Take Note: Nyla Holland Discusses Importance Of Local Activism, Maintaining Mental Health
On this episode of Take Note, we talk with Nyla Holland, an active member of the 3/20 Coalition in State College and the former president of Penn State's Black Caucus. She spent her four years at Penn State as an activist at the university and the local community. In the fall, she will continue her education at Penn State in pursuit of a master's degree in public policy where she'll continue as an activist.
Here is the interview:
Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. From my home studio, I’m Jade Campos. Nyla Holland has been a fierce advocate for social justice in State College and at Penn State during her time in the community. Last year, she served as the president of Black Caucus and is an active member of the 3/20 Coalition. We talked to Holland about her experiences being an advocate in the community and its effects on mental health.
JADE: Nyla Holland, thanks for talking with us.
NYLA: Of course.
JADE: So when did you get involved in social justice and what really led you to that?
NYLA: My first experience with it was in eighth grade. The Philadelphia Public School system to this day is not a good one, and the teachers made us aware that there was a lot of unfairness regarding their contract situation. And a bunch of Philadelphia public school teachers had a rally outside of the school district building, and my eighth grade English teacher invited some students to go, so I went, and the feeling there, the passion that was there, I was just really drawn to. And I saw that it was making a difference. And so that was my first run in and then in high school, I did some, some work with the Philadelphia Student Union that was similar to that.
JADE: So you knew for a couple of years before you even got to Penn State that social justice was something that you were passionate about.
NYLA: Yeah. Yeah.
JADE: Did you know coming into Penn State that that was something you wanted to keep getting involved with in the State College community.
NYLA: Not necessarily State College, I feel like I didn't pay attention that much to the greater Penn State community and State College until later on in my freshman year, but I knew that I wanted to be involved with some Black organizations, cultural organizations at Penn State. So that's what I directly went for. And something in high school that I did was talk about social justice through my poetry. So, I also joined a poetry group my freshman year where I could continue to speak on those kinds of things.
JADE: And like you were mentioning, getting involved in different cultural groups at Penn State, during your undergraduate years, you were involved with different student organizations like Black Caucus, and you were the president of the organization during your senior year. So what drew you specifically to Black Caucus?
NYLA: Yeah, so I, as I said, was working for Black organizations and I found like a few. After, well, during syllabus week and the week after I was going to all these different clubs and their meetings and seeing which ones that I really liked. And Black Caucus, it just felt different. One, it's the second oldest, non-greek Black organization at Penn State so it had a 50 year history. When I walked into the room, it wasn't set up like people are talking at you. It was everyone sat in a circle and it felt like everyone, even if you were the president or if you were just a new member, was like an equal part of this group. And I really liked the energy there and the mission was something that was very powerful. And yeah, it just spoke to me.
JADE: And while you were in leadership, was there anything that you sought to do to get the group moving forward more than it already had been in the past?
NYLA: Yeah, so I think part of it wasn't really a conscious choice, with the Black Lives Matter movement like really exploding this past year kind of wasn't a choice, so we basically wanted to do more activist wise and politically. So we really had to step up there and see how we can push the needle at Penn State. Establishing ourselves as a resource is something we've always tried to do and I think a lot more people know about the organization now and at least kind of knew where to turn to when things kind of went down, so that's something I'm glad we were able to do this year to really expand our audience.
JADE: Just like you were mentioning with the Black Lives Matter movement really sparking even further than it ever has before over the past year, in the past two years, so many different communities were coming together across the country to fight systemic racism. And you've been very active in the Penn State community and in State College so how are you able to see these movements unfold in State College?
NYLA: Yeah, I I think State College had, well, I've only been here for a little bit but I guess in my view, a bit of an awakening in 2019 when Osaze Osagie was shot and killed by a police officer, and the 3/20 Coalition formed out of that. So, that was already a group pushing for justice for him and against police brutality, for more mental health resources. Folks have been pressured, and have had to give in so we've seen progress with different groups within the borough. I think we have a community oversight group who were able to re establish the Task Force on Policing Communities of Color, which I think just published a report this morning. And things like finally knowing the names of the officers who killed Osaze. So we've seen some progress there, including the election of a bunch of progressive folks who are in this fight with us to Borough Council and different government positions. At Penn State, we were able to change the code of conduct to the very line that we could have in order to do more about hate speech at Penn State. And I think there's been a greater conversation and more will to recognize who's in this room? Who is not in the room? And who and what do you need to do to change that? There's a lot more work that needs to be done because it's usually due to students, faculty and staff like me, and folks that I've looked up to who are doing that work. But I think it was definitely put on the forefront of people's minds last year, and I hope that continues to be a priority.
JADE: And the murder of George Floyd in 2020 definitely brought back more attention to the 2019 police killing of Osaze Osagie in State College and Osagie was a 29-year-old Black man with mental health issues just for background for people who may not be familiar with the case. And like you're mentioning, it's important to keep these conversations going. So why do you feel like it is very important in State College to keep talking about Osagie and public spaces?
NYLA: Oh, yeah, that's a great question. It's so necessary because one, I feel like I say this all the time, but this town is called Happy Valley, but it is happy for a particular population and not for others. And with Black people already being such a low percentage of the population and being marginalized and not having access to things in State College that we would like to, that we need, it's important to center the conversation around those folks who it's not pleasant for to live here. And I think a part of that narrative around being happy is that the State College Police have toted that their record is great, they don't get a lot of complaints, especially complaints about racist events or incidents. And we're gaslighting people into thinking that there's no racial issue in State College. The first person to be killed by State College Police was a Black man. Do you know how hard it is to find a Black man in State College first of all? So we need to dispel that myth that the State College Police has been toting.And his life was cut so short, and in a college town people are just so focused on themselves and trying to graduate or whatever, whatever they're trying to do. But people live here and Black people live here. All of us need to be free and we need justice for everyone. So we cannot truly have that happiness fully celebrate until we have justice for him and we make the type of community that Osaze would have never been killed by police in.
JADE: Is that why you feel like all of these, the Mental Task Force and the code of conduct and all these changes are being made in the community? Especially, you know, things are moving pretty rapidly over the past few years.
NYLA: I think it had so much to do with pressure. It took thoughts of students to like a Black Caucus post, and with the student government, and letters to be sent and meetings to be called and talking to the president of the university himself and asking for these things, and protesting for these things. Nothing would have been done without pressure from folks and people knowing that we are going to make it uncomfortable for you, as long as it is. It is uncomfortable for us. So, I think that's been a huge reason why anything has been done, because for a long time, students have been saying the same thing. And nothing was done. And I think it really got to a boiling point.
JADE: So how do you feel like State College residents of all races and ethnicities can help continue this fight for social justice in their communities and contribute to movements that already exist in their areas?
NYLA: Yeah, that's a great question. One, to see what's already being done, see what groups there already are. I think that sometimes it makes things harder for ourselves by wanting to create a new group and meet on a different day and gather your own set of people. When, really, if we have this common purpose and these common goals then should be able to join together and not stetch people for their time and resources. So definitely see what organizations are out there doing the same that want to be a part of and joining that. So, there's, of course, 3/20 coalition, which has several days different committees if you want to be more involved. So we have Community Education which I'm the new co-chair of that's start this fall. We have a Structural Reform team. We have people who are dedicated to Black healing within a community. There's, I think, like Democratic Socialists within Centre County, there's the State College NAACP, And there's tons of Penn State student organizations that are doing doing a lot of work on the undergrad and grad level. So join those. Something that I tell people all the time is to show up. If you can do nothing else, then show up. I feel like that's what got me to this place, was just being curious, going to a lecture or maybe staying after, saying hi to a couple people, going to an informational where I learned about a program and then I can learn more through that program. Just showing up means so much as a sign of support, even if you don't know a lot, if you want to know a lot. I really feel like that's the first step and if you can't show up then ask your friends to. And follow up with your friends afterward. Also, to bring these same principles that you're learning in these organizations at whatever event into your own life. So, it's fine to an "ally" when you're in the face of other people and how you interact with them how you talk with them but are you talking to your grandparents? Are you talking to your racist parents? Are you voting in your rural hometown? Because that needs your your vote more than a different place would. Are you purging your friend group of racists? Are you serving in your community? Are you making yourself a safe space for people? These principles don't need to just show up on your Instagram feed or in the face of the people that you're trying to be in service of. You need to take it back to your own community and do that work as well.
JADE: And do you feel like that social justice advocacy at Penn State in the State College, are they separate from each other? Or do the two really work hand in hand and people should get involved in both?
NYLA: I think they are more so now and I think they need to work together. We've seen a whole lot of dissonance in university communities and preaching certain things but then going against that in the community that the actual university is in.
JADE: If you’re just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I’m Jade Campos. We’re talking with Nyla Holland. Holland graduated from Penn State in May. She studied African American studies and political science. During her four years in State College, she has been a fierce advocate for social justice.
JADE: Being an advocate in the community can have a toll on your mental health, and for you, especially as a Black woman living in State College in a predominately white area, how has your involvement in advocacy affected your mental health?
NYLA: Great question. And I think how insane this past year was and busy and taxing, we've talked a lot about resilience and being able to bounce back from pressure from issues from stress. But the type of work that it was this year was constant and compounding, and resiliance only gets you, only got me so far. And it was to a point where I felt like I could not think about how I was feeling or else I would probably shut down. So people in my life, were commenting that I was basically on autopilot. Just doing the things that I committed to, trying my best to try my best. And with the Zoom bombing that happened in January, I think that's a great example of how like this work is traumatic, and there needs to be so much more space and resources for this topic. I had already had a nightmare issue all through fall semester. And that escalated after the Zoom bombing. And I was having physical responses to being in the Zoom room with folks in Black Caucus who were in the Zoom room at the time and it was really hard to navigate, the incident, and then I was trying to graduate with these degrees, I had started my master's program already. I had an internship, I had tests, homework and now I'm talking to detectives and writing incident reports and writing statements and talking to press. And it was way too much for us to deal with. And even some of the folks who were openly there for us and wanting to support, were putting more of a burden on us to tell us how to support them, how to support us. Burnout is not even the word for it. After I graduated, I barely did a single thing for over a month, because my body would not allow me to. And I'm just like getting out of that rut. And then I'm thinking like, I advocate for mental health. And I try to bring that into the organizations I'm a part of and telling everyone else to 'Yes, take time off, don't come to this meeting, do whatever you need to do, do not worry about this. Don't pick up the phone, don't email.' But wouldn't afford the same to myself and, also, no one else was affording me that as well.
It really opened my eyes to like how fragile like our bodies and minds are and that self care needs to be a consistent, constant, daily practice and not something that I could put off till summer like I tried to.
JADE: Yeah. And the Zoom bombings were they were in a series of events that took place at the beginning of the spring semester and they really started at the Involvement Fair in the Black Caucus Zoom room where people came in and said racist and homophobic comments. Was that really the thing that changed your mind or made you think differently about mental health in combination with advocacy?
NYLA: I think it's what expanded my perspective for myself. I think that I was able to turn other people to the right resources and try to do the right thing for the people I was helping and working with. But for some reason, I just didn't think that I would need the same
help.Because I went through racist incidents before at Penn State, and I was like, able to bounce back but seeing actually how I was having involuntary responses to that traumatic incident. I was like, 'Okay, Nyla, you can't just like, understand this, but not put into practice within your own self.'
JADE: So what have you been able to do or have been working on doing over the past few months to really focus on yourself and your mental health?
NYLA: I did nothing. I would respond to a couple Outlook emails a week. So I did those transitional meetings for things for the organizations I was a part of, but I did what I need to do, bare minimum, and I just watched some Netflix, and I just did nothing. Didn't tune into what I really need or want or what hobbies I would want to pick up on that much but I really just allowed my body and my mind to completely rest. And I want to do more on that front but you know, life goes on.
JADE: I mean, good for you. Because I think you really deserve a break. And it's, I think it can always be hard just to tell yourself to stop doing everything, especially when you've been doing so much all the time. And suddenly you're like, Alright, I just need, you know, I need that month to not have to check my email, which is great. And in the fall, you'll be continuing working toward your master's degree in public policy at Penn State. Do you plan to stay involved in social justice in State College and at the university?
NYLA: Yeah, of course. In my graduation speech, I told the College of the Liberal Arts, don't be a revolutionary until graduation. And I'd be a huge hypocrite if I dropped off the face of the Earth and didn't do anything else. No, I'm still active within the 3/20 Coalition and we'll be working to put on at least a monthly workshop on whatever the community wants to be educated on. I will continue to be a resource to anyone. I'll show up but also just be available. People have questions, want to know where to turn to for advice? I'm here, and I don't know what it will fully look like yet, because I think I was active for four years, but there's great students who need to do that work and full steam ahead for them. But I just want to support in whatever way I can.
JADE: Great. And do you have any have like, over the time that you've spent working in social justice, big takeaways in your involvement?
NYLA: A huge one is to always be willing to learn and to change your perspective. There are things over the past four years that I thought I knew completely, which my opinion has completely changed on and not being afraid to say, I was wrong. I wasn't educated about this, I learned this, and now, this is how I'm moving. That is so important especially as we're getting new language for things and things are being exposed and this world is just, ever, ever changing. Another huge takeaway I've gotten is to listen to those who have been here before. I was someone 18-years-old freshman in college who was listening to all the seniors talk, and listening to the faculty on the side of the lecture and hearing what they were saying, but I just learned so much wisdom from them. And so much of this life is cyclical and things present themselves in different ways but they have the same roots so identifying those patterns and being able to call them out. So, various things that I've heard about my freshman year that Penn State administration was stalling on this issue, and the people who are most passionate about this have graduated and then they made this change over the summer when we weren't here, and that was the same sort of thing the next year. So seeing that pattern, how can you interfere with that, knowing that they will take a token person, butter them up, and that is who they talk to you about everything. So even if you find yourself in that situation where like, 'Oh, these people are only coming to me about this topic, let me give you four other names of folks who would be good to talk about this.' Hey, to another person in your organization, would you mind being a part of this as well? So bringing more folks into the flock and letting their talents and skills develop as well. I think a last takeaway was that everyone has a role in this and all of our roles are different and they shift. And then, it's important to see what role you can play and fit it, especially for the greater good, and all of the voices matter. And make sure in whatever structures that we're doing this social justice work are equitable, and we're recognizing and centering the most marginalized folks within that work. And that is a constant action needs to be put in practice with a lot of thought and care.
JADE: Thank you for sharing that. Thanks so much for talking with us Nyla Holland.
NYLA: Oh, of course, thank you for having me. I really, I really enjoyed being able to think through these things with you.
Nyla Holland spent her four years at Penn State advocating for social justice before graduating in May with degrees in African American studies and political science. She was the president of Penn State’s Black Caucus this past year and is a member of the 3/20 Coalition.
You can hear more Take Note interviews at WPSU.org/TakeNote. I’m WPSU intern, Jade Campos