A national reckoning for caste protections culminated earlier this month into a first-of-its-kind national conference on caste in higher education with CFA activists helping lead the cause.

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The two-day virtual conference explored what is caste, the intersection of caste and gender, and building a more equitable future, in higher education, in building union power, through educational curricula, and beyond.

“The Caste in Higher Education Conference brought together activists and scholars in the U.S. and internationally to build caste equity in colleges and universities,” said Kim Geron, CSU East Bay professor emeritus of political science and co-chair of CFA’s student intern program. “I was honored to be part of this effort to build support for caste discriminated students, staff, and faculty, and build the movement for caste protections.”

Caste, according to the conference, is a “structure of oppression that affects over 1 billion people across the world,” with children at birth inheriting their ancestors’ caste that determines social status, assigning “spiritual purity.” The most marginalized groups in the Indian caste pyramid are Dalits – formerly known as the discriminatory term of “untouchables” – and Adivasis, indigenous peoples of South Asia.

Caste divisions can be seen throughout the world, and scholars have long documented America’s own enduring caste system. American colleges and universities are beginning the process of adding caste as a protected category from discrimination, with CFA being one of the first labor organizations to adopt caste protection from discrimination in our CBA. Caste is also now a protected category systemwide at the California State University.

“Being part of this conference was inspiring as there was this feeling of solidarity from everyone,” said Vang Vang, CFA treasurer and CFA Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Caucus co-chair. “I can see the interest and feel the genuine sense of wanting to change the world – that we CAN change the world! Very few times in life do you get to experience this kind of wonderfulness.

“I’m just so lucky to have been at the right place and right time to do what I can to help this movement grow. I am so proud to be a CFA member, activist, and officer. We walk to the talk!”

Equality Labs, which helped put together this event, partnered with CFA in advocating for this historic achievement.

CFA member leaders who helped advocate for this protection participated in and spoke at the conference in mid-October, discussing how caste exists in academic spaces and the importance of these new protections.

“It was an honor to present at the first Caste in Higher Education Conference to discuss the role that CFA has taken in the fight to have caste explicitly listed as a protected caste,” said Lisa Kawamura, CFA San Luis Obispo chapter president and CFA Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Caucus co-chair. “Something that started out as a small ask from a former student has grown into a whole movement and I am fortunate to have the privilege to get this institutionalized at CFA.

“Sharing our story was a great way to show others that small acts and requests can result in widespread and effective change.”

The conference also featured keynote conversations between renowned philosopher, political, and social critic Dr. Cornel West, and Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit American artist, community organizer, and executive director of Equality Labs.

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