Breakout Princeton recently hosted a small and intimate conversation with Jael Kerandi, a person whose mission is no small thing. Kerandi, a senior at the University of Minnesota, spearheaded a movement as student body president to defund and cut ties between the university and Minnesota police department at the time of George Floyd’s death (which occurred only 15 minutes from the school’s campus). Not only was this movement a success, but it inspired other schools to follow suit and student-led movements to take place across the nation at campuses from University of California, Berkeley to the University of Chicago.
In her talk on March 20, Kerandi shared the history of student-led movements, her own story as a student leader enacting national change, and her advice for how to be an effective advocate. Kerandi’s presentation, titled “No Middle Ground: The Importance of Student Leaders as Activists and Agents of Change,” began with paying homage to some original student activists. She relayed the timeline of student-led activism from 1923 when college students at Florida A&M University forced their segregationist president to resign, to the Children’s March of 1963, when more than 4000 African American schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama secretly coordinated a mass walkout in support of civil rights.
“What does this tell us?” Kerandi asked. “[That] education is no exception. The issues that affect us outside of our university walls penetrate our walls… the administration at these institutions don’t get to be exempt from accountability.”
Kerandi sees her own story as one of bringing this accountability to the administration of her institution. As a child, she always found herself drawn to student leadership and continually tried out for student council through elementary to high school, finally winning in high school and finding she was right to be passionate about it. “I was passionate about student advocacy, about changing things, and I knew that was what I was meant to do so I kept trying,” she said. “The door might be closed ten times, but on the eleventh it could open, so keep trying.”
Once in college she continued to work hard to be involved in student decision making, eventually becoming the University of Minnesota’s first Black student body president, with a constituency of more than 30,000 students. After the killing of George Floyd by police, which occured in the very same city as where the University of Minnesota resides, Kerandi wanted to do something to show Black students that they are valued at the university and that a strong stand against institutional racism would be made.
She wrote a letter to the school administration, in part which read: “The police are murdering Black men with no meaningful repercussions. This is not a problem of some other place or some other time. This is happening right here in Minneapolis...statements professing appreciation of diversity and inclusion are empty and worthless if they are not backed up by action.” These words invoked action on the part of the University, which did cut ties with the police force thanks to the work of Kerandi and other student advocates. She saw something she could not accept, and so decided she would work as hard as she could to change it, following after the famous quote from activist Angela Davis.
Kerandi also had the attendees of the meeting do a short activity in which they took two minutes to write down something they themselves could not accept and wish to change, and how they might go about enacting that change in their lives. She told the attendees to reflect on their answers and carry them with them in their work.
“Always advocate,” she said. “Whatever change you want to see, work toward it. And listen to your community, whatever leadership you may be in. And do so humbly, because when you walk into a room as an advocate you take thousands with you.” With that, Kerandi implored the meeting attendees to be advocates however and wherever they can, and the conversation ultimately showed how powerful student leadership and students themselves can be when working together toward a common goal.