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Inclusivity at Brandeis talks back

As part of ’Deis Impact, on Wednesday, Feb. 6, the Caribbean Cultural Club hosted an event called “The Talk Back Session: Inclusion in Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs).” The event consisted of a panel of students, alumni and faculty answering questions posed by the Carribean Cultural Club E-board. The panel included Julivic Marquez ’18; Dr. Chad Williams, the chair of the department of African and African American Studies (AAAS); Akim Sanni ’21; Elias Rosenfeld ’20, a previous recipient of DACA; Faith Smith, an Associate Professor in the AAAS department; Makayla Richards ’20 and R Matthews ’19. The event centered around the theme of inclusion and what it means to work towards inclusivity when brown and black people are invisible in certain environments, such as predominantly white institutions. The panel discussed instances in the past in which they felt excluded and how they worked towards promoting inclusivity for future generations at predominantly white institutions.

The first of several questions that were posed to the panel asked them to describe how being in a predominantly white space affected their academic or professional career. Each panel member shared their experience of pursuing education and feeling trapped based on the way other people treated them. However, many of these individuals discussed how they got over this feeling of seclusion and fought metaphorical battles so that future generations would have representation in predominantly white institutions.

Of the seven people who spoke, the responses of three speakers struck me as unique and important to bring to light. Specifically, Sanni described how he immigrated to Massachusetts at the age of sixteen without the knowledge of how to speak English. While learning English, Sanni also discovered many of the social norms of American society, specifically the differences in the way white people treat him and other people they perceive as immigrants, versus the way they treat other white people. He explained that “[w]hite people try to annihilate your roots” and often use one’s incomprehension of the culture or language as ammunition to get what they want. He attempts to educate people by bringing them to spaces he is comfortable in, educating them and asking them to understand where he is coming from.

While Sanni focused on the process of learning how to navigate his interactions with others, Rosenfeld described how he learned how to fight for representation, not only for himself but for others around him who are in a similar situation. Elias came to the United States from Venezuela; however, while his mom was applying for citizenship, she passed away. As a result, Rosenfeld was undocumented and did not realize this until he tried to apply for a learner’s permit but could not fill out his social security number. He felt isolated and many questions floated around in his head, such as why he did not have a status as a documented immigrant, if he should tell his friends about his situation and if they would support him. Finally, he found inclusivity in advocacy, by traveling to Washington, D.C. with other dreamers and lobbying members of Congress. He explained that “I am working to make life easier for those who are younger than me.”

Associate Professor Faith Smith highlighted her feelings of exclusivity as a result of certain stereotypes that have been created about black or brown people. Smith emigrated from Jamaica to Madison, Wisconsin. She stopped in New York to visit family, and she remembered getting on the plane to Wisconsin and seeing no other brown or black faces. She recalled the first few times in which, when she walked by, parents would pull their children close to them, or people would clutch their bags. She highlighted that through these encounters, it is almost as if you are “re-experiencing yourself as a dangerous person.” Yet she not only talked about her exclusivity but also how when she speaks, white people relax because they realize she is educated and does not display the characteristics of what white people think is a stereotypical African-American. She illustrated the fact that different black identities are often pitted against each other based on stereotypes that white people create.

The panel then continued on to discuss what inclusion entails, why people seek inclusion and how much labor people must expend in order to create inclusion. Richards highlighted how the inclusion people seek is not simply being given a space to do work or a voice that can be used to create change, but rather, inclusion in the founding principles of educational institutions. Inclusion is providing resources for black and brown students and all minority groups. Similarly, Marquez described how being included involves the ability to access information and resources, which provides opportunities and allows people to grow and succeed.

Rosenfeld, similarly, illustrated how inclusion for undocumented immigrants means becoming citizens of the United States. Rosenfeld works towards providing aid for undocumented students on campus. Brandeis, along with other predominantly white institutions, needs to find institutional ways of providing inclusion through resources and aid.

Overall, faculty and students of color must unite and work together to create new paths for future students, whether that be creating new classes or providing more opportunities through aid. A lot has been done over time to provide inclusion and representation for minority groups here on campus. Specifically, the AAAS department celebrating 50 years is a major accomplishment. However, much more needs to be done in order to create more representation for current and incoming minority students at Brandeis, along with students all over the country who may face a lack of inclusion at predominantly white institutions.

We may not all feel this way, but, firstly, being a citizen of this country is a privilege that many people take for granted, as without citizenship, individuals do not have representation or the ability to exercise their rights. Secondly, having the ability to pursue an education is also a privilege, because, without it, progress cannot be created in society. Without education, we are nothing. We have ways to go and the only way to continue is by pushing forward and creating a path for others along with working together hand in hand and standing tall.

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