Saunders Hall

Erica Smiley on collectively leveraging student power in social movements

Excerpt Description: Erica Smiley recounts the moment in which she was transformed by the idea that people could come together to collectively leverage their power to achieve their goals towards justice.

Interviewee Name: 
Erica Smiley

Interviewer: Charlotte Fryar

Excerpt Transcript: “For me, I was transformed by the idea that we could collectively leverage power to actually change things. I think sometimes, like when you first come in, it’s just about being right and being righteous and activist-y and saying all the right things, but at some point, that has to pivot to, you know, shit or get off the pot. You’ve got to do something about it or go on about your business, you know? And in order to do something about it, it requires an understanding of power, and students have power, whether they know it or not. They pay tuition. They pay fees. They are the reason that universities exist. They are the driving force, the driving hedgehog of any campus situation. So, you know, to be able to leverage whether it’s economic power or the disruptive power that students do so well, or even electorally to be able to elect people that really value higher education, that there’s real power. One of the best moments for me was realizing that I could not only leverage that power, but I could make my bigger aspirational values and worldview into concrete things to fight for on campus in my community, which was the campus community at the time. So it wasn’t just that I wanted to fight for reproductive rights, it was that we wanted to make sure that our healthcare system on campus provided for the needs of women. You know, in this day and age, all of those things still are issues, you know, police accountability on campus. All of that is still real for people to think about. The extreme Right in the country has certainly systematically picked apart the ability of working people to collectively bargain through unions, which is part of what I’ve made my life’s work, but that was parallel to the same Right systematically picking apart students’ ability to have power.”

Organization: Black Student Movement

Excerpt Length: 2:18

Interview Date: 12/8/2017

Interview Location: Washington, D.C.

Campus Space: Saunders Hall

Citation:  Interview with Erica Smiley by Charlotte Fryar, 8 December 2017, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.