Student Advocacy and Activism Highlighted at the #SpeechMatters Conference

Arts and CultureEvents on CampusNews

Written by:

The third annual #Speech Matters conference, hosted by the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, took place on April 20th and 21st. The conference aimed to tackle topics that are exceedingly relevant, including communication during the COVID-19 pandemic and student activism and advocacy. The two-day event invited speakers from all over the country, including scholars, students, and advocates, to discuss and share their expertise and experience.

The first day was centered around truth and information, beginning with a discussion, moderated by UC President Michael Drake, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the Secretary of California Health and Human Services, and Pien Huang, a NPR health reporter. This was followed by a panel of experts in the field of digital disinformation: Renee DiResta, Alice Marwick, and Ebonee Rice, as they discussed their own cutting-edge projects and how to resist and challenge fake news, false narratives, and algorithmic biases. The final speaker, Keith Whittington, spoke about his experience as the founder of the Academic Freedom Alliance, and the importance of protecting the free speech rights of faculty in higher education.

Throughout the day, many speakers emphasized the unique position that higher education, and specifically the UC system, holds in national conversation on free speech. Michelle Deutchman, the Executive Director for the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, noted “Ideally, college campuses should be places where people feel free to experiment in terms of their thinking and ideas and try out different points of view. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that higher education is living up to that idea for lots of different reasons, including cancel culture, hyperpolarization, and lack of faith in higher education.” Deutchman also remarked that education and service are two of the UC system’s core values, and that “it’s wonderful that the UC system, as one of the greatest public systems in the world, is dedicating time, resources and energy toward thinking about these issues. Not just in a reactive way, but in a proactive and scholarly way.”

The second day saw a focus on student advocacy and activism, including a panel of student advocates from across the UC system. Syreeta Nolan, a senior at UC San Diego, was one of the advocates invited. Nolan is a disability advocate and has done extensive work on building resources and combating ableism both on and off campus. As a disabled person herself, Nolan strongly believes in representation from within the disabled community. Nolan asserts, “Disabled students don’t get the same platforms that abled students do. We’re spoken for, but we’re not able to speak for ourselves. We’re not able to engage, and talk about what it means to be disabled in higher education and the barriers that we face. There’s a lot of toxicity around ableism, and if we never name it, if we never talk about what we experience, then no one ever knows what we’re experiencing.”

Nolan further emphasizes the importance of representation for disabled students in higher education with daunting statistics. “About 26% of our population is considered disabled, and then you have 19% in undergraduates, but then you have a steep drop off: 8% of Masters students are disabled, 7% PhD students, and that drops all the way to 3.6% for disabled tenured faculty.”

Nolan is just one woman, but she is intent on using her voice. “I felt that Speech Matters was a great opportunity to publicly express, in that forum of free speech, what we experience. I was fielding so many questions in the Q & A and it was wonderful to see so many people engage in what it means for disability to be seen as a valued aspect of diversity and allyship to the disability community.”

This conference is just one of many projects that the Center takes on; the Center also hosts monthly webinars, a national fellowship, and the Voice Initiative, an UC-specific fellowship. The Voice Initiative offers a 5000 dollar stipend for students, staff, and faculty working to promote the mission of the UC Center. You can also view the recordings and transcript from the conference here.

For those interested in Nolan’s work in bringing a Disability Cultural Center to UCSD, she encourages you to fill out this survey here or check out her article here.

Deutchman strongly believes in the importance of facilitating discussions such as Speech Matters, explaining that “In order to create the campus and society we want, everyone has a responsibility to use their voice.”

Emily Zou is a Staff Writer for The Triton.

The headline of this piece was updated on 6/4/21 at 2:23 p.m. from “UCSD Hosts Panel on Student Advocacy and Activism” to “Student Advocacy and Activism Highlighted at the #SpeechMatters Conference” to clarify that the panel was promoted by UCSD but hosted by SpeachMatters.