Journalism professor and social justice activist Julie Lynem is part of the 2.2 percent of Black or African Americans residing in the county. During her 17 years as a San Luis Obispo resident, Lynem has made an impact both on and off campus.
“Some would say, you know, ‘Why does it matter here? There are not very many Black people, there are not very many people of color,’” Lynem said. “But I would argue, in many ways, it’s even more important because there’s such a lack of visibility, lack of voices being heard here.”
Lynem has been a professor at Cal Poly for four years and before beginning her teaching career at Cal Poly, Lynem was both a reporter and editor for the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
“Journalism is the first draft of history, knowing that we have a huge responsibility as journalists to tell other people’s stories.”
Lynem had been involved with dialogues about race within the community for a while, but it was not until she met R.A.C.E. Matters founder Courtney Haile that her activism in San Luis Obispo took off.
“We just started out with some small community meetings where we were really feeling helpless and hopeless at that time, because there were a lot of killings of unarmed Black men and women going on,” Lynem said.
Lynem recently began spearheading a sister organization to R.A.C.E. Matters: RaiseUp SLO. The organization is focused on supporting and uplifting families of color in the area and raising race-conscious kids. The organization is also focused on its three pillars of education, advocacy and community building, according to Lynem.
Lynem’s colleague and Cal Poly grant development employee Julie Fallon said RaiseUP SLO is her favorite part of the organization as a whole.
“The younger generations—they’re the hope for the future,” Fallon said.
When it comes to teaching at Cal Poly, Lynem said there is a fine line between her social justice work in the community and her day job.
“There’s a lot that’s being talked about in journalism circles about the line that you have to walk between being a journalist and an activist,” Lynem said. “I would say that it’s important to seek the truth.”
And that, she said, is what she tries to teach her students.
“Journalism is the first draft of history, knowing that we have a huge responsibility as journalists to tell other people’s stories,” Lynem said.
To Lynem, she said her social justice work in the community and on campus are “inextricably linked.” Journalism sophomore Vincent Torres is currently taking Lynem’s class Multicultural Society and the Mass Media (JOUR 219) and said he is glad to have her at its helm.
“To have a professor of color teach on a predominantly white campus, I think, just speaks volumes in itself,” Torres said. “I’d much rather have a person of color speak out about social issues, because to have someone who is a majority or someone who is white speak out about these issues, personally to me, doesn’t encompass the whole experience of what it means to be a person of color.”
Torres said he thinks that other students on campus could benefit from a class like Lynem’s.
“The initiatives for diversity here are complete bullshit,” Torres said. “As far as what it means to be a minority here on campus, people aren’t getting that full experience, and they never truly understand the weight of what their actions have.”
Torres said he believes incidents, such as a recent Instagram post where the student commented that he was dressed as an “illegal alien,” could have turned out differently had the student taken this class.
“A lot of people are coming from small towns that are close-minded, and that’s all they knew,” Torres said. “They never know the extent of the harm they do until they take this class and they realize that the minority struggle is more than just what they’ve heard.”
Lynem said she believes staff plays a key role when it comes to promoting diversity and inclusion on campus.
“We are the ones that are charged with making sure that students go out into the world connected and understanding what their responsibilities are, and I think we do a disservice by not just paying lip service to it, but actually walking the walk,” Lynem said.
Over the summer, Lynem attended a course meant to teach professors how to create a more inclusive environment in their classes.
“Over and over again, it came up – ‘I’m an engineering professor, I teach physics, what does this have to do with me?’” Lynem said. “Well, your students come from a variety of backgrounds for one thing, so that’s what it has to do with.”
Lynem said she also believes it does not take much effort to incorporate diversity and inclusion into any class, even if it just means including the history of a famous physicist that was from this particular community.
“I think that we tend to limit ourselves and see just a narrow focus, when if we just take the extra step, it means a lot to students,” Lynem said.