By Lara Becker
There’s something different about the events students are living through in 2020. Not only does a health crisis run rampant, but a different kind of destruction is tearing through streets, ripping apart lives. More students are starting to believe it’s not an uncommon phenomenon, but rather, a systematic infestation of hatred that has been accumulating for hundreds of years. While some lay silent, student organizations from all across campus community groups are taking unprecedented steps toward action.
Rising senior Ambar Grullón calls it a revolution.
As president of All College Theatre (ACT), she had no doubt in her mind when deciding to make a statement that not only denounced racial bias but actively promoted equality within her organization and the rest of the College.
“Even silence is a statement. Everything is political, and theatre is no exception,” said the rising senior English major. “Our organization cannot call ourselves allies in good faith if we continue to ignore our faults and microaggressions. In making our statement in standing with BLM, we knew that we were also stating that we were going to do better, too.”
Recognizing instances of bias in her own group as a predominantly white organization at an even more predominantly white institution, Grullón wants to create a space where everyone feels welcome and encouraged to make a change.
“In the past, TCNJ has used open forums to assuage hate crimes on campus. Now, I think students’ adamant responses have shaken administration,” she said.
ACT is working collaboratively with its sister organization, TCNJ Musical Theatre (TMT), and students like TMT Vice President Molly Hurst. Members from both organizations started by creating informative social media campaigns to share with followers.
Alongside education, promoting petitions to sign and featuring Black artists in the theatre on their pages, they also want to stay self-aware of their own biases.
“The leaders of ACT, TMT and Mixed Signals are all coming together for efforts for reform, but also coming together and educating ourselves onto how theatre itself is an institution that harbors the systemic oppression of BIPOC individuals on and off stage,” said Hurst, a rising junior history and secondary education dual major.
ACT and TMT are encouraging both internal and external reform by training members in cultural competency, reaching out to more BIPOC actors and creating more roles for diversity and inclusion on their leadership boards.
“I think there is more that needs to be done to battle how the BIPOC individuals on TCNJ’s campus feel underrepresented, and administration is not taking more steps to make BIPOC individuals on campus feel supported,” Hurst said. “The TCNJ community has needed to do more for a long time, and I hope that things will finally begin to improve.”
Another active organization on campus is Student Government (SG), where students such as Diversity and Inclusion Vice President Alekhya Madiraju are joining the fight for justice.
Similar to other organizations, SG felt compelled to make a statement in solidarity of the movement. The organization sent out a memo on its Instagram page.
“TCNJ students have proven to be catalysts of institutional change, fighting for social justice. … As a Student Government, we pledge to do our part in recognizing acts of injustice, cultivating an inclusive environment and working to support one another,” it stated.
Madiraju, a rising junior biology major, is also part of a new project to educate each sector of student life on specific diversity tactics. Breaking it up into student organizations, greek life and athletics, SG wants to strengthen the resources that are already available so that they can utilize them to their fullest potential.
“If we don’t show BIPOC that we are here and standing for them when they are facing injustices, then they won’t know,” Madiraju said. “Our main goal is to continue the momentum of the movement. We don’t want this to be a trend.”
As the face of the College to the outside world, students in the Ambassadors program also felt compelled to speak up, including senior leaders such as Jennifer Bedele.
“We pride ourselves on being a family, and if certain members of our family are hurting, we all hurt,” said Bedele, a rising senior psychology major. “Speaking up is only one of the many things that can be done during this time. However, we wanted to do more than that.”
Bedele and other senior leaders referenced initiatives such as a book club featuring Black novelists, educating staff on the history of Trenton, and starting up diversity and inclusion training earlier than usual.
When it came to the administration’s response to recent events, many student leaders agreed that more needs to be done. Madiraju expressed a feeling of vagueness, empty promises and no backing to President Foster’s first missive on these issues.
However, Madiraju and Ambassador senior leader John Luzniak feel that in later missives from the President, she has taken steps back to become a better ally.
“It is encouraging that Dr. Foster is taking initiative to support the TCNJ community during this time, while still accepting that she, too, is learning how to create a more inclusive and diverse atmosphere at TCNJ,” said Luzniak, a rising senior mathematics major.
Grullón takes it a step further, saying that more should be implemented academically to fight systemic injustices at the College.
“What I think TCNJ really needs, however, is to reorient the curriculum to reach every student,” she said. “There are too many students who are comfortable in being complicit and ignorant to social change.”
Grullón and other students suggest a reworking of Liberal Learning classes that educate students on the history of racial issues, and making them more important than just checking off a requirement.
No matter what it takes, these students feel it is their obligation to their organization’s members and the entire campus community to fight for racial equality. They believe that the message of the movement is not about politics, but about human rights.
“We will continue to work towards restorative justice,” Hurst said. “Black Lives Matter now. Tomorrow. Every Single Day.”