Jael Kerandi: Called to Action

Jael Kerandi; photo Sarah Whiting

Jael Kerandi knows how slow the wheels of progress turn at the University of Minnesota. Last spring, she was finishing her term as student body president, the first Black student to hold the position in the University’s 169-year history.

On May 25, after Kerandi watched the video of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, she knew that the University would make a public statement. “I wanted them to hear from me first,” Kerandi says. “I did not want to see a blanket statement. I wanted to see action by our university. I knew what I needed to do.

“At the end of the day, my sole obligation is to the students,” she says. “My job is not respectability politics. I have to hold the institution accountable.”

On May 26, Kerandi issued a clear letter to University President Joan Gabel and the Board of Regents that demanded the immediate end to the school’s relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), which has “repeatedly demonstrated with their actions that Black bodies are expendable to them,” she wrote. “This is a norm that we have been desensitized to due to its frequency. MPD has continually shown disregard for the welfare and rights of people of color on our campus.”

In the letter, Kerandi illustrated MPD’s repeated offenses against the Black community, from a botched 1989 SWAT raid that resulted in the deaths of two Black elders, to the murders of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile.

“We have lost interest in discussion, community conversations, or ‘donut hours,’” Kerandi continued, referencing the University’s usual action in the wake of a shock to the community. “We no longer wish to have a meeting or come to an agreement. There is no middle ground.”

She gave university leadership 24 hours to respond.

Something striking happened. President Gabel responded quickly with a letter of her own, promising to end the school’s relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department.

Kerandi’s words caught the world’s attention, garnering coverage from NPR to CNBC. “I genuinely never expected it,” she says. “What to me is the most inspiring part of [being in the public eye] is talking to other student leaders who say, ‘Now that you’ve set this precedent, now that I have something I can refer to, I can push for the same thing at my institution. Now I feel empowered to talk with my administration. Now I understand the power of student voice.’”

While the University was the first institution to cut ties with MPD, public school districts, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, museums, law firms, and concert venues soon followed.

This fall, Kerandi was elected chair of the student representatives to the Board of Regents — in addition to numerous other representative roles on campus — which give her a role in guiding the future of the University. Kerandi plans to push for recruitment and retention of Black faculty, funding the research of BIPOC students, and embedding anti-racism into everyday culture, “not just a three-hour training to click through.”

“Frankly, the larger shift needs to be cultural,” she says, “but that doesn’t happen overnight.” The University can be an important part of creating equity in the communities students enter after graduation. Land-grant universities are responsible to serving the state, Kerandi points out, so they should “feel like it’s their duty [to do anti-racism work].”

Kerandi will graduate in Spring 2021 after completing double majors in Finance and Marketing, and double minors in Business and Leadership. Her studies are in business, “but working for the community and serving my community will always be a part of me. You can be an activist wherever you are,” she says.

“I stand on the shoulders of so many,” Kerandi says. “There are thousands of Black women and activists beside me. We must keep going. The marathon has to continue.”

Jael Kerandi’s list of ways to take action:

Support local, grassroots organizers

Read the MPD150 report

Engage in local elections

Educate yourself, but be mindful that knowledge is most valuable when it informs your decisions and actions

Tell yourself every day that someone’s humanity and right to life is not a partisan matter

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