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Students organize to change this year’s commencement speaker

Students have suggested Alicia Garza and others for Schaaf’s replacement. (Wikimedia Commons)
Students have suggested Alicia Garza and others for Schaaf’s replacement. (Wikimedia Commons)

Disappointed in the selection of Libby Schaaf, mayor of Oakland, as commencement speaker, a group of Mills students recently began organizing to bring in a different speaker.

A March press release on the Mills website announced that Schaaf would speak at the 127th commencement on May 16. Schaaf was elected mayor of Oakland in November of last year after running against candidate Rebecca Kaplan. Schaaf was inaugurated on Jan. 5. Before her time as mayor, Schaaf was a member of the Oakland City Council from 2011 to this year.

“In Mayor Schaaf’s various roles, she has demonstrated a commitment to the economic development of Oakland and has been a proponent for supporting local business,” said President Decoudreaux in a memorandum sent last month. “She is honored and excited to address our community and I know that she will be an inspirational speaker.”

However, on the Mills College Facebook group page, many Mills students and alumni/ae have discussed their issues with Schaaf.

Students expressed concern about Schaaf’s relationship with police. On Jan. 15, Schaaf spent her first day in office meeting with the Oakland Police Department (OPD) to help build “officer morale”, according to the Contra Costa Times. With OPD’s history with citizens, particularly with the deaths of Oscar Grant and Alan Blueford, students felt that Schaaf being chosen as this year’s commencement speaker would not be ideal.

Senior Tess Unger, creator of the Facebook post, immediately expressed anger once she found out that Schaaf would be speaking at the commencement ceremony. Unger has worked closely with the Blueford family in raising awareness in the Oakland community about Blueford’s death.

Unger did not like the idea of what Schaaf’s presence at the commencement ceremony would represent.

“We’re not liking the message it sends, and we want to keep electoral politics and big business out of the environment here because it’s not historically been about that,” Unger said.

After sparking dialogue for the senior class, Unger felt that organizing would work better as a collaborative effort between her and students.

“Everything works better collaboratively,” Unger said. “We’re always better than numbers, and as a white woman of relative privilege, I don’t know if I’m the right singular voice for this. It has to be collaborative.”

Senior Beck Levy also expressed outrage about Schaaf being chosen as speaker.

“I was saddened to receive the e-mail announcement that Mayor Libby Schaaf was to be our commencement speaker and outraged that she was described as a strong feminist role model,” Levy said in an email. “My feminism stands against the violence of policing and gentrification.”

Dean of Students Chicora Martin found out about these concerns after the Facebook post was forwarded to them by students and staff. Afterwards, Martin searched for students to meet with them to get more context. Martin also spoke to administration to learn more about the selection process for commencement speakers.

Several students have already suggested speakers to consider replacing Schaaf as the speaker. After an informal poll made by Levy, one of the proposed candidates is Alicia Garza, co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Other options the group have discussed are activists Diana BlockJanetta Johnson and B. Cole.

“They are all strong, anti-oppression, feminist role models and the Mills community would be better served by any of them speaking to our graduating class,” Levy said.

According to Senior Class President Mira Mason-Reader, class council requests nominations from the graduating class and sends the information to administration. The President’s Office then tries to reach the top candidates for commencement speaker; the speaker is then picked based on the responses.

Martin hopes to come to some sort of compromise or agreement between students and staff so that the graduating class can be appeased. Martin also expressed hope that this experience will help with choosing commencement speakers in the future. Martin has met with two students on Apr. 10 to discuss this matter. 

“I think that we need to talk about concerns and options [and] what that would look like,” Martin said. “I always think there is a way to talk through things and see how we can come with a compromise, process or at least for folks to feel heard because I feel that that is important.”