Group of Six peer leaders facilitate greater communication, solidarity

The house at 226 College Ave., which hosts both the LGBT Center and the Latino Center, is pictured on Oct. 3. (Mia Lambert / The Tufts Daily)

For Christin Mujica, a peer leader at the Latino Center and a former peer leader at the LGBT Center, the fact that the two centers share Bolles House at 226 College Ave. has been a convenient way for her to find community. However, as someone who identifies as both queer and Latina, Mujica, a senior, recognized that not everyone feels comfortable going up and down the stairs that connect the two centers.

“Even within the same building, people still stay in whatever space they’re more comfortable with,” Mujica said.

Mujica is one of several former and current peer leaders from the Group of Six centers who wants to change this mentality.

During the weeks leading up to the start of the semester, the peer leaders from the Africana, Asian American, Latino, LGBT and Women’s Centers (the International Center, the sixth Group of Six community, does not have a peer leader program, according to Mujica) came together for a group dinner. Mujica said the dinner was the first time that all five peer leader groups shared the same space. Doing so inspired her and other peer leaders to try to maintain the collective community.

“We were sitting down talking about what we could do, because we’re like, ‘This is so cool that we’re all here and we can talk to each other! We should have a space where we can all reach out,'” Mujica said. 

One idea they had was to create a Facebook group for people of color (POC) to share events and support one another. Mujica said that she and Christihanna Morrison, a sophomore and a peer leader for the Africana Center, started the Facebook group in early September.

According to Mujica, the Facebook group, which now has more than 400 members, has helped students reach out to a broader community and acts as a space to share events that could be relevant to multiple ethnic or racial communities. 

“Even if people don’t interact with it, just sharing events and having more POC show up [to events] is just more solidarity,” she said. “I think to make anything change at Tufts, that solidarity is important.”

Another idea that came out of the dinner was a group of five committee. According to Shreya Bhatia, a senior and program assistant for the Asian American Center’s Peer Leader Program, she and other peer leader advisors thought that having group of people committed to connecting the different centers could lead to more collaboration and solidarity among them.

“We talked about how we could work together more, and one of the things that came out of that is having a representative from each community come, meet and report back to the broader community so that we can have more joint events,” she said.

Nick Whitney (LA ’16), the graduate coordinator for the LGBT Center’s peer leader program Team Q, is currently working alongside Bhatia to build the group of five committee. Whitney told the Daily in an email that the committee is still in preliminary planning stages and is currently being worked on at the student level.

Whitney hopes that the committee will help integrate the different centers so that students, especially those who identify with multiple centers, can feel connected to the different communities without spreading themselves too thin in terms of the amount of work and time they put into the centers.

“This student body would speak to and support the various intersections within which many Tufts students are located and work to actively communicate the needs and desires of different students at different Centers,” Whitney said.

This committee is a modified version of what existed in Bhatia’s sophomore year, when she was an Asian American Center peer leader. The previous committee was a POC committee that included representatives from the Asian American, Africana and Latino centers and consisted of about six to eight members, according to Bhatia.

Yonas Dinkneh, a senior, was a part of the committee during his sophomore year, when he was also an Africana Center peer leader. He said that the idea came from the center directors as a way to build camaraderie between the POC communities.

Dinkneh credits some of his friendships today to the POC committee. He is also proud of the open mic night the committee organized at Brown & Brew Coffee House. According to Bhatia, the group also organized a successful field day event.

However, Dinkneh remembers the difficulty that members of the committee faced in terms of expanding the feeling of a broader POC community to their respective centers.

“Even though we were working on this together, it was like we were a separate group,” he said. “[T]here wasn’t a lot of support from the larger houses that we were coming from.”

Latino Center Director Rubén Stern said he recalls how difficult it was for students to maintain the POC community, partly because of its small size. He added that the initiatives for committees, such as the POC committee, cannot be forced on the peer leaders by the directors. Rather, student leaders are in charge of creating and maintaining them.

Bhatia agreed that it is often up to the students who experience the specific intersections of different identities to come up with and do the work for these specific events.

“A lot of these [events] are like an individual peer leader says, ‘I want to have an event like this,’ and they create it themselves, and peer leaders support them by attending,” she said. “But it has to be planned by them.”

Dinkneh noted that the POC committee could not force students to actively invest in building a broader community.

“I think everyone to a degree feels more comfortable with the people they already associate with, so trying to force it, in a sense, was not well received,” he said. “It’s not that people were upset that we were trying to do this. They just weren’t as interested because it was an event with people that they normally wouldn’t hang out with.”

Patrick Mahaney, a sophomore and an Asian American Center peer leader who is also involved with the LGBT Center, said that the accessibility of the different centers is key to fostering effective and comfortable intersectionality. On the other hand, they said they find certain spaces physically inaccessible.

For example, the Start House, home to the Asian American Center, serves as a residence for students and therefore cannot have an open door policy. Thus, the Asian American Center is not as easily accessible to students who are not living in the house.

Mahaney added that intersectional events are another way for the centers to be more accessible and help students who do not identify with the center feel more comfortable entering the space. They pointed to a September 2016 session of Qrunch — a discussion series organized by the LGBT Center — which addressed being queer and Latinx as an example of intersectional work between the Latino and LGBTQ communities. 

While the centers have put on events that highlight multiple identities and all of the other centers, apart from the Asian American Center, are open to the public, Mahaney believes that building solidarity requires more than forming a committee and opening the centers’ doors. They see solidarity as a laborious task that requires members of each community commit to learning about the other centers’ struggles.

“I think it definitely starts with people learning about each other and learning what they do that hurts other people, what they can do to help other people be safer or feel better,” Mahaney said.

Bhatia said that she and Whitney are starting to recruit representatives from the five centers. As the group of five committee takes shape, Bhatia hopes it will help students from the different centers feel less isolated in their goals and look at the broader history of oppression that relates them to one another.

“They’re different histories and lived experiences but have a shared history of exclusion, and we shouldn’t think we exist alone,” Bhatia said.