Race relations in America are a never-ending battle, but civil rights activist Angela Oh believes in fighting to the death to find a solution to America’s racial tensions.
Change in racial tension is like a proverb Oh said she heard from a friend about a swallow who saw a forest fire and knew that if he did nothing, his friends would perish.
“He picks up as much water as he can and sprinkles it on the forest fire” Oh said. “He’s trying, right? I said (to my friend), ‘Well, what happens? Does he put out the fire?’ ‘Stupid- no! He dies from exhaustion.’ Well that’s not the happy ending I wanted to hear. So that’s how it is.”
Oh told this story, and several others, about trying to solve race relation problems to students and faculty on Feb. 17 as part of the Provocative Perspectives series.
During the series, Oh shared personal experiences which gave her stories color and detail to make it seem more like a relaxed conversation between two people rather than a lecture.
She spoke about being a child of first generation Korean-Americans. Then she spoke about her experiences during the Los Angeles riots of 1992, when she acted as a spokesperson for the Korean community.
Later she spoke about what it was like defending juvenile offenders as a lawyer, and about serving on President Bill Clinton’s One America Initiative, a committee that focused on encouraging open talk about diversity throughout the country.
The interest in the room piqued when Oh admitted she did not have any answers on how to solve race relations in America. The night before coming to Cal Poly, she met with a friend and explained her anxiety about talking the following morning, she said.
“I feel like such a failure and these people are coming tomorrow at 7:30 in the morning to listen to me to talk about huge issues that I don’t know the answers to,” Oh said. “But I know what all the problems are because I stay engaged.”
While she considered herself a “failure” for not having the answers, she said she excels at public speaking because she can talk to an entire room as if she were just talking to one person.
When Oh said, in a humorous way, that she did not have any answers, the audience of mostly faculty and some students laughed. One student listening to Oh, liberal studies senior Kaitlin McCormick, who is also president of the Women’s Leadership Council and Educational Events Coordinator, said she found her honesty refreshing and understandable.
“I think a topic like race relations is so complex that there are no real answers, so I thought it was nice that she acknowledged that she didn’t have one way to solve everything,” McCormick said. “I feel the same way as the speaker. I don’t have solid answers either.”
One thing McCormick especially liked about Oh’s lecture were the stories she told. After sharing some background on growing up with first-generation Korean American parents, Oh shared stories about her experience serving as a lawyer who represented juvenile offenders.
“Race relations in prisons spill over into our communities,” Oh said. “Race relations in our communities spills over into governments. This creates a kind of division that can lead to the way that we see the other and me and you don’t see me and the other.”
Engaging in “broader thinking,” Oh said, can help people come up with solutions to racial tensions in America. Oh then told a story about a group of college students she met that were trying to get the Dream Act passed — a piece of legislation that would allow students with an immigration status to enroll in higher education.
“These kids are performing well at the university level and some of them have in hand admissions to graduate programs that they cannot go to because of their immigration status,” Oh said. “Those kids, when I met them, I was so impressed because they literally have no options at this point in their lives, and yet, they’re still trying because they believe in our system.”
Cal Poly alumna Joy Harkins said the university provides many opportunities for students to involve themselves in “broader thinking” in terms of race relations on campus.
“Students have great opportunities available to them, and I hope that they’ll take advantage of speakers like Angela Oh and the events going on through the MultiCultural Center for Black History Month,” Harkins said.
As an ordained Zen-Buddhist priest, Oh greeted the audience by pulling her hands together in a prayer-like motion to bring everyone in the room together.
“We’re coming from many different places,” Oh said.
By the end of the talk, the room seemed to have come to a similar understanding of Oh’s overall message: engage in broader thinking.
And she ended with a bow.