When Aries dela Cruz spoke at the New School’s “Spectrum for Activism” panel discussion during their “National Coming Out Week” series, he was the youngest panelist featured. He also had the longest resume.
Born in the Philippines, Aries moved with his family to the US when he was five, living primarily in Manhattan and Queens. He attended public school but dropped out in 2001 to work as a grass-roots community activist with a diverse group of organizations, including the International Action Center, FIERCE! (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment), the New York City Independent Media Center, and the New York City AIDS Housing Network, among many others.
“The police brutality protests and the fair trade protests in Seattle were decisive moments for me,” Aries said. “All the issues are interconnected, so it makes sense to work in a lot of different areas.”
Eventually Aries earned his GED and attended Metropolitan College of New York for a year before transferring to the School of General Studies.
“I thought I would take a break from activism once I got into GS,” he said. “But inevitably, I was drawn to the possibility of community-building among fellow activists on campus, as well as creating positive change in a community that I was very much a part of.”
On campus, Aries is active in the Columbia Queer Alliance. Founded in 1966, the CQA is the nation’s oldest gay student organization. Given that history, the fact that Columbia was left off The Advocate magazine’s list of the top 20 LGBT-friendly schools was a cause for concern for many on campus.
“Institutional support is the most pressing thing for the LGBT community right now,” he said. “We have support from our peers and from each other. It seems as though every place on campus is very supportive of us and our cause, but by the nature of the fact that everyone is supportive, it doesn't seem as though anyone is supportive at all. There's no queer studies department, and there's one LGBT class this semester. Most of our other peer institutions have an actual LGBT center. We have a room in the basement of Furnald.
"Columbia does have really good employment policies and benefits for LGBT employees and their families. But that took a big fight, and after we got it, much of activism dwindled after the ’90s. Because Columbia's so decentralized, it's sometimes hard to get things done, socially and institutionally. There's a lot of red tape. Lately, however, the administration is committed to hiring an LGBT adviser for all the undergrad students. They're doing a very thorough search, because it's a very important job. It'll have to be someone both the students and administration are satisfied with, because that position will be the focal point for the whole university.”
Aries is studying anthropology, "the most humanistic of the sciences, and the most scientific of the humanities, as they say,” he said. “But every course here has something to teach you, if you take it with an open mind and a sense of humor. I’m still in constant email contact with my professors. We talk about movies and trade articles. One advantage that GS students have is that they’re over the whole idea of the professor as an authority figure. You can really get to know the professor, and what they’re all about. You can’t get that experience elsewhere.
“I’m taking about 17 credits this semester, but the reality is that I really only spend about a fraction of the week sitting in a classroom. One of the best parts of being a GS student is that I have many friends who share different political and social views from mine. The nexus between mutual respect, debate, and cups of tea is so important to me and my growth as a human being and activist, to be able to engage people and to be constantly challenged by them inside and outside the classroom.”
Ultimately Aries plans to attend graduate school and teach. “I came to GS to learn how to critically engage these things I’ve been fighting for,” he said. “I think it’s easier to change the hearts and minds of large numbers of people than just one person at a time, although individual, quiet kinds of activism, the kind that changes the way only one person thinks about the world, can be a really empowering thing.”
Updated April 27, 2009
Since this story first appeared, Aries has been characteristically busy:
- In 2007, he was selected to be a Young People for the American Way fellow.
- In 2007, he was the first member of an LGBT campus organization to speak at the Eid Al-Fitr Dinner with the Muslim Students Association.
- He currently serves as Vice President of the Columbia Queer Alliance, as a member of the Columbia Daily Spectator editorial board, and as a member of the GS Senior Fund Committee.
- He was recently awarded the GS Spirit Award and will receive the Gold Crown Award from the King's Crown Leadership Committee at the King's Crown Leadership Awards Banquet on Thursday, April 30.
“I am so honored to have been selected by the awards committee,” Aries said. “Being a Columbia student allows me to take advantage of some incredible opportunities and resources—I’ve tried to make the best of my privilege of being a student here by finding my place on this campus, and then nurturing, cherishing and transforming it. This attitude isn’t necessarily limited to me, however. Throughout the phenomenal history of this University, GS students have always been committed and dedicated to student life. All students at Columbia, and GS students in particular, have the opportunity to spark debate, unleash changes that are profound, create safer spaces, and build communities—these are the kinds of acts that uplift and sustain a university.
“The King's Crown award embodies that spirit of dedication, service and leadership, and demonstrates that the contributions we make as GS students to Columbia are enduring, inspiring and appreciated.
“I’m incredibly proud to say that I’ve contributed my part to ensuring that the "light in the darkness" that is the GS student body remains vibrant, luminous and yes, fabulous.”
After graduation, Aries will be attending NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service to earn an MPA; however, he'll be coming back to Columbia. "This semester, I gave a talk at the Office of Multicultural Affairs' Days of Dialogue Conference on media communications and strategy, and as a result, I am returning in the fall to Columbia for SDA and OSGA's President's and Treasurers mandatory training to give a similar presentation--I get to be a Columbia requirement!"