Thảo Lê, DeAnza Student Government Leader, on Developing a Social Justice Language
Growing up, Thảo Lê recognized injustice when she saw it, but in high school, she didn’t always have the words to describe it. “I come from a working class family and a middle class neighborhood, but I went to a high school in a different neighborhood. I didn’t care too much about anything related to social change,” she admitted. That high school was about 80-90% Asian American. At first, Thảo was into what she called the “model minority myth,” associated with Asian American families, or the belief that certain minority groups are predisposed to achieve a certain level of socioeconomic success. “It promotes social mobility built upon white supremacy and exploitative capitalism by urging Asian Americans to be not civically engaged and to be anti-black,” Thảo explained further.
Her introduction to social change work, paradoxically, came about as a result of this pressure to achieve success. “My high school was so competitive I had a mental breakdown,” Thảo said. “I saw these injustices around education and mental health but had no way to talk about it because I did not know what to call it.”
“I was able to understand and process what’s going on, have the language to talk about it, and know that I can connect with other to do something.”
That would change Thảo’s freshman year at De Anza, when she decided to sign up for Cynthia Kaufman’s “Critical Consciousness and Social Change” class. “It looked interesting. I was a little scared and thought it might be too intense but I fell in love with the ideas.” She was inspired by what she was learning, so when other students in the class told her about the Leadership and Social Change (LSC) Certificate Program, she decided to enroll.
“Through the Certificate program, I learned about oppression and how to organize,” Thao said, reflecting on her experiences. “I was able to understand and process what’s going on, have the language to talk about it, and know that I can connect with others to do something. The people in the Certificate are my family at De Anza.”
Soon, Thảo was bringing what she was learning in the LSC Certificate program to her role on the De Anza Associated Student Body (DASB), where she served as a member of the Finance Committee. “We brought more attention to equity issues,” Thảo explained of how her experiences with the LSC Certificate affected her role in student government. “[We’ve made] sure programs are funded equitably and [are] targeting money to different communities.”
For example, Thao notes that, previously, the Finance Committee would have one single meeting where every program that hoped to receive funding would have just two minutes to make their case before the Committee’s members. This year, with an eye towards equity, the Committee decided to revamp the process.
“We decided to visit every school program and actually talk to them before making decisions,” Thảo said. “We wanted to really see how much the program affects students and what direction it’s growing in. We’re also funding student-led advocacy and organizing campaigns. A lot of people don’t think that’s as important as other things like tutoring programs, but when we let students organize, the impact they make is massive. “For example, look at the minimum wage campaign or Campus Camp Wellstone,” she said, noting two successful student organizing projects.
“A lot of people don’t think [student advocacy] is as important as other things like tutoring programs, but when we let students organize, the impact they make is massive.”
Thảo hopes that the new perspective on social justice that she and other students have helped bring to De Anza’s student government will be a long lasting one. “We’re making sure we build institutional memory.” Thảo said. “It’s only recently that we have students who have this connection between student government and social justice so one of the things we’ve been trying to do is to record down what we are doing, the changes we’re making, and why we are making them so that it can be passed on.”
Thảo continues to find new arenas to apply her organizing skills. “I’ve been a student organizer for the Renters’ Rights Coalition of Silicon Valley and a lead organizer for De Anza Students for Bernie Sanders,” she explained. Thao will also represent Community Learning Partnership and De Anza on a webinar with the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) on June 13th, talking about how youth organizers who work with high school students can connect with community colleges and CC students. (Check FCYO for a link to register!)
Though she is not entirely sure what comes next for her, she says she will most likely attend UCSC with a community students major in the Fall. Regardless, Thảo feels confident in whatever the future brings, given her new social change work. “With all the experiences I’ve had, I feel like no matter where I transfer to or what happens next, I’ll be OK,” Thảo said. “I’ll find a community of people who will take me in and, if not, I’ll find others to build it with. Right now I’m doing work with renters’ rights in San Jose and I’m learning a lot from that. I’m getting interested in going to law school and being an attorney for the people and doing community organizing.”