2009 fellow Sakeena Gohagen is double majoring in sociology and African American studies at Florida State University. Last year she served as FSU Vote Coalition campus organizer as well as mentoring students and serving as United States Student Association People of African Descent Vice Chair.
Location: Tallahassee, FL, United States
Campus: Florida State University - Tallahassee, FL
Fellowship Class Year: 2009
Featured Fellow Spotlight
What do you stand for?
I stand for educational access and affordability, equal rights, equal protection, and overarching social justice for all.
And how did you come to YP4?
I actually bumped into Calvin at USSA’s legislative conference last year and I was introduced to him and he told me about YP4 and also I also met two fellows from Florida A&M and they encouraged me to apply. They told me I stood for YP4 and I didn’t understand what that meant (laughs) but I applied and after the conference I was like, “Oh my god! Yeah, dude!” So that was really cool.
You currently work with the United States Student Association (USSA) as a GROW trainer. Tell me what that experience has been like for you.
The GROW training experience is amazing because it gives you the opportunity to take what a lot of people consider to be an old-school tactic of organizing the community and really rejuvenate it and make it relevant to a new, younger audience. So the fact that you can see young people start to consider community and campus organizing as a relevant way of getting issues won and things done on their campuses and in their communities is amazing. And to see the lightbulb moments of teaching strategies and tactics and getting people in the mind of organizing people, it’s actually one of the most intensive and empowering moments that you will ever have in your life.
So it’s a lot of fun. You meet people from all over the country and they’re all focused on empowering people on their own behalf to take their own issues into their own hands. So that’s a lot of fun and really, really cool.
How has that experience given you perspective for your work on campus and in your community?
The experience has definitely revamped my way of thinking in terms of what my future is as a member of what I now think of as the progressive movement. Working as a GROW trainer in youth organizing, I’m realizing that law school isn’t the only avenue that I have [in which] to be successful and to influence policy and to actually make changes in people’s lives. And so it’s opening a lot more doors — maybe not the most lucrative doors (laughs), but definitely the most exciting and probably some of the most rewarding doors that I could possibly work through.
What has been your biggest struggle so far as a progressive leader?
Definitely, making people — especially on college campuses — making the word “progressive” not a dirty word. A lot of people see the progressive movement as something that is so far out there and so unreachable and so unattainable that they don’t want to necessarily identify with it. And so breaking it down into terms where they can see how it affects their everyday lives, they can see how the struggle of the progressive movement may be something that takes a couple years or maybe a couple generations to accomplish, but definitely something that you can have a hold in now and you can become an invested member in now so that you can help win victories for different communities now and in the future.
How do you deal with those struggles?
It’s always about messaging, as I’m learning. So it’s definitely about framing people’s issues to realize that these overarching broad goals really do affect them on a day-to-day life. So taking environmental justice down to being able to afford public transportation on a day-to-day basis. Making that connection and helping people see that these issues may affect certain communities but they indirectly affect you as well, so you should become an invested member in the movement to make sure that they’re not negatively affecting you. It’s just starting to appeal to people’s self-interest and figure out what they value and how to really sculpt the whole movement into something that they can benefit from as well.
Recently you were interviewed for a student loan documentary. Tell me more about that.
Oh, wow. On Saturday, one of the organizations at USSA’s legislative conference — there’s a documentary being developed, I believe in California, called Default. And it speaks about student debt, particularly student loans. They interviewed me and we discussed that, and it was actually really interesting — I’m really excited to see the results of it.
How would you say the current economic crisis has impacted you and your fellow students?
We’re definitely reconsidering our post-college careers. A lot of us are not necessarily entering into the fields where our heart is, we’re entering into the fields that are going to line our pockets well. It’s not because we’re selfish but because we just have to survive. And so what we’re finding more and more is that people are coming to school focusing on money instead of what’s going to make them happy. I mean, you’re also finding students who are struggling to make it and just to live as a college student away from home or whatnot. So when we’re sitting together and everyone at the table is like, “Okay, who has food stamps this month? Because I can’t afford a gallon of milk,” it really puts a lot of things into perspective for you. So it’s really interesting. It’s a lot of work. It can be overwhelming, but we’re working to make it better.
With all of the experiences and networking opportunities you’ve been able to have in the past couple of years, what are you looking to accomplish this year as a YP4 fellow?
I’m definitely really excited for leadership development. I feel like I’m kind of a seasoned fruit on campus, I’m a little old to get done the things that I really want to get done. And so I feel like YP4 as well as the other organizations I’ve gotten to meet and the people I’ve gotten to work with on a national circuit are giving me the tools to develop younger leaders and to make sure that they’re introduced to the movement in their freshman years and have three complete years to really make some moves for themselves and for their fellow students on campus. So I’m really, really excited about the opportunities to introduce them to the circles that I was introduced to late in my college career and see them blossom and bring in other people and really make some moves on their campuses. It’s really overwhelming but it’s really, really exciting.
Coming out of the National Summit, what ideas are you working on for your Blueprint?
So my Blueprint right now, which I feel like I might end up revamping after this weekend (laughs), my Blueprint right now is a progressive leaders’ summit, probably a two- to three-day summit on campus where students are introduced to the progressive movement and social justice. And it’s a very self-driven event, what I’m focusing on. So they come in and open conversation about “what is a progressive,” “what is social justice,” and we go through the steps of addressing different things like privilege and issues that you might choose to focus on, and finally telling them the opportunities to plug themselves into progressive organizations and get the tools necessary to develop themselves in whatever they feel is what they want to focus on. So kind of like an opportunities expo on the final day where organizations like YP4 and USSA and ACORN and things like that, organizations that focus on developing leaders as well as focus on the progressive struggles, students can see where they would fit on a national scope and actually get the opportunities to plug in the resources and make moves later on.
How do you think it might end up revamping?
Well, with the student loan documentary that we were interviewed for and everything else, a lot of the focus is on the issues of — my major focus on education and affordability is really going to be focused on getting students to realize that education, while it is a privilege, is definitely something that everyone needs to be able to access. I’m feeling like if I allow the opportunity to speak too broad, then people might lose the sense that the only reason you’re able to come to something like this and participate in something like this is because you’ve been afforded the opportunity to go to school, and caution that that might be a barrier. So I’m kind of trying to figure out how to frame it in that way.
Is there anything else that you want to say?
I feel very honored and humbled and privileged to be a member of the YP4 community and I’m really excited. I actually just saw People For the American Way Foundation’s executive director coming back to the airport from D.C. on Wednesday, and just to be able to say I know this amazing leader of an amazing organization on a personal level is really amazing. And I’m just really excited about the opportunities that I’m going to be able to afford to others through being a member of the YP4 community.