The We Protect Us Weekend, an event put on for the Campus Pantry in collaboration with the Coalition of Black Students and Allies and the Queers United Coalition, transpired this past weekend and brought with it a message of unity and the power of students in the University of Arizona community.
We Protect Us consisted of two days of a drive-thru food drive along with a virtual conversation that was held on Nov. 21. According to an Instagram post made by COBA’s Instagram page, the virtual discussion aimed to facilitate a conversation around “the lack of prioritization of student struggles shown by the university and how students have shown up for themselves when institutions fail to do so.”
The event derived out of frustrations about the lack of institutional support behind the UA Campus Pantry. The Campus Pantry is a student-run food pantry that serves in-need students and staff at the university.
“It’s a student-led organization essentially, and all of our staff members work supper hard to bring in funding and grants and donations all the time," said Riley Conklin, a senior at the UA, the director of development at the Campus Pantry, the founder of QUC and a member of COBA. “It always seems like we have hoops to jump through, or there are certain restrictions on us operating and I feel like the pandemic really exposed those.”
Because of the pandemic, Campus Pantry operations had to be moved out of the small back room in the Student Union Memorial Center where business was usually conducted into the large Sonora room in the Union. The Student Union would now charge the pantry $12,000 of rent for the semester and the rent would increase to $20,000 in the spring semester and eventually reach $80,000 in the fall of 2021.
Some, like Bridgette Nobbe, coordinator for Campus Pantry’s operations, saw the Campus Pantry’s rent situation as an unfortunate financial difficulty.
“The Student Union is probably like our biggest supporter on this campus,” Nobbe said, “but they're an auxiliary and so they don't receive money from the institution. They actually have to provide money back to the institution, and so losing a revenue space such as the Sonora room — any year, not even a [COVID-19] year — is hugely disruptive to their funding sources.”
This rent situation was publicized by COBA.
“The university was mad at [Campus Pantry] for — we didn’t release the information, but it somehow got out there — and so they were mad that that information was released,” Conklin said.
Conklin also said the university is now in the process of paying the SUMC, and Campus Pantry will be reimbursed for rent already paid.
In light of the struggles facing the UA Campus Pantry, COBA and QUC teamed up with the Pantry to put on We Protect Us.
“It came about because of wonderful student organizers doing what they do best and advocating for student services on campus," said Aileen Cerrillos, a graduate student at the UA and the Graduate Assistant for the Campus Pantry.
Cerrillo said the assistance from both coalitions was key to the events.
“It’s been really helpful to have them really lead with the passion they have for everything they do and watch them put together an event like this," Cerrillos said.
Since the pandemic hit, Conklin reported that the Campus Pantry sees about 600 students and faculty members a week and dispenses around 1,300 pounds of food at each distribution.
“There’s a reason we’re one of the services that’s been open throughout the pandemic right," Cerrillos said. "It’s because students need to eat. Which is a sad fact that about a third of college students will experience food insecurity at one point in their time in college. Every student deserves a right to a good education and the right to perform well in that education and food is apart of that.”
The Campus Pantry hopes that by putting on events like the We Protect Us weekend, they can garner more support for the vital services the Pantry brings to the UA community.
“We want to bring more awareness to the Campus Pantry and everything it does and also the different basic need programs that the UA does provide," Conklin said. "We also hope to get the attention of the administration to bring more institutional support to the Pantry and think more long term instead of these band-aid situations and not reactionary as what happened with the whole rent situation”
Richard Reliford II, a sophomore at the UA and a staff member of the Campus Pantry, said that he’s really seen the community and student organizations coming together during these tough times to support the Pantry.
“That’s what’s been a blessing from a lot of this. I feel like there is becoming more of a support system around us,” Reliford said.
Conklin said they hope more Protect Us events will happen in the future.
“Especially because student organizations tend to show up for other student organizations before the institution does," Conklin said. "And so we want to be here for each other."
Those interested can watch a recording of some of the discussions from We Protect Us weekend on COBA’s Instagram.