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Wisdom Cole: Paving the way for a new generation of Black leaders

Presented by UC Santa Cruz
Wisdom Cole at work with the NAACP, Youth and College Division.
(Greg Kahn)

Wisdom Cole (Oakes ’15, Chemistry), the National Director of the National Association of Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Youth & College Division, is a steadfast advocate for Black youth and students—championing campaigns in Black youth voter turnout, removing police from schools, and canceling student debt. His efforts to address interconnected forms of marginalization during a difficult time in the nation’s history recognize that these challenges—electoral, environmental, economic, and epidemiological—are fraught with issues of intergenerational equity.

Cole will be a keynote speaker at UC Santa Cruz’s John R. Lewis College dedication ceremony on May 6. He said that UCSC’s decision to name College Ten after the late U.S. congressman bears great significance for the university.

“When it comes to naming College Ten to be John R. Lewis College, I think about the legacy the late great Congressman left, starting as a youth organizer. John R. Lewis embodies the spirit that I believe comes out of Santa Cruz. [UC] Santa Cruz is one of those places with a legacy and a history of strong Black activism on campus.”

— Wisdom Cole, National Director of the NAACP Youth & College Division and UCSC alumnus

Cole will join powerful keynote speakers LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Votes Matter and the Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, and Terisa Siagatonu, a College Ten alum, award-winning poet, teaching artist, mental health educator, and community leader. The ceremony is open to the public.

Wisdom Cole
National Director of the NAACP Youth & College Division and UCSC alumnus Wisdom Cole (Oakes ’15, Chemistry) will be a keynote speaker at the John R. Lewis College dedication ceremony on May 6.
(UC Santa Cruz)

College Nine and John R. Lewis College Provost Flora Lu emphasized the excitement surrounding Cole joining the event’s speaker panel.

“It is an honor for us to welcome Wisdom back to UCSC to help celebrate the dedication of John R. Lewis College,” Lu said. “Wisdom’s impact is felt on our campus and across the nation, from his efforts as an undergraduate to organize the Afrikan Black Coalition Conference at UCSC to his current role as National Director of the NAACP Youth & College Division. His work reflects a commitment to civil rights, protects democracy, promotes educational equity and access, combats systemic racism, and centers the efforts of students as agents of transformative change. Wisdom continues the legacy of John Lewis and inspires us to do the same.”

Following a legacy of Black activism on campus

Wisdom Cole chose to attend UC Santa Cruz for three reasons: It was a top research university, his cousin was attending, and he was ready to get out of the town he grew up in, San Bernardino. When he was 17, he saw San Bernardino as a community for people of color but wished for more political mobilization. He wanted to go somewhere where he could shake things up, somewhere far away from Southern California, and Santa Cruz was his best bet. What he didn’t expect, however, was to find himself in a town with a Black population of less than 2 percent. The low demographic population paired with the size of the university and its widespread layout made being a Black man on campus challenging for Cole.

“It can be really isolating,” Cole said. “You can go days without seeing another Black person at UC Santa Cruz, and that’s also one of the reasons I chose Oakes College.” Through the multi-ethnic community at Oakes College and campus organizations, Cole found his community. He added that UCSC was the place and the space that gave him the words to describe his experience as a Black man in America.

He was an RA at Oakes College, an active member of the African Student Union, served as a field and state conference organizer for the Afrikan Black Coalition, and participated in multiple SOMeCA leadership courses. In his last year at the university, he joined the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT). Cole said that through his experience with AATAT, he honed his skills in public speaking.

Cole came into UCSC pursuing a career in STEM and graduated with a B.A. in Chemistry, but through the connections he was able to cultivate with the Black community at UCSC, he found himself drawn to a path of advocacy.

“I learned how to love myself as a Black man in America at [UC] Santa Cruz because I was able to connect with other Black students who went through very similar situations in their formative years. People who were the token Black kid in their AP class, people who had been pulled over for no reason, folks whose rights have been violated in different ways. People who had a shared experience with me, I had the opportunity to connect with them.”

— Wisdom Cole, National Director of the NAACP Youth & College Division and UCSC alumnus

In his third year at the university, Cole organized the Afrikan Black Coalition Conference at UCSC, which hosted prominent speakers Attallah Shabazz, Marc Lamont Hill, Bobby Seale, and UCSC Professor Emerita Angela Davis. The conference was centered around conversations of reimagining Black activism. For organizing the conference, Cole received the Chancellor’s Achievement Award for Diversity in recognition of outstanding contributions to furthering diversity, inclusion, and excellence at UCSC.

Cole said that coordinating and executing the conference was pivotal in understanding what he wanted to pursue in life. “That was really the point in time where it took off for me and I was like, ‘this is what I want to do with my life; I can do this every day,’” Cole said. “If I can work to empower young Black people and build solidarity with different communities, then this is what I want to do.

Director of SOMeCA, Sayo Fujioka, recalled Cole’s presence in the classroom. “Wisdom was an inspiring student leader, a role model of purpose and integrity,” Fujioka said. “I have clear memories of Wisdom listening attentively to students with diverse opinions. His care for others created conditions for growing understanding and consensus.”

Investing in youth and the future

After graduating from UCSC in 2015, Cole pursued an education M.A. in teaching at the University of San Francisco. He then taught mathematics and science at the June Jordan School for Equity—a San Francisco-based high school predominantly serving working-class communities of color.

“I always tell people that if Oakes College made a high school, it would be that high school,” Cole said. “But that was a school where I was able to do both; I was able to show myself as a Black mathematician, as a Black scientist, but also recognize my history as a Black man and connect these three concepts that sometimes seem so different, but are actually really similar.”

In 2018, Cole began working with the NAACP as the National Training and Campaign Manager of the Youth and College Division. He began serving as the National Director of the division in 2021. Cole’s current efforts are focused on the cancellation of student debt at a minimum of $50,000, police accountability and removing police from schools, and promoting voting rights in marginalized communities.

Cole said he is proud to be an alumnus of UC Santa Cruz and is incredibly proud of the university’s step toward recognizing College Ten as John R. Lewis College. He said he hopes that the university will continue to support Black students and invest in young leaders in the future.

“I really hope that this naming sets a new precedent for the university when they think about young people of color and young Black people,” Cole said. “The fact that I’m the National Director of the NAACP Youth & College division wasn’t an accident. There were people who poured into me, gave to me, and made sure that I was on the right path to becoming the person I am today.”

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