When Ramona Tascoe arrived at San Francisco State in the 1960s, she was brought up short by the African-American students she met there who were wearing Afros and dashikis. As she told me when we talked on May 5, 2016, those same students were not shy about telling her what they thought of her emulating white standards of beauty. It wasn’t long before her consciousness was raised about more than external appearance, to the horror of her parents who had taught her to assimilate.
Tascoe went on to become the first person arrested during the San Francisco State student strike, an experience that shaped how she decided to live her life as a doctor taking care of those most in need, and as a Global First Responder, providing medical aid in places like Haiti and Kenya. It’s no surprise that when filmmaker Abby Ginzberg interviewed her for AGENTS OF CHANGE, her documentary about student unrest in the 1960s, Tascoe became not just an integral part of the film, but also a fast friend.
Ginzberg has been at Cornell during the 60s, and witnessed the unrest on her campus first-hand. Her film tells the story of how those two institutions dealt with students who wanted to move away from a Eurocentric curriculum, and the comparisons and contrasts help put those times in perspective, as well as getting the complexity of them. Ginzberg also wanted to set the record straight about the violence, rather the lack thereof, on the part of the striking students at Cornell, and to place the blame squarely where it belonged, with among others, those who had burned a cross on campus.
The most moving moment, though, came when Tascoe described a moment of détente and unexpected honesty over a cup of tea with SFSU President S.I. Hayakawa, who had quashed the strike by force.
AGENTS OF CHANGE is their documentary about the turbulent times in the 1960s when the vestiges of segregation were still being felt, and purpose of the university was being questioned. Tascoe was a student at San Francisco State University at a time when students of color were demanding more than the Eurocentric programs that were then offered and willing to go on strike to get it, while Ginzberg was at Cornell at roughly the same time when that university was experiencing a similar revolution of thought. Told through vintage footage from that time, and oral histories from many of the people who were there, AGENTS OF CHANGE becomes a time capsule of a culture on the verge of many changes, as well as a case study of how two universities chose to deal with a student body whose consciousness had been raised and who refused to be dismissed.
Ginzberg co-directed with Frank Dawson, and her previous work includes., Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa, and the Oscar™-nominated short film The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement.