Various departments and student organizations across Rutgers campuses held an event titled “Black Women, Femme, and Trans Lives Matter: A Call to Action” Wednesday to honor and discuss ways to support these communities more than a year after the killing of Breonna Taylor.
The event was hosted by the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities (SJE), the Rutgers chapter for the NAACP (Scarlet NAACP), Black Lives Matter Rutgers (BLMRU), the Rutgers United Black Council, the Rutgers University Student Assembly, Douglass Residential College, the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, the Asian American Cultural Center and the Center for Latino Arts and Culture.
Speaker Dominique Hazel-Criss, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, gave an overview of the event and highlighted events from the past year that she said created the urgency for this call to action.
Specifically, she said the killings of Daunte Wright earlier this month and Taylor last year, as well as the conviction of Derek Chauvin and killing of Ma’Khia Bryant on Tuesday, were highlighted in this event to emphasize the constancy of police brutality against Black lives.
“This event is meant to highlight the stories of so many forgotten … Black lives — this event is for Breonna Taylor, who has now been dead for over a year with no real justice or solace for her loved ones, but so many others (too),” Hazel-Criss said.
Attendees then viewed a video, in which poet and activist Aja Monet delivered her original poem, “Say Her Name,” at the festival Summit LA17, dedicated to Black women and girls who were killed at the hands of police officers.
Afterward, Shaan Williams, an intern for SJE and a School of Arts and Sciences senior, spoke about SJE’s origins and the educational programs it offers for the LGBTQ+ community. One such program is the Diversity for Educators program, which was started to push diversity education further and involves workshops held by student mentors on various social justice topics.
She said there needs to be accountability in regard to police brutality as well as hate crimes against innocent members of the Black community.
“Is it really true justice when these people are already dead?” Williams asked. “Because true justice would be if none of these people had to die in the first place.”
Williams said continuously witnessing the deaths of Black people shows it is important to understand how much change needs to be made in order to prevent these incidents from reoccurring.
Sydni Collins, administrative liaison for BLMRU and a School of Arts and Sciences senior, spoke next about BLMRU, which focuses on Rutgers—New Brunswick and the surrounding area. The organization aims to make changes in the community through various means, such as holding food drives, helping the homeless community or supporting students in school, she said.
“We understand that our role is more than just protesting,” Collins said. “Holding rallies is obviously an amazing way to have our voices be heard in the streets, but it’s also about community building and community healing and providing spaces for Black and Brown people to have healing because what we’re going through in this country, and in this world, is cause for healing.”
Collins said BLMRU has made it its mission to create an intersectional space that recognizes and appreciates all identities. She said the organization will continue to host programs and community events in the fall and support Black individuals as much as possible.
Jafari Wells, president of the Scarlet NAACP and a School of Arts and Sciences senior, spoke next on the role of Black men in the fight for Black women, femme and LGBTQ+ communities.
He said even though Black men are often made to feel at the bottom rung of society due to the historical impacts of slavery and post-traumatic slave syndrome, it is important to recognize their privilege from being male.
Wells said the role of the Black heterosexual man in pushing the LGBTQ+ community’s fight forward is primarily to empathize with those who are oppressed due to their skin color, sexual orientation or gender expression.
“Within the system … we understand that we are oppressed because of our skin color,” he said. “It should be much … easier for us to understand why others are oppressed because they go outside of their heteronormative white society in which we live.”
Cassandra Vega, the Assembly’s assistant director of Cultural Outreach in the Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), newly elected senator and a School of Arts and Sciences first-year, spoke next, encouraging students to get involved in organizations and become more invested in the issues discussed.
She said being a part of the DEI team is one of the most important things she has ever done due to its direct impact on the community. DEI training will soon be implemented for all Rutgers clubs and organizations, helping more people of color take leadership positions, she said.
Vega also discussed the ongoing fight against racism, saying the conviction of Chauvin does not mean racism is over.
“I think a lot of people were hoping the conviction would be the end of racism … that’s not what it is,” she said. “We have to keep working — being antiracist is the rest of our lives.”
Shakee Merritt, the newly elected first Black student body president at Rutgers—Newark and a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said there are many Black transgender women who have been killed but not given attention by the media.
“I think that the problem is we often hear … people saying, ‘Well, we only can show up in the streets for certain people,’” Merritt said. “I think we really need to start showing up in the streets for every Black person who gets killed, no matter if they’re gay, trans, female, male.”
He said there are actions that can be taken at the school level, such as supporting initiatives to install gender-neutral bathrooms, supply female hygiene products and prevent misgendering. Overall, he said it is important to put in the work at every level to ensure that Black transgender women’s voices are heard.
Tosin Oladipo, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, then gave a spoken word performance titled “An Ode to My Black Body as a Woman in America,” in which she emphasized the legacies of many Black men and women lost to police brutality.
Oladipo featured the names of Black women and men in her visuals, saying that even though Black men are murdered frequently and unjustly, Black women are experiencing the same and deserve more recognition as the backbone of most Black Lives Matter movements.
“As a Black woman, I think it’s important to say to you guys as Black women and allies that you are worth it, you are valid, you are seen, you are heard,” she said.
To end the event, Fanteema Barnes-Watson, a counselor at Student Health Services, shared mental health resources and tangible ways to contribute to the movement for Black lives while taking care of oneself.
She said educating oneself about various issues is a crucial part of the struggle. By knowing what specific policies are in regards to an issue, people are able to request specific changes, she said.
Though, Barnes said while education is a duty to oneself, this is taxing on its own and does not extend to allies or opposing groups. Rather, one can point them to where they can find resources for more information, she said.
“A lot of times, in order to affect change, we have to step out of our comfort zone,” Barnes said. “We have to get really uncomfortable and have some very challenging and uncomfortable conversations. If we’re too comfortable, there’s no change because things stay status-quo. So you have to figure out what you can do for yourself that’s going to make an impact and advocate for yourself and for others.”