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UPUA’s Justice & Equity Committee Working To Fight For ‘All Students’

Amid national protests and demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice, the University Park Undergraduate Association’s Justice & Equity Committee is working harder than ever to advocate for Penn State students.

The newly formed committee is the first of its kind in UPUA’s history. The council is currently working on initiatives to solve issues relating to race, color, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability, or protected veteran status in a long-term, sustainable way.

Although the committee’s purpose is in high demand these days, it took nearly four years to form.

“When I found [how long it took], I was kind of amazed that it took that long to get to the development of what it is today, an actual core, standing committee,” committee chair Najee Rodriguez said. “I thought that was amazing because it really shows the building, and the structure, and the process behind it all and the work that was put into it. I think that’s more important than ever.”

Rodriguez, a sophomore international politics and history major, is the committee’s inaugural chair and has spent his time at Penn State working to build it from the ground up. After serving on UPUA’s Ad Hoc on Outreach, he saw firsthand how the group would come to fruition.

As a member of the LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities, Rodriguez felt he could do more to advocate on behalf of underrepresented students and carry out the committee’s mission.

“I wanted to be part of the first committee of its kind and really set up its structure, its tone, the different avenues of advocacy we could go into moving forward,” Rodriguez said.

From social justice to coronavirus relief to LGBTQ+ rights, UPUA’s Justice & Equity Committee is “fighting for all.”

“There’s been constant attacks on the black community in the United States. It really relates to a lot of the experiences that students may face at Penn State,” Rodriguez said. “And it’s our job to really eliminate these prejudices that are held by certain individuals.”

Rodriguez believes that educating people on these topics and how advocacy works can be a huge step forward toward reform.

“We are at an institution that is supposed to enlighten and really immerse students in academics, but we can also do that in the form of advocacy via student government,” Rodriguez said. “We can educate students on how to best be an ally and eliminate these instances of bias and discrimination that may occur…I honestly think this will improve the lives of so many underrepresented communities or members of those communities at Penn State.”

While committee members work to advocate on behalf of students, they’re striving to set a precedent within UPUA so that the work they’re putting in has long-term effects that will help students for years to come.

“I think really what we’re trying to do now is we’re trying to set up precedents for future committees down the line,” Rodriguez explained. “We start that with roundtables, specifically. We have two right now, the racial justice roundtable and the COVID-19 roundtable on the effects of the virus on protected classes…I think we’re finally giving adequate attention to these committees that have not been given enough attention.”

Additionally, the committee is working throughout the summer to research the coronavirus pandemic and how it can help students when they return to campus this fall.

“For Covid-19, it’s communities of colors that are being most impacted in terms of not having healthcare, so what creative initiatives can we come up with whether it be financially or providing meals consistently one day a week to help alleviate the meal plan cost,” Rodriguez said. “So that’s what we’re trying to think about in terms of initiatives, along with roundtables to explore what we can do in terms of enacting these. That’s one the priorities right now.”

Committee members are also getting involved and educating themselves on underrepresented communities, even if they aren’t a part of one themselves. Creating open lines of communication and fostering honest conversations with students about their issues is something they’re working to implement every day.

Rodriguez, his committee, and UPUA’s representatives have a lot on their plate. However, they’re committed to doing everything in their power to create positive change throughout Penn State’s community.

“I really hope that as a unified body and in student government that we want to change the conversation,” Rodriguez said. “I think every member of my committee and in UPUA, in general, would like to as well, really finally focus and advocate on these communities that have been overlooked for so long.

“If I can just change the mentality and mindset of how student government operates and views these communities and how we can better advocate, that’s what I want to do.”

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a senior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at [email protected]

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