Tecle Gebremichael traveled from northern Ethiopia to take refuge in the United States seven years ago. Gebremichael came to Boise after living in a refugee camp for eight years in Ethiopia. After touring Boise State early on, he knew he would one day graduate from the university, despite having little formal education during his adolescence spent in the camp.
Today, Gebremichael has nearly achieved that dream and will graduate from Boise State this May with a degree in political science. Though he has his sights set on a new goal; Gebremichael is running for Boise city council.
“This is the first time that a former refugee African American is running for city council in Boise’s history,” Gebremichael said. “Something happens when there is no representation. Something happens when everybody on the board is pretty much from one community, or everybody is a white American.”
Gebremichael is a member of a growing group of Boise State students and faculty who are beginning to bring new concerns to the front of the community’s political conversations. Their fight to be heard is met with continual backlash and resistance. For some, activism is a word of empowerment that connotes an act of continually fighting for change despite oppressive systems. However, by using their unique talents and specializations, each person contributes to their cause distinctly.
Each activist struggles against institutions that were not designed to include them, such as the university or the legislature. Activists see problems in society and pair up with other similarly-minded people in striving to fix them.
Legitimizing refugee experience
Gebremichael relies on a team of people who also believe in minority representation in order to run a successful campaign. Running for city council is in many ways a case study in how people take action for change by getting their voices heard. However, Gebremichael’s experience is dually a case study of the extreme resistance homogenous institutions offer in response to minoritized people who are trying to be heard and take part in the larger community.
“The picture that we always talk about Boise, the welcoming community, Boise [being]one of the most diverse and inclusive communities – that needs to be in action, that needs to be [a]reality,” Gebremichael said. “I would bring the whole new American and the whole religious, working-class community that’s never been involved in the local elections.”
The image of Boise as a welcoming and inclusive community is spread across Boise State as well. Although, Gebremichael said the university has significant work to do regarding minoritized communities, particularly Boise’s large refugee community on campus.
“Boise State is not really such a diverse or inclusive school. [In] a lot of the classes I took, I was the only [person of color]in the class. A lot of that is that a lot of students have never had an opportunity to work with a [person of color]or a refugee.” Gebremichael said. “It’s really about educating and engaging new Americans so [students]know our story and we know their story.”
Unlearning colonial mindsets
Dr. Reshmi Mukherjee, professor of English and gender studies, similarly emphasizes that refugees are rarely given the platform, no matter where they are from, to tell their story as anything other than a victim. Mukherjee has faced extreme resistance and ignorance both at the bureaucratic and classroom level.
“As I talk to some of the Bhutanese refugees who come here, one thing I realize is that they were a little discomforted by the kind of hospitality that they were getting. Many of them told me ‘They want us to be an ethical refugee, this model refugee who has to be always grateful,’” Mukherjee said.
Mukherjee said that through interacting with many non-refugee members of the Boise community, she found that their conceptualization of refugees was often taken out of dehumanizing pity, not empathy.
“I designed a course called ‘Refugee/Non-Refugee Communication,’ and many students that initially took this class would only talk about the refugee and that they felt sorry for them,” Mukherjee said. “It really had nothing to do with the refugees, it really had to do with deconstructing the word refugee and what we mean by it. We’re not really building up any productive communication. The image of the refugee is either a victim or a threat.”
Mukherjee believes teaching is a type of activism in and of itself. She concentrates on teaching students how to process knowledge in all of her classes, which she said is different than simply educating someone on a topic.
“I have been accused of running an agenda, I have been accused of a lot of stuff, but the ideological position that I take, and I feel very strongly about, is teaching in advocacy. Activism shouldn’t be charity,” Mukherjee said. “In our class, we talk a lot about empathy without pity.”
Activists at Boise State, such as Mukherjee, concentrate on why the systems stay in place, and how people not involved with these marginalized communities can come to recognize non-white experiences as legitimate.
Similarly Maricela Deveney, a junior studying health sciences, is concentrated on activism in the Latinx community. Her involvement with Movimento Estudantil Progressive Action (MEPA) specifically concentrates on advancing Latinx students. Deveney said that MEPA is very focused on self-care for student organizers and ensuring that, even though they push members to be active, they also know how to stay healthy and confident.
“I think a strong aspect of connecting with people is through storytelling, but each time you open up, a piece leaves with that story. So if you’re constantly doing that, unless you’re compensating yourself or being compensated by others, it’s definitely just draining,” Deveney said.
MEPA recently teamed up with PODER (Protecting Our Dreams and Empowering Resilience), an organization not associated with Boise State. They strive to educate students on Manejando Sin Miedo, a movement to push legislation for undocumented people in Idaho to be able to obtain a driver’s license.
“We’ve done researching political candidates where ten members showed up, and they were researching the political candidates and who they’d vote for,” Deveney said. “And they really understood in this election who they’ll vote for versus just showing up and putting down whatever based on name, or random things.”
Resilience in the face of adversity
Just as Deveney recognizes that self-care is necessary to be an effective activist, Rep. Melissa Wintrow, gender studies facilitator at Boise State, has learned that by seeing one’s own worth, a person can become a valuable member of the community. For Wintrow, it is necessary to constantly recognize her values in an environment that is almost holistically against the progress she seeks and the people she tries to uplift.
“In the grander scheme of things, the issues that I value are not equally valued by most of the members. So, how do I constantly try to convince them that this is the right thing? With sexual assault legislation, the general culture, even juries, have a lot of bias against victims of assault that we have to get at. I understand it, but at the same time I get tired of it,” said Wintrow.
Wintrow noted that working in a predominantly white, male environment is an extreme challenge for women and all people who do not rule under that hegemonic power structure.
“The hardest thing is how do you not lose your voice in all of that, how do you not lose your absolute essence in trying to massage politics to get what your constituents need and want,” Wintrow concluded.
Pushback is a characteristic experience in an activist’s life, and Wintrow’s gridlocked experience at the statehouse is an example. However, a growing group of Boise State faculty and students are standing up for ideas and problems that they see in their communities. By combining their academic knowledge with activism, these people are reinforcing their causes with unique elements intended to empower and inspire.
As Boise State continues to grow, and as the Treasure Valley continues to fill, Boise is being forced to confront issues that the more homogenous, small-town mentality of days past could eschew. Through the work of activists such as Gebremichael, Mukherjee, Deveney and Wintrow, marginalized members of the community are beginning to have a voice and take part in their rightful place in the Boise community.