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Meet Jael Kerandi, the student leader pushing University of Minnesota to change its relationship with police

Jael Kerandi
Photo by Jerusa Nyakundi

Jael Kerandi is a rising senior majoring in finance and marketing at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, a city that caught the attention of the world when protesters took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd who was killed by police on May 25 — roughly 15 minutes away from the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus.

This summer, Kerandi ended her term as the University of Minnesota's first Black student body president, is working as a finance intern with Microsoft and is helping lead a movement to cut ties between police and universities. 

CNBC Make It spoke with Kerandi to learn how she convinced the University of Minnesota to change its relationship with police, why she is dedicated to reimagining police and safety and her advice to students across the country. 

A 24-hour response

Tuesday, May 26 was the first day of Kerandi's finance internship with Microsoft, which she started remotely from Minneapolis rather than Seattle because of the coronavirus pandemic. By then, videos of Floyd's killing had already gone viral. She says the videos were hard for her and her classmates to watch.

Some students urged her to wait before making a statement as the study body president. Kerandi said, "absolutely not."

"We've been waiting for years for people to take action, and we just go from committee to committee and report to report and nothing ends up happening," she tells CNBC Make It. "It was important that something was said right away, to make sure that our Black students knew that their lives mattered on our campus and we were taking this seriously."

With the help of her peers, she crafted a letter to university administrators that day. 

"The police are murdering Black men with no meaningful repercussions. This is not a problem of some other place or some other time. This is happening right here in Minneapolis. We no longer tolerate the ineffective, inconsistent 'bias training' that rarely serves as more than a fig leaf," she wrote. "We have no purview or jurisdiction over the operations of the Minneapolis Police Department except as citizens of Minneapolis. However, as student leaders, we do have a stake in the operations of the University of Minnesota Police Department. Therefore we clearly and without hesitation DEMAND that the University of Minnesota Police Department ceases any partnerships with the Minneapolis Police Department immediately."

She cited data from the Mapping Police Violence database that indicates Black people have been killed by the Minneapolis Police Department at 13.2 times the rate of White people and ended the letter with: "We expect a reply to this concern within 24 hours of receipt." 

Accountability

Joan Gabel, president of the University of Minnesota, responded the next day.

In an email sent to students, faculty and staff, Gabel announced the school would "limit collaboration" with the Minneapolis Police Department and would no longer use the police for support during large campus events. Since then, the Minneapolis Public School System has also cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department.

Kerandi says that she and Gabel have a "very good relationship" and that she was "very pleased" the university acted so quickly — even if the school is yet to commit to fully severing all ties with local police. 

"I do not have the words to fully express my pain and anger and I know that many in our community share those feelings, but also fear for their own safety. This will not stand," wrote Gabel. "We have a responsibility to uphold our values and a duty to honor them."

Indeed, this duty is one reason Kerandi believes their demands to reconsider the University of Minnesota's relationship with police were so quickly met, adding that her advice to students hoping to enact change on their own campuses is to hold schools accountable to their own mission statements. 

"We're simply holding the administration accountable to what they've already said they value. I'm not putting any words into your mouth. I'm not making assumptions. I'm actually just simply quoting what you have already said," she says, pointing to the University's lengthy public commitments to equity and diversity. "The Minneapolis Police Department has a history of murdering Black lives. That would inherently negate the very values that you have put forth and told students that you have. When those two are in direct contradiction, there's no way they can co-exist."

Reimagining safety

Kerandi's belief that the current police system and racial equity cannot co-exist is also held by activists who are calling for cities to defund local police departments. Many believe that because of structural racism built into police systems and the prison industrial complex, defunding and abolishing the police and reinvesting funds into community programming is the only viable option. 

"The American policing system began as a racist system. It was meant to 'protect' slave owners," says Kerandi, referencing modern police systems' slave patrol origins. "The system itself and how it was built, is racist."

Kerandi likens police reform to "trying to put a band-aid on a bleeding wound" and explains that for many Black students, the presence of police on campus makes them feel less safe.

"We have to start to reimagine what policing and what safety looks like. What scares people is we have never seen anything different. What scares people is we have no idea what this new system looks like and what might work or what might not work," she says. "But what we have right now is no longer acceptable."

While the 21-year-old understands why the concept may feel scary, she disagrees with critics who have told her that removing police from college campuses is "radical."  

"At one time, integrating schools was a 'radical' idea. People couldn't fathom the idea of having Black and White students learning in the same classroom or the idea of us using the same water fountain, or the same bathroom, or eating at the same restaurant," says Kerandi. "Those used to be 'radical' ideas."

"You can be an activist wherever you go"

After finishing her term as student body president on June 30, Kerandi will spend her senior year serving as a student representative for the University's Board of Regents and is excited to see what the incoming undergraduate student body president, Amy Ma, will do to reimagine and promote campus safety for all. 

"Honestly, I don't know what students are going to ask for in terms of what they want to see in terms of subjective safety moving forward and I'm really anxious and excited to listen to students and learn what they need," says Kerandi. "But I also am hearing so clearly the voices of students that have said 'I've never felt safe.'"

Reflecting on her time as student body president, she says she is proud of the work she has accomplished but has very high standards for how she defines success. 

"The work I did in student government is not just simply because I want to better just my life or my peers' lives, but I think a lot about little Black students in the second or third grade — what I like to call 'Baby Gophers' — who are going to come to this institution. And if it's not different for them from when I was here, I will have failed at my job," says Kerandi.

For now, she says she is enjoying her time interning with Microsoft and says she and a coworker recently gave a presentation to the company highlighting racial and gender pay gaps within corporate positions. 

"You can be an activist wherever you go," she says. 

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