By Ariel Cochran

ORCA 2023 opening keynote speakers

The Seventh Annual ORCA Conference on Feb. 10, 2023,at the University of Alabama at Birmingham challenged students to answer the question, "Why?" This year's theme was "Finding Your Why: Sparking Social Change."

ORCA stands for Organized Radical Collegiate Activism. According to the Student Justice Advocacy Council (SJAC),conference, "aimed to address the challenges and advantages of doing social justice advocacy work on college campuses.”

Kevin Joseph, a sophomore majoring in immunology, explains, “The conference was all about giving a voice to students, their passions, what change they want to see, and the issues that they care about. This is especially for student activists to talk about how that work translates to a college setting.” 

Joseph joined SJAC as a freshman representative.Now a junior works as a council program coordinator and ORCA organizer. Fellow ORCA organizer Rachael George joined The duo has worked on developing this year’s ORCA conference together since last summer.

George states, “This is truly the first time since 2020 that ORCA is being held at full scale, and we wanted to encourage students to think about what their spark was to get involved in advocacy and other projects that they’re connected to.”

Student in mask, listening to the opening keynote

The conference had over 14 unique seminars over the course of three, one-hour sessions.  The session leaders consisted of student leadership, a diverse group of student organizations active on UAB’s campus, and guest speakers from the Birmingham community. 

Topics for the conference included but were not limited to STEM education equity, gender equity, the impact of British Colonialism in India, issues in accessibility, resources provided on UAB’s campus, and seminars on histories of diverse populations during major political and global events.

Indian Student Association presenting in one of the ORCA conference breakout sessions

George adds, “A lot of our presentations are centered on our cultural identity-based organizations [on campus] and a lot of them are taking the time to really go into [topics about] systems that have been longstanding. They’re talking about ways to truly affect the fundamental nature of the thing and trying to change it.”

Rachael George, smiling, tests the Oculus Quest

As part of the conference experience, participants had the opportunity to play an ORCA-themed game of bingo where, by attending each session, they could fill in their card for a chance to win a prize. Participants could also try out virtual reality experiences, courtesy of UAB Libraries via Oculus Quest headsets.

The virtual reality headsets provided options for users to view lessons on animals, their environments and information on nature preservation. Users could also "see" what life was like for African Americans during the height of the Jim Crow era by experiencing a simulation of riding at the back of a bus.

“You get to hear topics you’re not going to normally hear about in classrooms,” George says. “You’re going to hear the student leaders on campus tell you what they’re doing.”

ORCA participants were treated to dinner and finished the conference with keynote speaker T. Marie King.

Joseph adds, “I think it’s really all about the connections that we make with other people and the stories that we tell and the information that we can share. We asked that our presenters share action items or actionable things that the attendees can do after they’ve learned a bit about this topic or this issue.”

To learn more about the ORCA conference and SJAC, follow the group on social media at@uabsjac.