By Published: Nov. 10, 2020

Olivia Pearman

Listen to recording: 

Dear white CU alums,

Black Lives Matter at CU. Black voices are the ones that matter in this conversation. Black voices are telling us they are not safe here. That means white people, who enjoy the privileges of whiteness, such as feeling safe where we live, work and play, have a responsibility to demand safety for Black bodies. 

My first piece of advice: If you reached this essay first, go and read the essays from Black students, faculty and staff. If you have read those, go back and read them again. Fully absorb and take in their stories before reading this letter.

I am a white graduate student at CU Boulder. I write to you as someone trying to advocate for Black communities at CU. I am not writing to convince you to advocate for Black lives. If you care about Black lives at CU (and everywhere), then the best advice I could give you, white alums, is to recognize and accept that nothing you can do will ever be “enough.” That might feel harsh and disheartening — but hear me out. It is also liberating. 

If you can never do enough, stop asking, when will I meet my quota for allyship? And, instead, ask: “What can I do? And how can I increase my capacity to do more?”

Black Lives Matter at CU. Black voices are the ones that matter in this conversation. Black voices are telling us they are not safe here.

You’ve been traveling on a path — your life path. You’ve chosen what that path looks like and where it goes. You’ve always aimed for goalposts along the way indicating you've achieved something. Earning a degree or landing an internship are important goalposts for many people. Advocating for justice, for Black lives, is different: There are no goalposts. There is personal work to be done. There is community alignment. There is advocacy and activism. 

Since there are no goalposts, on this journey you must shift the direction of the path. It is about aiming your life in an altogether different direction than you otherwise would have gone. Yes, this is a big task. But instead of starting a million miles away from an imaginary goalpost in an impossible race, every step you take on your new path creates a meaningful shift in a new direction.

Black Lives Matter is a movement to dismantle race-based oppression. Dismantling oppression is not a goalpost — it is a vision for the future. Changing the direction of your journey supports that vision. 

My second piece of advice: Accept that you will be uncomfortable and that you will make mistakes along this journey. If you accept that mistakes are inevitable, you will stop fearing them and start learning from them.

Advocating for Black communities at CU means listening to Black students, staff, faculty and alumni voices. Advocating means researching and creating ways to make CU safer by removing threats to Black students, faculty and staff and removing barriers for Black people to attend CU. Pay attention to BIPOC-led groups like the Black Student Alliance or DiversifyCUBoulderNOW which is an ad-hoc group of mostly white people trying to amplify BIPOC voices at CU. 

It may seem contradictory, as a white person, to write a personal essay about a movement that is precisely about centering Black people. And yet, it is a movement that requires me, and other white people, to take action, to take responsibility and to do work. 

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No one should be afraid to exist anywhere, especially not on a college campus. Black students, faculty and staff do not feel safe, are not safe, at CU because of systemic and institutional racism, and because of individual biases and prejudices. This is wrong. We can change it.

Olivia Pearman (PhDEnvSt'22) is someone on a journey with a long way to go as well as a doctoral student in the Environmental Studies program. She is focused on how individuals' beliefs, values and worldviews influence institutional and organizational decision making.

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Photos by Matt Tyrie