By: Anindita Gupta, Peak Associate
Correction notice: One paragraph was removed due to concerns expressed by an external organization who had previously been mentioned in the piece.
The Rotunda has been home to numerous equity groups over the years. SOCA, Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry, is just one amongst many.
Having been located in a cozy corner of the Rotunda since 1997, they, like the other Rotunda groups, are being told to vacate the premises by December 14, in light of the SFSS soon surrendering the Rotunda in favour of the Student Union Building .
The president and vice-president of SOCA spoke to The Peak about how they began their journey with SOCA, what SOCA is about, how important the space of SOCA is, and finally, how an eviction notice from the SFSS has left them stumped.
Meet Giovanni and Travis
SOCA’s president is Giovanni Hosang, a third-year student of Jamaican descent studying computer science. Accompanying him on the executive team is SOCA’s vice president, Travis Friday, who hails from Grenada and is a fourth-year computer engineering student. But what they really want to talk about is SOCA itself.
They began their journey as executive members of this association in the spring of 2016, but evoked SOCA’s long-standing history at SFU. Originally founded in 1994 as the Black Students Association, the group changed its name multiple times. After cycling through titles such as Association for Students of African Descent and African-Caribbean Heritage Students Association, they ultimately landed upon their current title.
Their current paradigm is that of a club, but they are more than just that.
“We serve as a safe space for Black students and allies who wish to learn more of what the Black experience is,” says Hosang. For him SOCA is: “A resource centre, a culture hub, as well as just a safe space. We have been located in the Rotunda since 1997, just trying to make persons feel at home, feel as if they belong, and provide the support we got when we came here.”
Hosang recalls getting involved with SOCA when a past executive heard him speaking to his mother on the phone, using local Jamaican terms and slang.
“I have a thick Jamaican accent, as you can hear,” he says. “She got us to involve [ourselves] with the group and I volunteered ever since, and ended up being executive a year after.” Friday started at approximately the same time, and recalls a big meeting in the Highland Pub where the executives at the time explained to him what SOCA was and where it came from.
“They looked at us like we’re young and vibrant and we can definitely carry the torch and we’re definitely interested in that too, so we’re just grateful to have the opportunity and we went forward with it,” Friday says.
After the SFSS voiced their intention not to provide space to this group in the new Students Union Building (SUB), the group has taken to its members and supporters to make their voices heard to the executives of the SFSS. With at least 400 members, SOCA executives are certain that they will find themselves a space in the new SUB and that the SFSS will see the need for it.
What’s the need for a real office space, you ask?
SOCA is about inclusion, representation, social justice, and community building, Friday explains. These four organizational values are important to provide a safe space for students of a minority.
“There’s something about the Black experience that makes it necessary to have a community; the fact that you don’t feel as if you belong here, the institutional pressures that are with you . . . you are connecting with people who have similar experiences, so you can share without condemnation, without judgement from the outside society, per se,” Hosang says.
Here is where they meet others who would understand and relate to some of the difficulties they may be facing. Hosang jokes that at the start of every semester, the most common sentiment amongst them is “oh crap, I’m the only Black guy in class!”
Jokes aside, their space in the Rotunda provides a home on campus for Black students to feel comfortable in their own skin. It is a space where other members are the support mechanism away from oppression and marginalization, where complex conversations are had, and where people are educated on various engaging topics.
Their current space in the Rotunda is a place where Black students are welcome to share with each other any positive or negative experiences they may have faced at work, during class, or any other aspect of life. Their space is also very well used; it is the ground to various serious discussions, meetings, conferences, and historically relevant movie marathons, such as their recent Nelson Mandela movie marathon.
Marathons such as these are often followed by serious discussion topics; in this case, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and the political condition of South Africa. They have had conversations with engaging individuals, such as their previous president, Lama Mugabo, about the Rwandan genocide, the housing crisis for the community in Vancouver and the U.S.A.
I was unaware of the intellectual events SOCA hosts — I had only ever seen posters advertising beach parties and carnivals — but SOCA holds some very serious discussions on their regular Discussion Wednesdays.
Some of their other, more community-intensive events include conferences around women in politics, cultural diaspora nights, and many other discussion events where intensive discussions are had around pressing sociopolitical injustices and issues.
Aside from this, SOCA knows how to throw fun events, like their “Catch Ah Vyb”’ icebreaker (a talent night), and the Final Fete they hold at the end of every semester! But, even their “fun” events have a deep-rooted history and “an element of seriousness,” Hosang says, holding significance to the history and struggle of African and Caribbean peoples.
For example, J’ouvert is a festival that originated from Grenada, where you paint yourself in colours mixed in oil — which ties back to how slaves would cover themselves in camouflage, to hide from their masters. SOCA also engages in fundraising, one example being in the wake of the 2012 earthquake in Haiti.
The threat of eviction
Even though they are active and engaged in the SFU community, SOCA received an eviction notice on April 9 of this year. Shocked with the notice, they arranged meetings with the SFSS to discuss the situation and look for solutions, but to no avail. According to its president, SOCA is now preparing “emotionally for this fight, to get ready and push back, to enable us to continue having our space.”
The members of SOCA feel that SFSS needs to take action and be more attentive towards the equity-seeking groups and communities of SFU.
“The SFSS needs to sort out the internal drama specifically with each other,” Hosang said. “And also, stuff like this should not be so political, because one, you should see the need for a group like this and a space like this, so it doesn’t have to go to that breadth. SFSS should take leadership in recognizing that equity-seeking groups [should be] housed in the new students union building.”
The SFSS must mend their tainted relationships with these groups, hear their concerns and voices, and see the need to provide spaces to them in the new Students Union Building. Now, SOCA is looking to their followers, their members, and all the students of SFU to sign their petition to save SOCA from losing space entirely.
“Go to the SFSS! Talk to them about the issues and ensure that they understand that as a minority group on campus, we need specific allocations and protections from the institutional frameworks that render us invisible,” urges Hosang.
However negative their experience with the SFSS has been thus far, SOCA believes that they will be able to strike a chord with them, repair the relationship, and get themselves a new space where they can continue to act as the safe space they have been for the past 24 years.
Students should be especially concerned about the loss of SOCA, regardless of ancestry, because of what this eviction would signal. As Hosang puts it, “There’s something that happens with Black communities all around the world, and this is where new developments render communities of colour homeless. It’s just a pity, the same thing happened here in Vancouver when the viaduct ran through Hogan’s Alley . . . We have to fight back!”
Editor’s note: Since the time of this interview, SOCA has participated in an SFSS board meeting in which various Rotunda groups voiced their concerns regarding space in the Student Union Building. The SFSS highlighted the complexity of room allocation, and stood by the shared space model that had been discussed in the past. Hosang called the SFSS’ attitude towards space a “textbook example of institutionalized racism,” and called on this year’s board to act now. Because construction on the SUB is ongoing, the SFSS has expressed that they may be willing to renegotiate the subleases of the Rotunda groups.