Race is an undeniable force in American society. This summer, it was brought to the fore by the tragic deaths of several African-American men and boys, including Staten Island’s own Eric Garner, in violent encounters with white policemen.
Like many predominantly white colleges, Wagner College has had its share of challenges over white privilege and diversity. Fortunately, Wagner has also had some extraordinary students who have led us in an ongoing conversation about social justice and civic engagement.
Wagner Magazine talked recently with two of those student leaders, seniors Kerri Alexander and Jarrid Williams. Kerri came to Wagner from a Catholic high school in West Hartford, Connecticut. Jarrid attended a predominantly black and Hispanic public high school in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Wagner Magazine: How did you decide to come to Wagner College?
Jarrid Williams: I am a football player, and I had a few scholarship offers from different schools. When I visited campus, I got sold on the “family” feel of Wagner. My little brother sat with a vice president at the basketball game, front row. Everyone knew who everyone was, the president knew the names of kids all over campus — and that was a completely different feel than what I got from any other college.
WM: Once you enrolled, what was it like? Was there any culture shock?
JW: The makeup of the student body here was quite a culture shock for me, coming from Poughkeepsie High. The only people at Wagner who looked like me were my teammates. You would go to class and look around, and you would be the only person who looked like you — it almost made you feel like “the other.” My high school wasn’t the best — we had a ridiculous graduation rate, something like 52 percent — so when I started to get into college classes, I was nervous. I didn’t want to be the guy that answers the question wrong and have people think, “Wow, look at that stupid black kid,” so I stayed to myself. I hung out with the other football players, and I wasn’t open to other students for my first couple of years.
And then, “the Wagner way” kind of pulled me onto the right track. I say “Wagner way” because I think Dr. Guarasci has created a good atmosphere and put the right people in place to help you become a leader. Sam Siegel [Samantha Siegel ’11 M’13, director of the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement] taught one of my education classes, and I started to meet with her outside of class. I started to gain more confidence in myself, and I met some of the other students in the civic engagement program who helped me, people like Kerri.
Before, I was just getting by. I was the football player, an athlete here at Wagner College, but civic engagement helped me create a new identity for myself, a civic identity, and a sense of community. I felt empowered enough to talk over things I thought were problematic, things that we can change. … That’s why I think President Guarasci did a good job of putting people in place, because we have a lot of young leaders here who are active enough to change things and to really have their own voice — to speak up for what they believe in.
KA: My story is very similar to Jarrid’s. I spent my first two years here very much on the outskirts of the social scene. My two or three best friends were people I met in my first-year learning community. We weren’t the same race. That didn’t mean we couldn’t be friends — but, being the only black woman in this group, it was difficult to feel valid in those relationships — and they were the only ones I had. After that, I decided, “I think I will be on my own for a little bit,” just because it’s hard to feel “heard” when you’re the outsider of the group.
And then Dr. Guarasci stepped in. I’d had him as a teacher during my freshman year; he always knew my name when we ran into each other on campus, and he would always say hello. Toward the end of my second year at Wagner, I went to him and said, “I don’t know what I am doing here.” He introduced me to Samantha and many other people who helped me examine what I wanted to do and the type of person I wanted to become. Once I clarified that for myself, I started attracting people who needed to be in my life, and vice versa. We had such similar goals and values. Some of them looked like me and had the same textured hair as me, and some of them didn’t — but they were the people I was able to connect with, regardless of who they were. And I made those connections through the help of Dr. Guarasci and the people he put in place.
WM: Both of you have become very active student leaders in the past few years.
JW: I was one of the students involved in starting a program for student athletes on campus called MOVE — Motivate, Overcome, Visualize and Empower — to help them with the same process I had gone through, finding their real identity instead of just being “an athlete.” For the past three summers, the student athletes enrolled in MOVE spent 20 hours a week, either working in the community or in seminars on things like building a resume, creating an elevator pitch, writing a cover letter. The community work is with inner-city children and youth at a boxing gym run by a Staten Island nonprofit. Through boxing, we were able to build relationships with those kids, a mentor kind of thing. For me to see that, and to know that’s where I was once — it’s re-energizing for me.
I’ve also been involved with the Black Student Union all four years I’ve been at Wagner, and this year I became BSU president. I felt that our black students needed more, and I wanted to take that role and work my butt off to change things.
KA: During my sophomore year, I started working with Unified Theater, a performing arts program that promotes inclusion by bringing people together through theater productions — people with disabilities, traditional students, everyone. And when Dr. Guarasci introduced me to Sam Siegel, she got me involved in something similar in Port Richmond. With help from community partners and allies like Imagining America, Project Hospitality, and El Centro del Inmigrante, we conduct a theater workshop and put together a show that tackles social justice issues. Last year, we covered interracial relationships; this year, we covered gun violence — all from the perspective of Port Richmond, a predominantly black and Hispanic community. It’s been such a great experience to work with them and to merge creativity with democracy and citizenship and what it means to be part of a community.
And two years ago, I helped start a student organization called My Sistah’s Keeper, an activism and mentorship program for women of color. It grew out the challenges of being both a student and a woman of color. We wanted to create that space on campus where the female student of color could feel, “You’re valid, you’re empowered, your dreams are accepted and beautiful.” And to pass that on, we started mentoring students in the nearby Park Hill housing project — we brought books with main characters of color and held workshops and had a lot of fun with the students. I am in my second year as MSK president, and I hope that we can do some great things in the time we have left this year.
WM: The Black Student Union and My Sistah’s Keeper were both part of Wagner’s response last spring to a campus incident that, for many of us, had insensitive racial overtones. Photos taken at a party sponsored by two campus Greek organizations were posted on Instagram. The white students’ photos featured captions that were meant to be humorous, but made fun of the terms “African” and “African American.”
KA: That was kind of the last straw for a lot of people, because it wasn’t the only thing that has happened. As in any community, black and other minority students at Wagner face small racial indignities, microaggressions, all the time. I think that, because this was so high-profile, it kind of made everyone wake up, it made everyone say, “Okay, this is actually happening, and we are not doing what we thought we were doing; we are not being mindful or aware.” That’s when BSU and MSK came together and started the #Awareness campaign, which asked everyone to just be aware of each other and our differences and accept one another — and be aware that not everyone has the same experiences as you, so they may not know what might offend you. We organized two long group discussions over Awareness Weekend and from that, bigger conversations began. We started proposing an awareness component in the orientation program, and a space on campus where students can feel comfortable expressing themselves.
JW: It’s like Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” After the posting of those pictures this spring, the black people on campus stood up and said, “We’re not going to tolerate this. We are going to take action for ourselves.” The voice that we struggled to find, a lot of people felt was controversial and adversarial, but it empowered a lot of people to speak and come out of their shells and get involved on campus. It was kind of hard at first to see how challenging this climate was for black and other minority students, but it was great to go through the process and finally be able to say, “Now we know, we’re aware of it,” instead of trying to escape or hide from the realities that are happening. We are aware of this; and now the question is, “What can we do together?” That’s how a lot of programs like this start forming, get their legs; people had been thinking about them, they were in the works, but to get started they just needed that extra push.
WM: You two worked with Campus Life Dean Curtis Wright this summer on a new mentorship program, LEAD, to help first-year students of color at Wagner find a place for themselves. How did you and Dean Wright come up with LEAD?
KA: Every year there are students coming to Wagner College from different backgrounds, experiencing the culture shock of being the only African-American or Latino student in a class, and we’ve been there. In LEAD, we tell our mentees, “What you say matters, and it’s OK to speak up for yourself.” There are a lot of people who don’t have a seat at the decision-making table; the Jarrids and the Kerris are sitting at that table, and behind them are a bunch of people they have to represent. We are trying to say to them, “No, you can come, too, and you should be here. You are valid; you are worth it.”
JW: We talk about being the only black kid in the classroom — and that’s an experience that’s probably hard for someone else to imagine: being the token black, and having to speak not only for yourself but for all the black kids who have the capacity but don’t have the seat you have in that classroom. That decision-making table Kerri spoke of — if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu. That’s what it ultimately comes down to. In LEAD, older minority students share their experiences with younger minority students about things like this, and that helps them see those experiences in a positive light.
New York 1 television interview with Kerri and Jarrid about the Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner.
Seeds of Change documentary by Brian Morris '65 about an earlier generation of student leaders and their campaign to make Wagner College more inclusive.