Greeted by smiling students, jazzy tunes and a row of booths offering everything from bagels to information on the Syrian Conflict, students crowded into the College Nine and Ten multipurpose room on Oct. 19 to partake in the 11th annual Practical Activism Conference.

The Practical Activism Conference, hosted by a group of around 40 students, offered a full day of guest speakers and performances and workshops on social justice issues, informing students and motivating them to do their part to enact social change.

Wendy Baxter, director of academic and co-curricular programs at College Ten and founder of Practical Activism, said she initially began the program so students could develop a passion for the issues facing their communities and the world. Over the years, she watched it develop into something changing the lives of participants long after they have left the conference.

“I wanted to have a structured way to engage students in their first year, so they can plug in right away, watch their peers and participate and develop for years,” Baxter said. “[Practical Activism] has a life of its own [and] a culture of its own. It’s really a powerful experience, and each year builds on [the] previous one.”

The event began with a speech from José Hernandez, a former astronaut and an advocate for education, youth and a progressive immigration policy. Hernandez, born into a migrant farm-working family, told the story of how he reached his dream of becoming an astronaut. Hernandez’s accolades include running for Congress in 2012, being the first person to tweet in Spanish from space and starting his own non-profit foundation, which aims to create equal possibilities for youth to reach their own educational dreams.

“I want you guys to see if [I] was able to do this with all the obstacles I had, then you can too,” Hernandez told the audience.

With his story in mind, student planners guided the audience to their workshops, where they presented eight months of work and opened up a conversation about social justice issues facing the world today. These 70 minute workshops, each dedicated to a specific topic, served as the backbone of the conference, sparking conversation about different issues while giving students the opportunity to approach these concerns hands-on.

Delegates of the 11th Practical Activism Conference leaf through pamphlets during the workshop “Drugs, Guns, Money, Gangs-Family, Friends, Community." Photo by Aimee Hare.
Delegates of the 11th Practical Activism Conference leaf through pamphlets during the workshop “Drugs, Guns, Money, Gangs-Family, Friends, Community.” Photo by Aimee Hare.

The workshop topics this year included gender and sexuality, art as a catalyst for change, sustainable agriculture, gang violence and more.

The preparation for these workshops begun long before the conference. During spring quarter, Practical Activism’s student coordinators met to choose the issues they would work on for the following eight months and later present at the conference. The issue proposals are submitted by several groups, including students and the greater community. The availability to propose a workshop topic helps to ensure the concerns and the issues in the community are being addressed and discussed.

One such issue was represented in the “Effects of Gang Violence on Low-Income Communities” workshop. Upon entering the workshop, three student planners offered pamphlets with statistics and facts on gang violence and where to find support groups and volunteer opportunities. Willie Stokes-Ramirez, a reformed Salinas gang member who spent time at the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit and once belonged to the gang “Nuestra Familia,” spoke at the gang violence workshop.

Stokes-Ramirez, who was born half-Mexican and half-black to an absent mother and father and who had been involved in gangs from a young age, shared his story of growing up in an environment where his gang was a part of his family. Today, he uses his experiences to mentor youths and help them evade the dangerous situations caused by an involvement with gang violence.

“It amazes me how much power and influence these [gangs] have to make these kids do the stupid things they do,” Stokes-Ramirez said. “So why can’t we have the same power and influence? It’s all about how much time we are willing to invest.”

His story raised many questions from individuals who have experienced gang-related activites. Jessica Loya, one of the three student planners leading the workshop, said the effects of gang violence in her community and family inspired her to shed light on an issue rarely discussed in an academic setting, and to empower students and their respective communities.

“I was a different person before Practical Activism,” Loya said. “Being involved and feeling like I’m not the only one who cares is really important because, a lot of time, there is animosity and people are really complacent. Here, they’re not. Here, they’re active. They are actually talking about the taboo issues that no one wants to talk about. This is an open space for you to come and talk. That’s what I love.”

Recent UC Santa Cruz graduate Storm Thomas returned to UCSC to speak to students at the close of the conference. Thomas, who was involved in Practical Activism throughout his years at UCSC, expressed how important this event is for himself and other students.

“It is sometimes so daunting with a campus population becoming more wealthy and more privileged in a multitude of ways,” Thomas said. “To have a space in which people are gathering to speak about issues of injustice across the board makes you feel like, ‘Yeah, I [have] a team, there are some people behind me.’ Bringing people together allows the UCSC activist community to grow, and to be committed to that is an amazing thing.”