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Antioch College

Oluchi Omeoga, activist and co-executive director of Black LBGTQIA+ Migrant Project, will be the 2023 commencement speaker for the graduating class of 18 students at Antioch College on Saturday, June 24. (Submitted photo)

Activist to deliver Antioch College commencement address

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Eighteen Antioch College students will become the college’s newest alumni following commencement ceremonies Saturday, June 24, to be conducted outdoors on the campus “horseshoe,” off Livermore Street.

The event, which begins at 10 a.m. and includes a performance by the World House Choir, is open to the public. Spillover attendees will be seated in nearby McGregor Hall to watch a live video feed of the proceedings.

Minneapolis, Minnesota-based organizer Oluchi Omeoga will give the commencement address. Omeoga, who goes by any pronoun, is a co-founder of Black Visions and a co-founder and co-executive director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project.

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 According to the Black Visions website, the organization is “a Black-led, Queer and Trans centering organization whose mission is to organize powerful, connected Black communities and dismantle systems of violence.”

Black Visions led a nationwide call to defund police, a call to redirect policing resources toward societal issues such as poverty, housing and mental health, after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chavin in 2020.

Omeoga is also co-founder and co-executive director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, or BLMP. According to BLMP’s landing page on the Transgender Law Center website, the organization engages “members in shaping and informing national efforts to resist enforcement, detention, and deportations through work within criminal justice/migrant rights movements.” With a national membership network that includes regional hubs in Houston, Texas, Oakland, California and Minneapolis, BLMP comprises around 200 members.

“We’re an organization of Black LGBT migrants and first-generation people, meaning one or more of your parents were born outside of the United States,” Omeoga said in a recent interview with the News.  “We do a lot of political education. We have a school called ‘the Network’ that really talks about the deportation pipeline and folks who are currently incarcerated.”

According to Omeoga, many people seeking asylum in the United States are doing so to escape patriarchal violence and homophobia in their home countries.

“You’re actually automatically detained for an indefinite period of time. So that could be two days, it could be two years. and that means that you’re put into an immigrant prison. The network really talks about that deportation pipeline and how can we disturb that? How do we weaken the incarceration state, and how do we get our folks out of detention?” they said.

Omeoga said the location of immigrant prisons, mostly in states with laws hostile to LGBTQIA+ people, is a source of concern for BLMP.

“I think in the United States, when we think about trans and gender non-conforming people, a lot of the places that we have ‘processing centers,’ or immigration prisons, are in the South. And, because of the anti-trans legislation that’s happening [there], folks that are seeking asylum because of their gender identity are then going to be re-traumatized in prisons, including being housed by their sex assigned at birth,” Omeoga said. “For example, we had a Black trans woman that was in detention for about 10 years, the longest immigrant that was ever put in immigrant prison, and she was put with men, and then she was put in solitary confinement because they didn’t know what to do with her.”

Although BLMP was eventually able to secure her release from immigrant prison, the reality for immigrants in similar situations remains challenging.

“You won’t be getting the medication necessary to get affirmed in your gender, right? It’s hard enough for trans people that are citizens now to get gender affirming care, but doubly so when you’re an immigrant and you don’t have the same access to healthcare as folks that are citizens,” they said.

Although Omeoga is a United States citizen, their parents are immigrants.

“I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. My parents are both immigrants from Nigeria. They came directly to Minnesota, actually, in the early ’80s. All of the kids [Omeoga’s siblings] were born here,” Omeoga said.

According to Omeoga, they were originally planning to study electrical engineering with a focus on microelectronics at a college in Rochester, New York, in 2010.

“That pathway did not execute in the same way, so it’s really ironic that I’m a commencement speaker for a college, because I have not actually graduated from college,” Omeoga said.

Eventually, Omeoga left Rochester, returning to Minnesota to be closer to family. In 2012, they attended community college for a while, becoming involved in marriage equality work, canvassing against legislative efforts to pass a state marriage amendment that limited the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

“In Minnesota, we did a lot of deep canvassing, which was the first time that I was canvassing, organizing. … We were the first state to not pass the marriage amendment, which was great. And I just felt accomplishment, like everything that you feel when you win a campaign,” Omeoga said.

But according to Omeoga, after the success against the Minnesota marriage amendment, LGBTQIA+ activism and organizing came to a point of inertia.

“I remember after that, we were trying to pass a safe schools bill for LGBTQ students. We were trying to pass trans rights and to think about other intersectional things, and there was not nearly as much energy as there was in 2012 and 2013. As a Black queer, gender queer person, I was like, wow — the community, the larger, broader LGBT community really only cared about marriage. I was very disappointed in the organizing that was happening,” Omeoga said.

Omeoga joined other causes, eventually finding a network of like-minded individuals.

“2012 was Trayvon, 2014 was Mike Brown. I saw Ferguson [the Missouri city where protests related to Brown’s murder by a police officer occurred] happen, but at the same time, I also saw that in Minneapolis. We were shutting down the Mall of America, we were shutting down the highways. I was young, 20 years old, and was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ these protests have thousands of people coming to them. It’s like, really dope — folks are getting activated, and they’re — intersectionality — talking about the things that I’m feeling in my body,” Omeoga said.

But Omeoga wasn’t sure who was organizing the protest at first.

“At that point, I was a queer kid going out all the time, connecting with other Black queer people. There was a point that I realized that the protests that I was attending were actually planned by the same people that I was kicking it with on Friday and Saturday and going to clubs with … that are engaging in organizing in a way that I’ve never been able to. And so, the relationships that I built at that moment — it was called Black Lives Matter Minneapolis.”

According to Omeoga, it was through Black Lives Matter Minneapolis that their organizing skills evolved to include a framework involving national and local initiatives.

“I started learning about organizing, learning about demonstrating, protests, like really being in the core of what we named as Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. And because of the connection that the Black Lives Matter Minneapolis chapter had to other national organizations, it allowed me to also think about ‘what do we mean when we say national organizing?’ And how it is important to do a both/and approach around being rooted in what’s going on in your local, city, town, state, and how it’s connected to a larger goal of Black liberation,” Omeoga said.

According to Omeoga, Black joy and ancestral legacy also play important roles in Black liberation, so that space is intentionally created for the expression of joy through both Black Visions and BLMP organizationally. “When I think about the root of the work that I do, it’s always how we create spaces for joy now, so that we can create spaces for joy in the future and in the journey of Black liberation,” they said.

“I think the difference that I see with the way that we are invested in movement now, is that there is a huge centering on the future, during Black liberation movements including the Civil Rights movement. The end of slavery [Reconstruction] is always like they were dreaming of fighting for now, fighting for the Black people that live now. And while we’re fighting for now, how do we find joy with each other? That was always a huge link for me,” Omeoga said.

According to Omeoga, they are also inspired by individual trailblazers of previous movements, including the Stonewall uprising in the 1960s and Nigerian freedom movements of the Ibo people.

“It’s been the folks from the Ibo women’s war. Specifically, I’m Ibo, and thinking about the decolonization and the anti-imperialism of Nigeria. People like James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, who a lot of people don’t know was the main organizer of the [1963] March on Washington, it’s been folks like Angela Davis, the scholars, and theorists like Audrey Lorde, like bell hooks, who are really thinking about and talking about Black love and Black people,” they said.

Part of Omeoga’s commencement address will pose questions for personal consideration. “What impact does an individual want to see?” And “how do you execute and really cultivate that space [of liberation] for now and for the future?”

“I think the other address that I want to give is, regardless of the individual impact, it’s always about the collective. The individual feeds into the collective, and the collective serves the individuals as a whole,” they said.

So how does Omeoga — whose work involves coalition building — partner with people or organizations that they may not agree with philosophically or strategically?

“Even when I think about when I first started organizing, it was very easy to be like, ‘well, I’m just not going to be in a conversational relationship.’ I found that it was actually more isolating than I thought — even people that are as radical or more radical than you still differ in something. I think about my parents, and remember when I first started organizing, it was really hard for them to understand where I was coming from — they still don’t understand it.”

Omeoga has seen some movement toward understanding with her parents, who are more engaged with them.

“And in the last 12, 15 years that I’ve been out as queer and that I’ve been organizing, I have seen the shift that they have made to the point where my parents actively ask me for my political opinion on things, which was never the case, “ Omeoga said.

According to Omeoga, building a coalition as an organizer working with people with different perspectives requires patience.

“I understand queer identity because I’m in it, but there was still a time when I didn’t know what that was. There was a time where I didn’t know as much as I do now. And because people gave me the grace of teaching me, and being in community with me is how I learned,” Omeoga said.

But there are limits.

“I think there’s also a difference between being cognizant of where is, and isn’t, your place to educate people,” they said. “So, for example, personally, I will never educate white people on anti-Blackness. I’m not invested in having that conversation. But what I will do is educate my parents around their anti-Blackness as immigrant folks, and how that plays into the larger supremacy of white supremacy. I think that it’s important for us to know what our lanes are, and where we can actually make movements and shifts,” Omeoga said.

Omeoga referenced history as a way to make sense of the current state of political affairs in which LGBTQIA+ rights are being subjected to anti-trans legislation.

“When we think about any social movement that has happened, whenever there’s progress, there’s always regression. For me it’s like, does the progress outweigh the regression? I think that narratively it actually does. Because even when we think about social movements in general in the last 150 years since the abolition of slavery, it’s always been more progressed,” Omeoga said.

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