This summer, as the country again began to grapple with its long history of systemic racism and marchers took to the streets night after night to demand change, the University community came together to support one another and its commitment to social justice and equality.
Home to first-generation students, students of color, students hard hit by the public health and economic toll of the coronavirus, as well as to scholarly experts in race, social justice, education and history, Montclair State began to lead the critical conversations of transformational change.
“As a society, we need to learn to listen more. We need to be open to the idea that some of the things that we do and say are coming from a place that is a systemic problem.”
“When you look across the campus and you see so many things that are different in terms of race and gender and ethnicity, religion, culture, just all of it, it’s non-monolithic in terms of the world we live in, the world we aspire to live in, the world we have tried to cultivate as an example of what’s possible,” says Karen L. Pennington, vice president for Student Development and Campus Life.
Reflecting the World
Now a majority minority public university, Montclair State has experienced an intentional demographic shift, cultivated over nearly five decades through a series of presidents, beginning in 1973 with President David W.D. Dickson – the first African American appointed to head a four-year New Jersey higher education institution. Twenty-one years later, Irvin Dexter Reid, the University’s second African American president, led efforts to advance from a college to a university; and its first female president, Susan A. Cole, appointed in 1998, committed to a campus reflecting the diversity of New Jersey and created the President’s Commission on Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity and Diversity.
“The soul of this university, the very sacred purpose of this university is to create itself as a place where all of our students have the opportunity to fulfill their potential,” Cole told students in a video address in June.
“Black Lives Matter. And we need to keep teaching that message until more and more and more people really understand it. We have a lot of work to do together, but how lucky are we to have this extraordinary university community where we can tackle that work together with trust and with respect.”
Historian Leslie Wilson, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, whose expertise is environmental racism and African American studies, has been at the University 30 years. “Reid was committed to diversity, and Dr. Cole expanded that idea to make the University economically, racially, socially and culturally diverse,” Wilson says.
“People who would never have considered applying to Montclair State before do apply now because it makes them feel comfortable and welcome, and that’s important,” says Wilson. “It’s become a microcosm, or as my dean [Peter Kingstone] says, it’s a ‘laboratory for what the world could be.’”
The evolution includes adding courses that address social challenges and growing partnerships in New Jersey cities, including Newark, Orange and Paterson, where faculty and student research and programs include equity in urban education, public health and sustainability.
It also includes working to increase the number of faculty of color, an issue facing universities nationwide.
The President’s Commission on Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity and Diversity emphasizes the benefit of diversity both in and out of the classroom. “We always strive to do better and to make sure that some of the faces students see across their desks reflect their own,” says Commission Chair Cindy Meneghin.
Despite creating this environment, Wilson says, an issue remains: While students exist in a diverse community on campus, it’s different when they leave. “The barriers of race that exist outside of the University, Montclair State has not been able to defeat and has not been able to address.”
Before Assistant Justice Studies Professor Jason Williams took his message to the streets, speaking at racial justice rallies over the summer, he was teaching it in the classroom through his course in Current Issues in Policing, Black Lives Matter, and State Violence Against Women of Color.
To develop empathy, Williams and his students examine the context that “creates these police-involved murders and all the other negativities that inflict inequalities in education and health care.”
His students are engaged and empowered, leading to lively and dynamic discussions. “We’ve covered race, ethnicity, gender and everything you can think of, and it was so explosive because of the times.”
Speaking in June at a demonstration in Wayne, New Jersey, Williams told the crowd to think deeply about “how multiple systems are working together to manufacture this perfect crisis, such that we can come up with deeply multidimensional and comprehensive – because that’s how white supremacy works – policy solutions heavily steeped in Black pain and voice so we can hopefully be that city on the hill someday where Blacks are finally free.”
Jayda Lindsey ’20, a Family Science and Human Development graduate, was among the organizers of the event with 2,000 in attendance. “[Dr. Williams’] words resonated with me the most, and I actually saw a few people tear up,” Lindsey says. “I can only be hopeful for the future.”
Pennington also reflected on the effect of the demonstrations and the future. “What it comes down to is, after the protest is over, what’s the work that has to be done?”
“How do we teach our students that the next step is action, working with our state legislatures to say, ‘This needs to be changed,’ and then getting out there and voting and being powerful constituents, so that the legislature feels it has to respond because we vote and we make sure that the people who are representing us do the right things.”
Nawal Farih ’20 says Montclair State provided the tools to take the next step. “I found my own voice to advocate for others,” she says.
A Psychology major, Farih was among recent graduates who supplied masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and water for protestors in Hoboken.
“We’ve covered race, ethnicity, gender and everything you can think of, and it was so explosive because of the times.”
“We wanted to do more than just educate those around us; we wanted to provide some form of essential good for the protestors risking their lives during a pandemic to fight for a much bigger cause – systemic racism and police brutality,” Farih says.
“We’re all going through this together: family loss, anger and frustration, reacting to what we’ve been seeing,” says Daniel Jean, executive director of the Educational Opportunity Fund at Montclair State. “Ironically with what’s going on now in the world, the EOF program was founded in the late 1960s in response to human rights violations and social unrest.”
EOF provides scholars from low-income communities, many the first in their families to attend college, with mentoring, tutoring and advising. Many are from communities hard hit by the pandemic, and Jean has worked with others to provide his students with health resources and information regarding the emergency relief through the CARES Act.
“We’re doing whatever we can to assist and to help them focus on personal well-being and continue on the road to graduation,” he says.
Resources, Programs and Conversations
Social justice is a part of the fabric of the University. The Office of Social Justice and Diversity brings in speakers to help students better understand systemic racism in the United States. The Sprague Library recently added a research guide with general information for anti-racist learning.
Curriculum is inclusive of different backgrounds and experiences in majors across disciplines. Teacher education, for instance, is a magnet for students of color interested in going into urban education and urban communities. Grant-funded research is helping children of color think of themselves as mathematicians.
Programs in the College of Education and Human Services tackle equity issues in education, including the lack of teachers of color by working to diversify the teacher pipeline in cities like Newark, New Jersey.
“We want to combat the social inequalities that we are seeing every day in our society,” says Jennifer Robinson, executive director of the Center of Pedagogy. “So, we have a broader mission beyond just teaching students about subject matter. We want to make sure our students see themselves as moral agents who are going to provide their students with access to knowledge, opening doors and windows and opportunities.”
In its partnership with Orange Community Schools, the Center for Community Engagement works with faculty and students in disciplines from food and nutrition sciences, early childhood education and social work to sustainability studies, archaeology and the arts to address historic inequities in public education.
“We do this by building mutually beneficial partnerships among Orange public schools and local community- and faith-based organizations, and University faculty and students that are focused on improving student and family success,” says Center Director Bryan Murdock. “It’s a different thing to go into the community where people live and work and play and pray, and to see the situation up close, than to read about it in a textbook.”
“It’s such an honor for me to be able to bring those experiences into the classroom and then provide the theory behind what goes on every day in the criminal justice system.”
Associate Professor of Justice Studies Jessica Henry teaches Wrongful Convictions, Death Penalty Perspectives, and Hate Crimes. Her book, Smoke But No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened, was published in August by University of California Press. She is also the faculty advisor for the Petey Greene program, in which students tutor prisoners working toward their high school equivalency diplomas at Northern State Prison.
As a public defender in New York City, Henry saw how the poor and people of color are negatively impacted by how difficult it is to navigate the criminal justice system. “It’s such an honor for me to be able to bring those experiences into the classroom and then provide the theory behind what goes on every day in the criminal justice system,” she says.
In the days following the killing of George Floyd by police, University groups held virtual meetings to discuss racism, police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement and the effect of COVID-19 on communities of color.
“We’re seeing communities already struggling to make ends meet, to have clean water. And now we’re in the middle of a pandemic, people facing food insecurities, potential job losses, not having anyone to watch their children while they’re working from home, if they have the ability to work from home,” says Tasneem Abushaban ’20, who earned her degree in Public Health, another program rooted in social justice. “On top of COVID-19, comes a civil rights movement. Imagine how that affects mental health,” Abushaban says.
Coming to Montclair State from Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Abushaban, who is Muslim, Palestinian and Latina, welcomed the chance to study in a diverse community. “I thought being in an environment where I’m valued and appreciated was a privilege. But as I grow as a person, I’m realizing that it’s not a privilege. It’s deserved, that everyone deserves that.”
Change Beyond College
Many alumni are devoted to bringing about change – some through public education, others through activist organizations, and some through seemingly unrelated paths.
Several have been profiled in Montclair magazine, including Blue’s Clues star Josh Dela Cruz ’11 and artist Pope.L ’78 who are featured in the Spring/Summer issue; Tosan Boyo ’11, who is leading the COVID-19 Operations Center for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health; poet and activist Talena Queen ’95, who brought Little Free Libraries to Paterson; former Camden police detective Shyquira Williams ’09, who now runs a program for youth; and educator Gemar Mills ’05, known for turning around a failing Newark high school, who now leads College Achieve Public Schools-Paterson and is using this moment to educate both students and staff.
“We’re educating our staff on anti-racism and what that looks like. Educating the adults is going to be the most important piece,” says Mills, who has worked to give students the same kind of support he received. “What I like about what’s happening with Black Lives Matter and anti-racism is that it’s becoming a trend, and trends become embedded in the culture.”
While the University has worked to create a diverse and equitable campus, leaders say there is still work to do.
“As a society, we need to learn to listen more. We need to be open to the idea that some of the things that we do and say are coming from a place that is a systemic problem,” Pennington says. “We need to be doing the same on campus.”
To that end, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education David Hood says student and faculty forums this summer helped students, staff and faculty process the cases of police brutality and the protests that followed.
“We not only wanted to talk about this from a scholarship perspective, we wanted to come together in an open dialogue and provide an outlet to students to express their feelings and to support them,” Hood says.
The University will continue to fight for social justice, Pennington says, through understanding, thinking, having conversations, talking about it, asking questions.
“It’s communication, it’s dialogue. It’s educating ourselves in order to be able to educate others,” she says. “It makes no sense to come and get an education if you aren’t able to debate, discuss, see and learn new things.”