The remote learning environment during the coronavirus pandemic posed a challenge for student engagement at the University of Washington Bothell: How could staff support students in staying connected with each other?
“We thought a lot about the best way to reach people,” said Jorge Azpeitia, a member of UW Bothell’s Social Justice Organizers, a student group tasked in 2020 with developing options. “We knew we didn’t want to subject everyone to yet another Zoom session, and at the same time we knew we could not gather in a physical space. But it was important to stay connected.”
After some research, he came up with the idea of a podcast, which he launched with his co-SJOs Gurleen Mann and Kelly Pham. Unlike a video conference that generally happens live, requires participation and keeps users tied to their screen, a podcast can be listened to anytime, anywhere.
“Not only is a podcast more accessible, it’s also more enjoyable,” said Azpeitia, a 2021 graduate with degrees in Media & Communication Studies and in Culture, Literature & the Arts. “It gives people an opportunity to get outside and away from their desks.”
Benjamin E. Lopez, the SJO adviser, said that “the Real Talk series made space for people at UW Bothell to find community despite being in isolation — and provided opportunities for us all to learn from, care for and stand with one another.”
The students wanted to use the podcast platform to discuss relevant topics that pertained to social justice and advocacy. Using that as a guide, Mann, a third-year student majoring in Law, Economics & Public Policy, decided to focus her episode on hip-hop and resistance.
“Hip-hop was originally created for and by urban youth as a tool of expression in the 1970s,” Mann said. “It was a result of the frustration African Americans and Latinos felt when, despite the advancement in civil rights, their economic conditions still didn’t improve.”
To learn more about the genre’s history, she interviewed Dr. Georgia Roberts, a lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences who studies and teaches courses on hip-hop history and culture. Roberts has a course focused specifically on the work of rapper Tupac Shakur.
“By incorporating the legacy of the Black Panther Party and his connection to Black power, Tupac’s music preserves a moment in time,” Roberts said. “The lyrics are a marker that can be used to measure how far we have come, or conversely, how far we still need to go.”
A powerful example discussed in Mann’s podcast was Tupac’s song, “Changes” and its relevance to modern day. “The song talks about mass incarceration before there was a word for it. The lyrics are about racism and misplaced hatred,” Mann said. “Sadly, it’s now two decades later and his words still hold true.”
Healing in community
Pham, a third-year student majoring in Community Psychology, also used her podcast to address racism by talking about the rise of xenophobia and Asian hate during the pandemic. She collaborated with UW Bothell’s Vietnamese Student Association and Filipino American Student Association to create the episode.
The pandemic heightened xenophobic behaviors that targeted Asian people specifically, she said. “We started seeing reports on the news of our elders being attacked, and people shouting slurs at them while they were just walking down the street,” she said. “As an Asian woman, I wanted to use the podcast to honor my community’s experience and remind them they are not alone.
“I see my parents in those stories,” Pham said. “It’s scary knowing my loved ones are at risk because they are Asian. They could get hurt just going to work. No one should have to live with the fear of being attacked for the color of their skin.”
Pham wants her listeners to walk away with a sense of unity. “The one thing the virus doesn’t do is discriminate. But people do,” she said. “COVID-19 is going after all of us. We shouldn’t add to the chaos by going after one another, too.
“My hope is that we find healing, not just physically but psychologically and emotionally. Doing this podcast is just one small way to try to bring people together and make that first step toward recovery.”
Legacy lives on
Naomi Yohannes and Lauren Allen, Social Justice Organizers in 2020-21, followed in their predecessors’ footsteps and continued the podcast with a three-part series on cancel culture: “The Tea on Cancel Culture,” “How to Get Away with Being a White Man” and “Myselfie got Cancelled?”
Yohannes, a spring 2021 graduate with degrees in Community Psychology and in Society, Ethics & Human Behavior, said they wanted to take a closer look at cancel culture because of how prevalent it has become.
“It’s a buzz phrase. Even politicians have openly expressed their fear of getting ‘canceled,’” Yohannes said. “What began on social media has now gone beyond our feed and the digital world to impact people in real life, often people who are in positions of power.
“We wanted to think about whether or not social media has enabled a universal surveillance on speech, and if the consequences of that surveillance — getting canceled — is just.”
Yohannes says that cancel culture mirrors a carceral system in that it is designed to punish individuals. “People can lose jobs, their community and even close-knit relationships. Cancel culture has the power to take people away from their lives as they know it,” she said, “and the effects of it can be very isolating.
“They may not be in prison, but they are definitely ostracized from society.”
Lauren Allen (l) and Naomi Yohannes Zoom in to record their segments for the podcast
What it’s all about
On the other side of the spectrum, Allen, also a spring 2021 graduate with a degree in Law, Economics & Public Policy, points out that although someone could be ostracized, the period in which they might be cast from the public eye may not last indefinitely. For this reason, neither she nor Yohannes see cancel culture as always being damaging.
“We see it as a way of healing, too,” Allen said. “It can be about telling someone that they can do, and be, better. It’s about accountability, learning and growing.”
Yohannes said in the end, that’s what she thinks it’s all about. “All we can do is learn from our mistakes and do better next time.
“I feel so lucky to be a part of a university where I feel safe enough to speak out and supported in my experience. UW Bothell helps us all grow to become better people.”