Refilwe Gqajela has a second home in the Oakland Public Library System.
For Gqajela, the impact of libraries and the resources they provided her hometown of Oakland are crucial to her understanding of what it means to be rooted in community. It was in the Oakland Public Library System that Gqajela got her introduction to student organizing, working with other students and bringing local policy makers like now-Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf into student meetings to hold them accountable.
“Being able to do advocacy work at that level is something that, coming into college, I couldn’t just come here and go to class,” she said.
Now in her junior year at UCSD, Gqajela is running for Vice President of External Affairs on Students Determined, a slate of self-described progressive student voices, for the 2017-18 Associated Students election.
A Global Health major with an Ethnic Studies minor, Gqajela is running on platforms including empowering students through outreach and transparency, critically evaluating UC divestment, improving mental health resource accessibility, and advocating for sanctuary policies throughout the UC.
If elected, she wants to work to encourage more UC-wide conversation through groups like the UC Student Association (the official organizing body of UC students).
Gqajela plans to try to decrease the “deficit of resources and knowledge between the UC’s.” More specifically, she expressed concern that crucial policies at all of the UC campuses are implemented in drastically different ways. She referenced disparities between food pantries and resource centers across the UC, as well as varied commitments to inclusive language. In addition to this, she also believes that UCSD has unique features that other campuses could learn from.
“SAAC [Student Affirmative Action Committee] in particular is something unique to UCSD. The fact that our BSU, our MeCHA, and our KP… all of these orgs come together and work together… that’s not true at other UC’s,” she said.
On campus, Gqajela plans to focus her efforts in making sure that student leaders across campus stay informed. She believes that continuing the work of current Vice President External Nicolas Monteiro by actively engaging with SAAC is crucial to creating more informed campus. Although in years past she believed students were simply apathetic about using resources, she now believes that there is simply a problem of outreach.
“I’ve come to learn that it wasn’t necessarily apathy, but understanding and knowing what the resources are,” she said.
Gqajela has been a part of the Black Student Union since arriving on campus, serving as initially on the BSU Retention Committee, then joining the BSU Board as Traditions Coordinator, and now serving as BSU Chair.
BSU at UCSD exists as one chapter of the larger Afrikan Black Coalition, which represents Black students in the throughout the UC and CSU system, as well as some of the Claremont Colleges. As a part of ABC’s Central Committee, Gqajela voted for the organization to advocate that the UC divest from Wells Fargo over its ties to the private prison system. After repeated criticism, the UC terminated $475 million in contracts with Wells Fargo in 2017. Gqajela pointed to this work as a template for tangible action and said this is how she would hold UCOP accountable for their investments.
Gqajela also plans to advocate for more resources and more CAPS counselors, as well as for a clearer sense of what resources are available to students. She believes that although UCSA’s #HowAreYou Campaign, a UC-wide effort that attempted to raise awareness about the state of mental health resources on campus, is over, advocacy work for mental health care does not need to end on campus.
“I’m not sure if I have many neurotypical friends who aren’t dealing with some mental health issues on some level,” she said. Gqajela expressed concern that students could be dealing with anything from lifelong trauma to testing anxiety and that adequate mental health resources are crucial to them being able to function as a student.
As an RA in Sixth College and a part of the Immigrant Youth Coalition, Gqajela believes that we need to have a conversation around what it means for Residential Life facilities and RA staff to interact with ICE in the future.
“When we talk about sanctuary campuses, I’d like to look at that that from a very holistic perspective,” said Gqajela. “I’m a Black undocumented student. So getting rid of ICE is great, but if police are still on campus, this isn’t necessarily a sanctuary campus for me still,” she said. Although she lived in Oakland for most of her life, Gqajela was born in South Africa and came to the U.S. when she was three.
While she intends to work at the state level on advocating for student-focused legislation Gqajela finds more value in student organizing and advocacy.
“Policy is great. But policy is long term and there’s always an if, and, or but attached,” she said referencing California Senate Bill 54, the “Sanctuary State Bill,” which was recently amended several times to notify the federal government before the release of an undocumented immigrant with a serious or violent felony conviction.
Ultimately, Gqajela aims to continue the same organizing work she has been doing since high school, with the Office of External as a larger platform to empower others.
“This isn’t a matter of I’ve decided my career path. This is a natural progression of the work that I’ve done and who I am as a person; to be able to use a larger platform to be able to support other students.”
The 2017-18 AS elections are scheduled for April 10 through 14. Polling stations and online voting will close Friday at 4 p.m.
Gabriel Schneider is the Editor-in-Chief of The Triton.