c)3 non-profit organization committed to dismantling racism and white supremacy in higher education.”
The organization continues by describing their goals: “By coordinating alumni engagement and organizing collective action in support of racial justice, we seek to utilize the alumni voice to promote structural change at predominantly white institutions, prioritizing the safety, education, and well-being of students of color.”
In the interview below, Rebekah Beeghly, CEO and co-founder of AARJ, shared personal insight into how current students and alumni can plug into the organization in ways that seek structural change at predominantly white institutions.
Q: How did the Alumni Alliance for Racial Justice start?
“Alumni were asking how they could get involved, post the demonstration [on campus March 6, 2020]. I was talking to other alumni and they mentioned that ‘money … controls everything … We’d want to be able to hold Westmont accountable for the money that we’re giving them. That’s how it started: Westmont alumni [want] to make a change at Westmont … but we don’t want it to just be a Westmont thing; we want it to be a PWI [predominantly white institution] thing.”
Q: What is the hope for AARJ?
“Our hope is to create institutional change in PWIs. But we know that takes a long time, so we also hope to provide immediate relief for students of color on campus while we work to create systemic change. And so two ways we’re doing that right now is through our therapy fund and our student mentorship program. In the future, the hope is that we will grow, we will widen, we will expand … there will be a point where we can step away from Westmont and we won’t need to be there and things will still be happening without us, in which then, we can put our efforts somewhere else. We hope to continue to grow our alumni and student base to include other schools.”
Q: Can you describe what AARJ’s Therapy Fund is?
“[AARJ’s] therapy fund provides racially conscious therapy for students of color. They can sign up, and they are contacted by our point person, and she talks them through insurance and if there are any specifics they are looking for in a therapist to get them a good fit. With COVID-19, it is helpful because we have a greater pool to pick from … It’s a way for students to be able to talk about race, talk about racial trauma, talk about what it means to be a [person of color] at a predominately white space in ways that the predominantly white counselors at Westmont can’t necessarily do.”
Q: What is the Student Mentorship Program?
“The Student Mentorship Program basically is a way to grow the community between students of color and white students with alumni of color and white alumni. We want to remind students that they are not alone and that people went before them who had similar experiences, went through similar hardships, but have graduated and have come out of it. Students can sign up and receive one-on-one mentorship … That mentorship can look any way that you want it to look. For example, if you just want to know what it means to be a multi-racial person, an Asian person, a Black person, etc., post-Westmont, we can pair you with someone who you can have that conversation with.”
Q: Do you see a certain level of social consciousness with Westmont alumni who have signed up for the Student Mentorship Program?
“AARJ has a values list that all of our mentors have to sign, and it’s very similar to the one that our board signs. We’ve talked about how we are screening our mentors and … done the work themselves, had these experiences where they can talk about race. They’ve thought about this critically, and we’re always trying to find the best ways to do that. I think we’ve got measures in place, but if they don’t work or students have bad experiences, we’re going to change and update to make sure we’re giving the students the best mentorship possible. Because I think there are a lot of alumni who are interested but aren’t necessarily conscious, and that’s something that we’re aware of and trying to make sure that we suss out.”
Q: How do you think mentorship and therapy are part of racial justice?
“I think that racially conscious mentorship is lacking. For students of color, it is harder to find a mentor with the same racial background as you on your campus. If you do have a professor, or a staff member, who shares your racial affinity, they’re probably one of the only ones, so it’s possible that they feel a lot of pressure to mentor students of color. It’s easier for white students to get mentorship on PWIs, so by providing students of color therapy and mentorship, it takes some pressure off of faculty and staff of color and allows them to be more intentional about the mentorship they do have. I think that this is a systemic effect of predominantly white institutions — of whiteness — and therefore part of racial justice. Especially now, there are more white alumni who are doing this work and are ready to talk to other white people about it. And for therapy, I think it’s more treatment than it is prevention. It’s treating the racial trauma that occurs on predominantly white campuses because of systemic racism and the ‘white is the norm’ mentality. Racial trauma happens. Exhaustion happens. Having a place for you to go to talk about it is important, so making that accessible and possible is very important for students of color, and is something that should be part of an institution already. These are systemically unequal things, so how can we change that?”
Q: How do you make sure that the AARJ Westmont on-campus program isn’t attached to ICP?
“We might ask Blake Thomas [the ICP Interim Director] to send out an email to everyone, or we ask ICP to tell everyone that it is happening, but it would be our funds — hopefully Westmont’s funds — funding it. That’s important to us. From Westmont’s point of view, it would make sense for us to team with ICP to put this on, but I think [for AARJ], we very much want to make sure that ICP isn’t doing the leg work to make this happen … we want to create something that even ICP members/leaders can enjoy without having to put the work in.”
Q: How would you want current students to engage with AARJ?
“If students are interested in any of the resources we offer, I want them to sign up on our website. Particularly with the student mentorship program, any student, regardless of racial affinity … we want you to sign up if you are in any way interested in it. I think that it’s a good opportunity to prepare for post-college. And if any students of color are, even remotely, interested in therapy, we would love for them to sign up. We always encourage them to try CAPS out first, but it’s not a requirement … [AARJ’s therapy fund] is free, fully funded therapy for you, and we help you find your therapist, we help you set up those things, and we pay for it. And if there are other things people want, we want students to feel like they can tell us.”
Q: Is there anything else you want to add?
“Sign up for things! We want students to know that we’re here for them; we have our own experiences of what it means to be a student, student of color or a white student … we know that it is ever-changing, ever-evolving, and so we on our own can only have as much information as we do. If students want to share their experiences, we want to listen to them and want to be able to make those better. We even have an incident report form that isn’t Westmont-specific … we can check-in with you, continue to push that claim, be an extra step of accountability.”
AARJ also has a compiled list of ethnic studies courses that students can take at Santa Barbara Community College and/or the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as other resources on race/ethnicity (books, podcasts, articles, and documentaries). If you are interested in therapy funds, student mentorship, or finding resources, you can check out their website, http://www.aarj.org, their social media handle at @theaarj, and/or email them at either firstname.lastname@example.org or Rebekah Beeghly personally at email@example.com.