Illustration by Rose Collins

Undocumented artist and activist  Johanna Toruño was scheduled to speak  at the kickoff event of the UC Santa Cruz Women’s Center’s Sister Solidarity series on Jan. 23. But a day before the event, the Women’s Center cancelled it due to administrative mismanagement stemming from a missing employment authorization document. 

The situation forced Toruño to rebalance her finances, making it harder for her to pay her bills and send money to her family. As a working artist, whose team is often just herself, she said the situation wasn’t worth her time. 

“I just thought that the whole thing was a shit show,” Toruño said. “I was just like, ‘What’s happening?’ I’ve never had a university experience like this before.”

Administrative Problems

The Women’s Center first contacted Toruño in November 2019 to book her for its annual speaker series. The center’s professional staff and student interns were interested in Toruño’s work, which focuses on amplifying Brown, queer and other marginalized voices. 

But about a week before the event, the center’s director, Colleen Rice, realized there were problems with Toruño’s paperwork and event payment. 

After conversations with administrative higher-ups and long bouts of what Rice described as confusing paperwork and procedural training, the center was unable to pay Toruño. Rice texted Toruño on Jan. 22 to cancel the Jan. 23 event. Three days earlier, Rice had emailed Toruño that the center could guarantee her an honorarium payment for her speaking event.

Rice, who supervised and personally managed Toruño’s booking along with other resource center (RC) employees, took responsibility for not fully understanding the university’s policies in a Jan. 22 text to Toruño. Rice emphasized to City on a Hill Press (CHP) that the center’s student interns were not involved in the event’s management. 

The day of the event’s cancellation, Toruño put out her own statement on “The “Unapologetically Brown Series” Instagram page expressing her frustration with the university.

“I needed to be honest with the students because they should know about what’s happening on their campus,” Toruño told CHP. “Especially because I started to get that when the undocumented community of UCSC has been on strike, has been protesting, has been having conflict with the institution, I felt this was another blow, like disrespect toward that body of people.”

The Women’s Center contacted Toruño in November and paperwork wasn’t sent to her until Jan. 10. By Jan. 17, Rice said she realized Toruño would need to send the center an employment authorization document. In a Jan. 14 email to RC staff, Toruño said she wouldn’t be able to provide the document because she lost hers and didn’t want to pay the $410 fee required to replace it. Rice then called university financial affairs employees and her supervisor, managing director for UCSC’s RCs Nancy Kim, to attempt to solve the issue.

“Part of the problem is that there was a lot of confusion, and continues to be a lot of confusion, on processes, both within our unit and then within the larger financial processes,” Rice said. “We’re also still trying to determine internally, so within our unit and within the institution, of what is the correct type of payment to be made.” 

Rice added that her inexperience with full event planning at UCSC added to the “confusion” and “complexity” of the problem. This was the first event she managed from beginning to end, she said. Most events are organized by student program coordinators and other center staff and volunteers. 

Poet and activist Yesika Salgado, who the Women’s Center booked as a speaker for its Jan. 24 “EmpowHXR” series kickoff, cancelled her event in response to the center’s handling of Toruño’s event. 

“Seeing the way things have unfolded, I decided I cannot be a part of events that have done a disservice to [the university’s] undocumented student body,” Salgado wrote in her Jan. 23 Instagram post. 

Women’s Center Going Forward 

Throughout the situation, the Women’s Center and managing director for UCSC’s resource centers (RCs), Nancy Kim, offered Toruño various substitutes for the unfulfilled payment, like buying merchandise from Toruño’s online store and gifting Toruño high-priced items and gift cards.

“I don’t need a high budget item […] I need to pay my bills,” Toruño said.

As a result of the event mismanagement, all of UCSC’s RCs — the university’s four ethnic RCs, the Cantú Queer Center and the Women’s Center — will be undergoing an internal review of management and procedural policies, according to Rice and Kim. 

Kim added that the university is still communicating with Toruño about what happened. 

“The situation hasn’t been dropped,” Kim said. “We’re still working on figuring out some restorative process, and we’ve been in communication with Johanna Toruño.” 

Kim said she could not give details about the process because it’s ongoing.