By Eleni Balakrishnan
At age 21, City College student Emmy Uwimana has been through and accomplished a lot, but this isn’t quite what sets him apart. Uwimana brings with him an infectious aura of peaceful optimism, even as he describes some of his life’s most trying experiences.
Uwimana is a computer science major at City College who loves freestyle and hip-hop dance, using these skills to advocate for social justice.
“Art has always been a social movement game-changer,” said Uwimana, and artists are “the voice of the majority, they can speak to a larger audience and spread the message quickly.”
In 2018, Uwimana was in his East African home country of Rwanda, the only high school student competing against university students in a Facebook hackathon. He won a flight from Rwanda to Silicon Valley for another hackathon, and has been here ever since.
For a time, things were tough in San Francisco for Uwimana, who left home before finishing his last year of high school. Having grown up in a primarily French school system, once in the Bay Area, he spent his spare time studying an English dictionary in the library.
“I didn’t know anybody in the Bay Area, so I experienced homelessness and other financial hardship issues,” Uwimana said.
But after a chance encounter at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Uwimana got connected with Larkin Street Youth Services, a nonprofit which helped him find housing, pass his General Educational Development (GED) test, and eventually enroll at City College.
Uwimana exudes the humble confidence of a self-learner, explaining that he taught himself to code in the computer lab during high school, but implying humbly that anyone could win the hackathon.
Often he simply said, “I tried my best,” when speaking about his various accomplishments.
Uwimana explained he mostly took science classes at his boarding school in Rwanda, and he discovered dancing as therapeutic. “When you take those science subjects, sometimes you get bummed out and feel like, ‘I need to go somewhere to relax,’” he said.
His story as a dancer began similarly to his field of study. The school dance team was playing loud music one day, piquing Uwimana’s curiosity. “I joined them in the gym and sat down a little bit, watched all the moves.”
Before he knew it, a member of the dance team called him down, and Uwimana tried to mimic a move he’d seen. “And then they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we can teach you a little bit, we can see that you got the moves.’ And then I joined them, like that,” Uwimana said.
But it wasn’t always easy. “There is a social stigma around [Western dance], people be like, oh he’s gonna be doing drugs, he’s not gonna be performing well in class,” Uwimana said.
In spite of the attitudes in Rwanda toward American hip-hop dance and Western culture, Uwimana said dancing has helped him grow and taught him humility.
“When you join other dancers, you can check, humble yourself … When you join a dancing team, they really help you to get out of or delete those insecurities, and go out there and show people what you can do and express yourself,” Uwimana said.
For fear of being arrested as an immigrant, Uwimana has not attended any of the ongoing protests against racial injustice this year, but supports the cause.
“When you look around and see what the Black community has contributed to the development of this state … I need to show them solidarity, and show them that I’m with them.”
He played his part in the movement by filming an advocacy video with CCSF Collective, which pushed for Black student recognition and spoke out against the May 29 closure of City College’s Fort Mason Center, where most art classes were historically held.
Students, faculty, and community members have been pushing for the Board of Trustees to reconsider the closure before the lease is up this month.
Uwimana said the school’s administration should listen and “be willing to understand [the students’] demands and what they’re really fighting for.”
He believes it’s a matter of miscommunication: “When the students protest, it really doesn’t make any sense to [the administration], because they don’t really put themselves in [the students’] shoes.”
Uwimana said he’s managed through the pandemic in spite of losing his job because of the nonprofit’s support, but recognizes this is not the case for everyone. “Some students don’t even have access to the internet in their homes. So a lot of things need to be done to support students during this transition.”