Meet Alexis Grant, founding president of UIC’s Black Graduate Student Association

Alexis Grant, wearing a Radical Pubic Health shirt, smiling toward the camera

Alexis Grant is a third-year PhD student in the division of Community Health Sciences at the UIC School of Public Health. Her research focuses on public health system partnerships, particularly for the purposes of implementing interventions in community settings. Alexis is the Community Engagement Fellow at the UIC School of Public Health Collaboratory for Health Justice, has a master’s degree in Behavioral and Social Health Sciences from Brown University and bachelor’s degrees in English and Psychology from Howard University.

Getting involved 

Having attended Howard University (an historically Black university) for her undergraduate education, Alexis had been exposed to the celebration of Blackness in all its multifaceted forms, and really wanted to continue occupying spaces where people ‘get her’, where she didn’t have to prove herself, and that people cultivated pride in being Black.  She also knew that the Black graduate student population at UIC was not representative of the Black population in the city and, being the first person in her family to pursue a doctoral degree, she was intentional about finding Black-centered spaces of support. When she inquired about Black graduate student organizations at UIC and didn’t find any, she decided to create one. In the spring of 2019, she got together with two other Black graduate students–Shari Garrett and K Milam-Books–and co-founded the Black Graduate Student Association. Today, the BGSA has more than 100 members, hosts social and academic events, has a mentoring program between graduate and  undergraduate students, works in collaboration with other organizations, and has become a catalyst for student action. “It is like having a family”, Alexis said.

On positionality and activism

Alexis recognizes that being a graduate student involved in student organizations and activism while still having to get your graduate work done is a balancing act – one that is done in collaboration with others.  As she said, “it is definitely a balance act; it is about prioritization… I thrive in doing a lot of stuff… but everyone in the  executive board helps each other out. We are all graduate students and we know we have a lot of stuff to do.”

Alexis talked about variations in privilege and access among graduate students, and how such  privilege and access shapes graduate students’ experiences with activism.  “It has been really important for me to be thinking about my positionality… and providing as many opportunities as possible for other students to voice their concerns and having that being a part of the work we do”.  For example, Alexis noted that having a fellowship that provides support for her academic studies to complete her program – regardless of what others think of her activism – provides a sense of security that other graduate students may not have.  Also, as the BSGA’s president, she is familiar with how to engage and develop relationships with administrators.

On the letter of student demands

Alexis shared that the student list of demands came as a result of a group of students “being fed up” with the anti-Black violence that was taking place around the country and in the city as well as the failure of UIC and the University of Illinois System to publicly positioned themselves against police brutality. This group of students were inspired by the activism of students from other states and institutions, and really wanted to keep the momentum going, “from start to finish it took us one week to write the letter and send it out for signatures”, Alexis shared.

Recognizing that change takes time and knowing that UIC would not promptly respond to the list of demands, the BGSA and other groups of students started meeting regularly to discuss how to keep UIC accountable to the demand, and to support students who wanted to create specific demands for their department.  This group of students later created the Good Trouble Coalition, an organization open to everyone – students, faculty, organizations.  Alexis serves in the leadership team.

Connection between WRLC & BGSA

When BGSA and BSU were creating the list of demands, they called on UIC administrators to invest in holistic approaches to foster the mental health of Black and other students of color.  Specifically, it is in WLRC’s Campus Advocacy Network (CAN) program, and its intersectional and survivor-centered approach to student advocacy and healing that Alexis sees the connection between BGSA & WLRC.  We also talked about the intersections of graduate students’ identities (race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc) and that by taking an intersectional perspective in identifying and addressing violence we are able create alliance and support each other.

Alexis, wearing a face mask, standing outdoors near a fence, reading off a phone, and speaking through a megaphone.

Lessons learned in graduate student activism

Here is a list of things Alexis has learned from her activist &  leadership work

  • Be more confident in speaking out and pushing the boundaries
  • Be ready to challenge others
  • There is so many institutional barriers we need to get through before we actually see change
  • It doesn’t hurt to dream!

Importance of graduate student activism

In talking about the importance of graduate students’ involvement in activism, Alexis talked about the opportunity to leave a mark that will impact UIC long after we are gone.  Going back to the knowledge that change will take time, she believes in the power of the collective: “every voice matters. Even if we don’t see the change, the collective voice is louder”, she said.  Alexis also believes that graduate students occupy a unique position at UIC that holds a lot of potential to ignite and demand change: “we are employees of the university, we bring research money, we have relationships with students and faculty… we can build bridges between different groups, people, departments, programs”, she highlighted.

As the president of BGSA, Alexis hopes that beyond the advocacy work that the organization is pushing forward, the presence and humanity of Black graduate students will be acknowledged and honored: “Black graduate students are here, we are doing research, we are also people”. Alexis emphasized the BGSA efforts to create spaces where Black students (and other students of color) can bring all parts of themselves: “not only the culture, but also the scholarship… not having to separate the parts of who we are”.

During Black History Month this coming spring 2021, the BGSA will host a symposium for graduate students of color to present their research that will “celebrate all parts of who we are”, she highlighted.

On a more personal level, Alexis believes that she will leave her mark at UIC by empowering students to continue speaking out and challenging the administration long after she is gone: “the changes that we want do take time and we need people to hold the administration accountable”.

Every voice matters. Even if we don’t see the change, the collective voice is louder.

Alexis Grant

Black Graduate Student Association

A group of Black Graduate Student Association members holds balloons of the letters

The Black Graduate Student Association is a student-led organization founded in 2019 and focuses on providing academic, professional, and social support to Black graduate students at University of Illinois at Chicago.

Currently led by Alexis Grant (Public Health), BGSA strives to ” provide a place of refuge where Black students are encouraged to share ideas, concepts, and frustrations” (BGSA website).

During the summer of 2020, and in the wake of the protests against police brutality and the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many other Black and brown folks, the BGSA – in collaboration with UIC’s Black Student Union, a predominantly undergraduate student group – created a list of demands that spoke to the ways in which UIC and the University of Illinois System (U of I) have been complicit in anti-Black violence, police brutality, institutional racism, and other forms of discrimination. Black students demanded that UIC, and the U of I administration, take genuine actions towards dismantling oppressive systems, structures, and practices at the university.

The letter was widely circulated and signed by hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and organizations, and has led to campus-wide conversations and initiatives that seek to address the needs of Black students.  You can read it in its entirety here.

How to get involved with BGSA

BGSA hosts monthly programmings, general member meetings, a mentoring program, study halls, social events, among other things. See contact info below to learn more and get involved