As protestors gathered in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on a recent December morning waving signs that called for the preservation of affirmative action, Breana Ross took to the podium and gave an impassioned speech.
“We are in a state of emergency,” Ross bellowed at the marchers that braved the frigid cold to participate in a rally organized by Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. “We are six decades after Brown v. Board [and] students of color and, disproportionately, Black and Brown students, still have limited access to colleges and universities.”
The crowd went wild. There was applause and then cheers.
The spotlight was on Ross, vice president of the United States Student Association (USSA) — the country’s oldest student-led movement with a membership of 1.5 million.
Fighting for issues like affirmative action and college access has been a part of her lifelong mission. But it wasn’t always that way.
Ross says that she first was politicized during her days as a college student at the University of California, Riverside. She graduated last year.
Back then she was a business major. But Ross made a radical switch to political science after she took an ethnic studies course and was challenged by a professor to become more involved in social justice issues both on and off campus.
“It was an accident, but on purpose,” says Ross. “I got involved in grassroots activism and direct action organizing.” Later this year, she is expected to assume the presidency and will lead the association as it gears up to celebrate its 70th birthday.
USSA has had a long tradition of political activism, producing prominent figures along the way including Democratic strategist, organizer and television commentator Donna Brazile and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, who were all active in the association at one point.
In the 1960s, its members collaborated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the turbulent civil rights movement. In the 1980s, it was involved in the condemning apartheid and calling on colleges and universities to divest in South Africa.
For the 22-year-old Rancho Cucamonga, California, native, USSA has given her a public platform to take up the issues she cares most about, including fighting hikes in tuition, advocating for campus workers and dismantling obstacles that prevent access to higher education.
“We are an education justice organization,” she says, matter-of-factly. “We work to dismantle oppression.”
When Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled his plan last year for free public college, he did so at a USSA gathering. As political candidates vie to turn voters out in November’s election, Ross says that issues such as comprehensive immigration reform, tuition equity, prison divestment and police reform is what her members care most about. But the association’s ambitious agenda does not stop there. USSA has been vocal about the recent spate of police shootings of unarmed Black men in recent years.
“We can’t talk about college without talking about kids being killed in the streets,” says Ross, adding that the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was a turning point for her. “I want to make sure that we get the best results possible this election,” says Ross, who points out that, even though the organization is nonpartisan, they can lobby, do political work and endorse candidates.
Ross, who has held a number of positions within the membership-based organization, first as a campus organizer and later as vice chair of the Minority Serving Institutions Caucus, is the association’s chief spokesperson and is also responsible for membership and recruitment.
During the first month on the job, she barnstormed the country, visiting about 10 colleges to meet with students and administrators about issues that impact students. She says that she’s encouraged by the college activism that she sees.
“I see organizing as a lifestyle,” says Ross, who has aspirations of someday becoming a college professor. “There needs to be a larger investment in student organizing. A lot of people don’t take youth seriously and don’t agree with the way we are conducting our change.”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson.