5 Questions for Olivia Veira '17

by Isabel DeBre '18, Storyteller for Good
November 3, 2015

Olivia’s commitment to Swearer runs deep. She helps lead and coordinate Rhode Island Urban Debate League (RIUDL), which empowers local high school students to project their voices through debate, and increases their college readiness and academic success (see her wonderful story on RIDUL here).

Recently, she has been grappling with how to make the Swearer Center more inclusive of students of color. It’s a crucial conversation for all public service centers - and universities in general - and I wanted to know her process.

Isabel: What social justice work have you been doing on campus, however you define that?

Olivia: Since freshman year, I’ve spent most of my time with Rhode Island Urban Debate League. I joined because one of the most powerful opportunities I had as a high school student was debate, and I appreciate that RIUDL sees debate as a tool for social justice instead of just a competitive sport.

More recently, over the summer I was given a general task to think about diversity at Swearer–to think about why the students who work at the Swearer Center tend to be a certain way, and how to confront the commonly held conceptions of Swearer as a place for white people who want to “do good” without thinking about structural issues. I took this on because honestly, as a person of color, I don’t think that’s what the Swearer Center is. I came to Swearer in the first place because I knew it would tackle those systemic issues. It encouraged me to think about my longevity, not just do canned food drives.

Along these lines, I ended up trying to create a program at Swearer for Community Fellows to talk about their positionality within the context of service–something that mirrors what the Minority Peer Counselors do, but Swearer-specific. And my hope is that this not only gets Fellows to think about the structural issues facing the groups they’re working with, but also makes it very clear that the Swearer Center is a place where these difficult conversations happen.

“Positionality” gets tossed around a lot. What does it mean to you?

Discussing positionality means analyzing your identity in the communities in which you work. For me, that means thinking about what it means to be a black female Brown student working with primarily Latino and Latina high school students in Providence.

This leaves me in an increasingly difficult place. One of the great things about being a black woman working in service means I often feel like I can connect on some level with my students, in a way that perhaps other volunteers can’t. But I also feel that my Brown identity precedes my black one.

This means I have to pause when I enter spaces that used to be mine when I was in high school. When I forget I’m a Brown student, I’m not recognizing the power that I have.

How has your identity as a Brown student felt problematic off the hill?

I take the bus home from debate practice at Paul Cuffee High School, which is one of the schools I work in [for RIUDL]. One of the problems I run into is the fact that I take the bus for free, and can afford to pay–but some of my students can’t. It’s a messy thing to navigate, and it has less to do with my black woman identity than my Brown student identity. There’s not a whole lot that can be done to prepare a Brown student for that awkwardness. I just don’t know the answer. In the same way I don’t know what to say when someone tells me, “Brown doesn’t pay taxes.” It’s like, “I know, I’m sorry, it should!”

How does your identity as a black woman come into play?

I feel like I’m two different people on and off campus. Off campus I’ve become this really powerful person–representing a large institution–and on campus, I read horrifying articles [recent Brown Daily articles on Columbus Day and eugenics], and experience major discomfort in situations as a black woman, and suddenly feel on the opposite end of that spectrum and completely powerless. And that’s really weird for me.

Since coming to Brown, I’ve been looking for places to discuss my black identity, but I don’t feel I’ve found a real place for that yet. I just became a copy editor for Obsidian, which I’m super excited about, and I hope it becomes a place for me to belong in that way. But for two years I’ve felt that something was missing. I tried going to Black Student Union meetings and attending Brown Center for Students of Color events, but it seems I missed the boat after not doing Third World Transition Program and immediately getting involved.

Can you talk a bit about your relationship with the Swearer Center?

If there’s any physical space on campus that I claim as home other than my room, it’s the Swearer Center. Even if I can’t walk into the Swearer Center and look into the conference room to find a bunch of students talking about the Brown Daily Herald article or the Ray Kelly protest or being black at Brown, I feel like if I wanted to talk to a faculty member about those things, the door would be wide open. Or if I wanted to talk about how to engage in service, how to grapple with the structural issues behind service, I knew I absolutely could.

When I hear the backlash against the Swearer Center, I feel really guilty. I feel complicit, especially knowing what it feels like to be excluded, and to feel that a place does not welcome you. But because I’ve benefitted so much from the Swearer Center and its resources as a woman of color, I feel responsible for some sort of solution. I want to make sure other people of color feel that the Swearer Center can be a home for them to occupy, and to have difficult conversations.