Making up less than five percent of the undergraduate population, Black students are often left to create and maintain their own safe spaces with little help from UC Santa Cruz. 

That is why the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) and the Black Student Union (BSU) recently introduced a referendum to directly address the needs of Black students at  UCSC.

“This referendum is here to say: you deserve better. But also to get a feel of, where are you at? How do you feel about the university supporting you?” said Diamond Moore, second-year CUIP intern and Co-Chair for AATAT. “We’re feeling unsupported. But we want to know if we’re the only ones. Knowing that we’re not alone allows us to know how much more we need to support.”

The referendum, “Students for Sustaining Black Wellness,” focuses on securing funding for AATAT, staffing from the university, and its commitment to hiring more African, Black, and Caribbean (ABC) Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) counselors. It will also include a poll asking Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students to assess the university’s implementation of resources and assistance to students of color. 

Black organizations at UCSC have been known to advocate for change within the university and foster spaces for student voices to be heard despite being overlooked by the university. Their proposal directly addresses the consistent lack of cooperation from administration to provide Black students proper support and safe  spaces. 

August Stevens, third-year and Production Coordinator for the Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center (CAD) and AATAT President, described the mounting frustration from the Black student community stemming from university  inaction. 

“We’re the ones that have to support each other and create the programs themselves,” said Stevens. “The university cares a lot more about  appearance.”

Funding for AATAT

As the only African American student theater arts troupe in the UC system, AATAT has served as not only a place of artistic expression, but as a platform for Black life, emotion, and healing. Diamond Moore emphasizes the cathartic nature of Black theater which Don Williams, the program’s director, calls a form of  therapy. 

Despite being an important outlet for Black student expression, AATAT is no stranger to financial struggles, dealing with tight budgets and threats of being cut entirely since its inception in 1991.

A Timeline of Events:
2005: Williams receives termination letter, but keeps job after student protest.
2011: AATAT does not receive funding from University, but students decide to tax themselves to support groups under CAD.
2021: AATAT puts in request for funding to sustain its program via grant application.
2022: Funding request did not go through via the Mental Health Equity Grant.

In 2011, AATAT requested more funding, but did not receive direct aid from the university. Instead, Measure 49 was passed in campus elections, in which students voted to tax themselves a $5.25 increase in student fees per quarter to help sustain Cultural Arts and Diversity organizations, AATAT and Rainbow Theater. 

As a foundational healing space for many BIPOC students, AATAT recently applied for the Equity in Mental Health grant from the university in the near-end of 2021, which they were unable to secure. This grant is meant to reduce systemic barriers in order to give underrepresented students an equal chance at wellness, and is based on who the administration judges to be in the most need of help on campus.

Losing out on the grant catalyzed the necessity for the referendum. AATAT’s requests are to acquire more funds to sustain being a space that promotes Black wellness and health.

Mental Health Services for Black Students

 A Timeline of Events:
2010: Demands for more Black counselors from A/BSA (BSU’S previous name) go unanswered.
2017: Reclamation of Kerr Hall.
2019: Jackie Rabouin hired.
2020: BSU puts out new demands following the murder of George Floyd, including a request to hire more ABC identifying counselors.
2021: University gives support to critical race & ethnic studies.
2022: BSU awaits university action on request for more ABC identifying counselors.

The BSU has faced similar unresponsiveness from the university, reflected in unanswered demands for more ABC counselors in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic and during the protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Xaul Starr, also known as X, fourth-year and BSU President, spoke of the emotional impact on Black students when mental health resources are not properly provided by the university. 

“You’re existing in a non-Black space, you’re existing in a non-Black school, you’re existing in a space where you are the minority of the minority,” said Starr. “I have to have my mental health up straight just to exist, to get up in the morning and do all that. You can not be doing that to yourself every day. At some point, something’s got to give.”

There are 17 CAPS counselors for a population of 17,864 undergraduate students. 

Currently, there is only one Black counselor employed at the university— Jackie Rabouin, who was hired in 2019. For a meeting with Rabouin, many Black students often have to wait up to two weeks for an appointment. 

The importance of having Black counselors and the burnout Black students face when they are not provided this service are two intertwined realities. August Stevens spoke on the erasure of the complexities of Black experiences when meeting with non-Black  counselors. 

“It’s easy to come into [counseling sessions] without having to justify or explain your existence, which unfortunately happens a lot of the time,” Stevens said.

The importance of diversity in counselors is a facet that Ethan Davis, fourth-year and BSU treasurer, underscores as a vital part of campus mental health services for students. 

“Not every therapist is going to be right for you, which is why it’s important to have choice,” said Davis. “In addition to that, therapists that are Black help students of all identities, so it helps Black students to have a person who looks exactly like them, but it’s also important to realize that this will help everybody else.”

Aside from calls for better mental health services, other BSU demands have gone unnoticed by the university. Stable Black housing, representative faculty, and programs such as the creation of a Black studies major have been ignored by the university for years. For changes that have occurred on campus, Starr notes that POC student activism is often their impetus.

“Everything you see that operates has been from student activism,” said Starr. “It has been from Black students. It has been from POC students using their voices, their bodies, and their  labor.”

Looking Ahead to Elections 

As the election process for student government begins on April 18, students will get a chance to vote to create substantial policy-oriented change for Black students. It also offers a chance for administration to act on campus needs with the collaboration of student organizations. 

In order for the referendum to be passed, the measure must have at least a 66 percent approval rate with a turnout of 25 percent or greater. This requires student attendance, and can set a paradigm for students to work together to fight for necessary support and resources. 

Moore underscores the power of student voices in creating far-reaching change on campus. “Your voice matters. Do not just be happy to not be content when you notice that something is not okay — speak up. This space is yours.”