Combatting Oppression With Film
Cal State East Bay lecturer launches documentary project to capture oral histories of black alumni
Cal State East Bay Lecturer Steven Cleveland is pushing back against institutional rhetoric he says can be a roadblock to black youth pursuing and succeeding in college.
It’s a concept Cleveland is intimately familiar with, having grown up as a black student in Richmond, California. He recalls college being an afterthought for many in his community and argues it may have something to do with language used as well as the exclusion of black alumni stories in university history.
“Academic rhetoric can be a tool for systematic oppression because many folks can’t access it,” Cleveland said.
So, he’s set out to collect and share the stories, accomplishments and history of black Cal State East Bay alumni.
He calls it, “The Legacy Project.”
Part documentary, part panel discussion, The Legacy Project — which launches its first public phase soon in honor of Black History Month — aims to highlight the connectivity of the black community and Cal State East Bay. Told through the lens of alumni stories, the project features video and audio recordings of black Pioneers who came to and persevered at the university.
A MISSING LINK
As a young man, Cleveland often took class field trips or did other activities at Cal State East Bay. And while he didn’t graduate from the university, he said those experiences were key to his decision to pursue advanced degrees at UCLA and USC and eventually return and teach.
“I remember being on campus, seeing how it worked and feeling this sort of energy just drawing me in,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland has taught Ethnic Studies at Cal State East Bay since 2006, and while he teaches mostly online, he regularly looks for ways to engage his students in projects that bring them face to face with the theories and material they’re learning. He tries to stay away from using too much “university-speak,” instead building lectures around music, art and culture his students know and connect with.
“I try to develop lessons that can be accessible, no matter a student’s home language,” Cleveland said.
It’s a technique Cleveland realized may be key to finding what he sees as a missing link between universities and the black community.
“I wanted to collect stories from black alumni that illustrate the give and take of their relationship with a university,” Cleveland said. “What the university gave to them that they took back to their communities, families and jobs, but also what those individuals did to help shift the institution.”
Those stories include an anecdote from alumnus Ben Henderson, who attended then-Cal State Hayward after he was deployed in Vietnam. Henderson shared his experience of trying to find his place, not only as a black man on a university campus, but also as a veteran in an environment where many disapproved of the war and were actively protesting it.
“He was different from the people here who hadn’t been to war and … talked about how he was a military man and believed in America and the rule of law and how that impacted the way he looked at effecting change,” Cleveland said.
The stories also speak to the larger issue of institutional racism and how universities, in particular, weren’t necessarily built with black men and women in mind. And it’s those stories, believes Cleveland, that often get lost in the current news cycle.
“There’s a need for stories of African-Americans interacting with systems that lift them up,” Cleveland said. “It’s not that we want to gloss over the challenges, those are still there. But we need to show the struggle has a happy ending and the ending is they’re providing for their families and impacting their community as social workers, police officers and elected officials.”
The Legacy Project has also created an opportunity for students and alumni who may not otherwise interact to share stories and advice and find commonalities beyond attending the same university.
During the fall quarter, Cleveland held several Legacy Project workshops at the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Student Center. Participants were able to meet some of the featured alumni and ask them questions, and they were tasked with writing papers about their experiences and major takeaways from the stories shared.
One day, a student asked Cal State East Bay Student Life Advisor Dwyla Jourdan to discuss the difference between her undergraduate experience without children and her graduate experience as a mother.
“It was such a beautiful moment, somewhat unintended,” Cleveland said. “Thematically, it wasn’t a part of what I was asking or doing, but it was the magic of a student having a question and being able to ask someone who walked in their shoes.”
He said that shared sense of community and mentorship is what The Legacy Project is all about.
“We’re us and we’re them and we all have that hope of impacting the community in the way our alumni have,” Cleveland said. “And for some of our students … this is medicine to uplift them and focus them, showing them that they’re working on something that’s really important.”
Cleveland is currently filming interviews that will be used in a promotional video and an event later this month at the Hayward Area Historical Society to officially kick off the project. Next year, he hopes to take a traveling exhibit on the road and show it at churches, community centers and schools around California. But until then, he’s developing multiple platforms to share alumni stories.
“There weren’t a lot of college folk around when I was young and I always felt like school was something that didn’t connect to or matter to the people in the community I was from, so this project uses media to help build bridges between these communities and higher education,” Cleveland said.