SAN FRANCISCO — Early on the morning of Tuesday, February 8 — the first day of the California College of the Arts (CCA) staff union’s four-day, unfair labor practice strike — I found myself on CCA’s San Francisco campus, filled with exhilaration and anxiety.
There was a general air of confusion among students as conflicting information from classroom conversations and union strike posters spread. The most detrimental narrative came from the administration. Days prior, the provost and vice president of student affairs had sent us an email saying the strike was “absolutely unnecessary” and “benefitting no one.” The language was tone-policing and condescending, painting strike participants as unreasonable.
The strike was the result of the CCA community feeling that there were no other avenues for urgent change. Like many, I was at the picket lines because I am tired and heartbroken that a college into which students have invested much care, energy, and passion would prioritize profit over people. It quickly became obvious that this sentiment was shared among us all. Amid all the anger, frustration, and sadness, the predominant emotion was the care we felt.
It was inspiring and humbling to participate in a movement that is both compassionate and constructive. This protest was beautiful; we used our own craft and creative responsibility as artists to advocate for social change. From stenciled shirts to embroidered banners, from hand-printed posters to cardboard sculptures — our strike was a creative act, supported by union members who empowered one another and uplifted each other’s voices.
CCA prides itself on being a progressive institution that encourages activism in students, who “make art that matters.” CCA asks students to abide by its “Creative Accord,” a “collective agreement [which] allows [the CCA community] to hold each other accountable.” It consists of four principles: Radical Responsibility, Think Beyond, Cultivate Creative Action, and Become chimeraMADE — meaning, contributing actively to being part of a creative community. These principles urge the CCA community to become “responsible creative citizens,” “apply critical curiosity,” “advocate for informed social change,” and “actively contribute.”
It is ironic that an institution that promises to nurture and empower students uses fear-mongering to discourage political advocacy. The administration spurned CCA’s professed values with its efforts to galvanize students against the ULP strike.
Instead, the people embodying these values were the participants holding the picket lines. Some of the most compassionate people I know were there: caring professors, hardworking staff, and dedicated student leaders. It was the strongest sense of community most of us had felt in years. Being in that space, it was clear how the strike was our collective push for a CCA that truly represented our values after years of our voices being dismissed, ignored, or addressed in a patronizing manner.
For students like me, our requests for policy changes included transparency around faculty, board, and administration demographics; as well as increased support for BIPOC students through the scholarship and grant process and for BIPOC faculty through the hiring and tenure processes. We also sought a higher standard of anti-racism, diversity, and decolonization for all course offerings. Staff and adjunct faculty had some of these same concerns; they also advocated for pay equity and transparency, living wages, and meaningful input in governance.
Now, after the board of trustees has received four reports, each eight pages long, about student challenges, and after sitting at the President’s Diversity Steering Group meetings and several listening sessions with the president, provost, and school deans, I and other members of the student council feel that nothing has improved. Through their inaction on all these appeals, the administration made the strike inevitable.
Administration members promised us that we would see the changes we wanted if we advocated for them according to their stipulations. Therefore, our complaints had suggestions and action items; our critiques were polite; our approach was optimistic and trusting.
Seeing constant conversations with the administration lead nowhere, students created their own support systems. In the summer of 2020, the Students of Color Coalition and BlackBrilliance created demands to address the racial injustice in our college. These initiatives are an outcome of students seeing the lack of resources and support at CCA. The burden was placed on students rather than the institution that promised to foster and nurture them.
We ended the last evening of the strike with Shabbat, a Jewish ritual where we began the process of rest. In a circle, we took a moment to remember the loved ones we’d lost during a tumultuous last couple of years. In this moment, I looked into the candlelight and mourned the hardships and pain that so many of us have experienced within the CCA community. I grieved the unfulfilled promises and dashed hopes, while simultaneously reflecting on the strong camaraderie I’d experienced at the strike.
Here, as we all stood together with our candles, our strike had come to an end, but our voices will continue to call for action — for the administration to support the staff and faculty who make CCA an institution that works for the people. Our voices will continue to gain strength as we push for a CCA that exemplifies why we began to strike in the first place: an art college where the current and future generations of the community can grow and flourish, a CCA that epitomizes the love we found and poured into it.