Written by Sara Holley // This story is the first of our Community Spotlights, a series of student-written features on Asian and Asian American leaders, doers and creatives.
Three years ago, friends Veda Patil ’21 and Thilini Weerakkody ’21 sat in Lenoir Dining Hall together, joking and dreaming about what it would be like if they led the Campus Y, UNC-Chapel Hill’s social justice hub and home to 33 student organizations.
Last February, a once-abstract vision became a reality: Patil and Weerakkody were elected as the Campus Y 2020-21 co-presidents. The name of their campaign platform, “A Place at the Table,” befitted their status as the first co-presidents who are both women of color in the organization’s 161-year history. Patil is Indian American, and Weerakkody is Sri Lankan.
The pair will pass the torch to Montia Daniels ’22 and Patrice McGloin ’23 on March 12. Daniels and McGloin, who ran on the platform “Our voices will not be silenced,” will also break ground as the organization’s first Black female co-presidents.
Patil told the The Daily Tar Heel that she looks forward to seeing her successors build on the community organizing work that lies at the heart of the Campus Y. In the meantime, she and Weerakkody remain resolute in their effort to serve “with empathy, grace and compassion” (Campus Y Instagram).
Read more to learn about the vision behind Patil and Weerakkody’s platform, accomplishments during their term, their thoughts on leadership and solidarity, and why they serve.
The promise behind it all: “A Place at the Table”
In their campaign platform, Patil and Weerakkody promised to
- “prioritize marginalized voices at the Campus Y by ensuring that their Executive Board reflects the diversity present at UNC-Chapel Hill;
- create spaces where students feel comfortable having honest conversations about race, identity and privilege;
- promote self-care and restorative practices for activists; [and]
- institute a collaborative, joint coalition of student leaders from affinity and identity-based organizations through the Campus Y and Student Government” (Campus Y).
When asked what the platform means to them, the co-presidents explained that it was born directly from their experiences as former co-directors of outreach.
“We encountered a lot of individuals, especially from marginalized communities, who didn’t feel like the Campus Y was a space for them to engage in social justice,” Patil said. “We’re trying to open up the space and bring more people to the table where decisions are being made. Through inclusion, we can achieve more equity and justice.”
Weerakkody agreed, adding that their co-presidency is “based on acknowledging that the individuals and communities they’re trying to support are brilliant.”
Key accomplishments during the 2020-21 term
Since the spring of 2020, the Campus Y has promoted and organized several programs under Patil and Weerakkody’s leadership.
In November, the organization partnered with the Carolina Center for Public Service and Student Life and Leadership to host Living Room Conversations, a series of digital events that allowed students to reflect on election season, especially with regard to mental health.
In December and January, the Campus Y and the Dispute Settlement Center hosted “Leadership Dialogues: Reckoning With Race, Racism and Safety.” The series provided attendees with tools to “navigate conversations about race in a way that is authentic and empathetic” (Campus Y Instagram).
Another initiative, the “You Can’t Silence Us” photoshoot protest, was a response to the Campus Y building being damaged and vandalized with racist, misogynistic messaging on January 23. The Campus Y posted a photo series, along with a document outlining ways to combat various forms of supremacy, on Instagram and Facebook on February 25. The photos, which were taken in areas that had been damaged, show Patil, Weerakkody and other organizers holding signs with phrases like “this is our home” and “we are unafraid.”
In a nod to Daniels and McGloin’s campaign platform, the caption for the last photo in the series reads, “We will not be silenced.”
Patil and Weerakkody on leadership and solidarity
The pair seeks to lead by example and lead with humanity.
Patil explained how the pressures of being the oldest daughter in an immigrant family shaped her approach to leadership. “I had to reach a point of burnout and re-evaluate my priorities,” she said. “As a leader, I’m learning to look after myself and acknowledge the people around me as humans first.”
Weerakkody added that their cultural and gender identities have informed — but not exclusively defined — their leadership. “Because we’re women of color, we’ve been expected to represent our entire race many times,” she said. “We function on this understanding that minorities aren’t monolithic.”
Both co-presidents expressed excitement about the establishment of the UNC-Chapel Hill Asian American Center (AAC), as they believe it will help dispel monolithic perceptions of the Asian/Asian American community.
“As South Asian women, we’d love to collaborate with the AAC. There’s no one individual who can capture all the needs, desires, hopes and dreams of the Asian community,” Weerakkody said.
The pair sees an opportunity to not only explore Asian/Asian American identities, but also build bridges with other communities.
“The Asian community has its own history of oppression,” Patil said. “We need to combat anti-Blackness, which is so pervasive, even when we’re not in the same spaces. The long-term vision should be collective liberation.”
One way they planned to promote intergroup solidarity during their term was relaunching the UNC-Chapel Hill Coalition of Awareness, Resistance and Solidarity (CARS) — which was founded as an independent coalition of affinity groups of students of color — as a council within the Campus Y. The AAC is one of several bodies across campus that Patil and Weerakkody have invited to participate in CARS.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the process of renewing the coalition, but the co-presidents are excited for their successors to continue the push.
“I can talk about it for days and days. This is a moment where we all need to show up. We’re siloed, so students are overwhelmed and don’t have the capacity to do something new. We want to have that platform ready for them,” Patil said.
The co-presidents received approval and support to revamp CARS from its founder, Kellan Robinson ’20. Like the Campus Y and CARS, the AAC is built on a legacy of past student activism. The UNC-Chapel HIll Asian American and Pacific Islander Working Group, which was active from 2017 to 2019, engaged in Asian identity-centered activism and laid the groundwork for what is now the AAC. Patil shared that “the implications of that kind of work being continued aligns perfectly with the Campus Y’s mission.”
Why Patil and Weerakkody serve
Both Patil and Weerakkody had a lot to say on the topic of why they serve.
The co-presidents also cited a desire to honor the Campus Y’s 161-year history and legacy, despite being forced to gather digitally in the wake of COVID-19. Meeting over video calls and communicating via social media required them to rethink what community is and what it can be.
As the end of their term approaches, Patil and Weerakkody remain committed to maintaining the sense of community that fuels the Campus Y. In Weerakkody’s words, “We have a community, even though we don’t have one in front of us.”