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A Laboratory for What the World Could Be

Montclair State continues to uphold social justice through inclusion, diversity and equitable education

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collage of students, faculty and staff - some taken at black lives matter protests
On campus and in the community, Montclair State delivers a message for justice. Photo credits: Wayne demonstration courtesy of Amy Abdou. Verona protest by Mike Peters.

As the country grapples with its long history of systemic racism and marchers take to the streets night after night to demand change, the Montclair State University community is coming together in support of each other and its commitment to social justice and equality.

A 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, the University is positioned to lead the critical conversations of transformational change.

“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 climate 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

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 elevate Montclair State from a college to a university; and its first female president, Susan A. Cole, who was appointed in 1998, committed the University to reflecting the diverse population 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. And today, the students at Montclair State do truly reflect the population of our state,” Cole told students in a video address on June 18, 2020.

“Black Lives Matter. And we need to keep teaching that message until more and more and more people really understand it,” Cole says. “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 and says, “Reid was committed to diversity, and Dr. Cole expanded that idea to make the University economically, racially, socially and culturally diverse.”

“People who would never have considered applying to Montclair State before do apply now because Montclair State 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.’”

In her address, Cole says, “Montclair State is a truly diverse community, not a perfect community, but one in which we are always engaged in the work of creating an environment that is welcoming to every individual.”

The evolution includes adding courses that address social challenges and growing partnerships in cities like Newark, Orange and Paterson, New Jersey, where faculty and student research and programs include equity in urban education, public health and sustainability.

It also includes making efforts to increase the number of faculty of color, an issue concerning universities across the country. At Montclair State, the President’s Commission on Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity and Diversity works to encourage an appreciation of the importance and benefit of diversity both in and out of the classroom.

“We are always striving 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.

Yet in creating this holistic 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.”

Jason Williams
Jason Williams, assistant professor of Justice Studies, speaking at a demonstration in Wayne, New Jersey. Photo by Neil van Niekerk.

Empowering Students

Before Assistant Justice Studies Professor Jason Williams took his message to the streets,  speaking at a recent racial justice rally, he was teaching it – through courses like Current Issues in Policing, Black Lives Matter, and State Violence Against Women of Color – in the classroom.

Williams strives to develop empathy in his students beyond that for the victims of police brutality by examining the context that “creates these police-involved murders and all the other negativities that inflict – inequalities in education and inequalities in health care.”

And with issues of race, equity and the coronavirus at the fore, he says, students were engaged and empowered, which led to lively and dynamic discussions. “This spring, we’ve covered race, ethnicity, gender and everything you can think of, and it was so explosive because of the times.”

Speaking at a demonstration in Wayne, New Jersey, Williams told the crowd, “Our job moving forward is 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, who earned a degree in Family Science and Human Development, was among the event’s organizers. “We had close to 2,000 people attend, and Dr. Williams had a large impact. His 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.”

Vice President Pennington also reflected on the power of the demonstrations: “Protests are a valuable and important part, and we’ve all been part of one or another in our lifetimes, but really what it comes down to is after the protest is over, what’s the work that has to be done?”

“That’s what we have to do here as a university. 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 are doing 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.

Farih graduated with a degree in Psychology and was among recent graduates who helped supply masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and water for protestors in Hoboken. She raised funds through social media posts aimed at increasing awareness about anti-Blackness in the Muslim community.

“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.

On the sidelines of the protests, University photographer Mike Peters has been documenting the efforts. “I don’t want anyone to forget what this moment looks like on the faces of real people who are adding their voices to the rising crescendo for change,” Peters says. “I hope this time, this moment, makes the change real so Black lives will matter to everyone, everywhere.”

“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 worked with the other university offices to make sure his students had COVID-19-related health resources and information regarding the emergency relief through the CARES Act.

“I’ve been in communication with several scholars who just want to share what’s going on in their lives and how challenged or how frustrated they are,” Jean says. “We’re making sure to do whatever we can to assist and to help them focus on personal well-being and continue on the road to graduation.”

Resources, Programs and Conversations

Social justice is a part of the fabric of the University – across campus. The Office of Social Justice and Diversity shares resources and 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. The curriculum strives to be inclusive of people’s backgrounds and different experiences in majors across campus. 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 in a Montclair magazine article titled “A Teacher Like Me.” “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 the 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 the 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, rather than read about it in a textbook.”

That’s what happened when anthropology students were engaged in the “reverse archaeology project” doing research on a 1960s transportation project, the building of I-280, which connected New York City with the suburbs of west New Jersey. The highway cut straight through the heart of a black neighborhood in Orange, destroying black-owned businesses, markets, community centers, and uprooting an established and thriving black middle class community.

Anthropology professors collaborated with the Valley Arts District to document and raise awareness of the social, economic, and cultural impacts of the highway project through paintings, essays, plays and other art projects. “The experience provided an opportunity for students to gain a deeper understanding of structural and systemic racism and appreciation for why we are here at this juncture today and for the University to work in partnership with local organizations to develop a deeper understanding of the area’s history,”  Murdock says.

Associate Professor Jessica Henry teaches a class on the justice system.

Jessica Henry, associate professor of Justice Studies, opens students’ eyes to inequities of the justice system, teaching courses that include  Wrongful Convictions, Death Penalty Perspectives, and Hate Crimes. Her book, Smoke But No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened, is being published this year by University of California Press. She is also the faculty advisor for the Petey Greene program, which sends students to tutor prisoners who are working  toward their high school equivalency diplomas at Northern State Prison.

“When I was a public defender in New York City, I saw firsthand just how painful and difficult it is to navigate the criminal justice system and how people who are poor, who are people of color, people who are marginalized and disadvantaged and vulnerable, how they are impacted by the system,” says Henry. “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 everyday in the criminal justice system.”

In recent days, groups within the University have reached out with virtual meetings to talk about issues of racism, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. The College of Education and Human Services, for instance, hosted a virtual Community Conversation to help students process the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

“My heart has been heavy with everything going on,” says Tasneem Abushaban ’20. She earned her degree in Public Health, another University program rooted in social justice.

“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. On top of COVID-19, comes a civil rights movement. Imagine how that affects mental health,” Abushaban says.

“I’m Muslim, I’m Palestinian, I’m Latina,” she adds. “I experience discrimination all the time, but that’s not the same.”

Coming to Montclair State from Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Abushaban 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

It’s not only recent grads who have been active in standing up for social justice.

Many alumni are devoted to bringing about change – many 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 current 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. “When I began in the teaching program (at Montclair State), I felt the empathy on the campus about what I and other people of color had to do to get through.… 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.”

Looking Forward

While the University has worked to create a diverse and equitable campus, “there always are things we could be doing better,” Pennington says.

“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. We need to be doing the same on campus,” she says.

To that end, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education David Hood, who is also the dean of University College, says plans are underway for a series of student and faculty forums focused on this moment in history to help students, staff and faculty process the events of the last few weeks.

“We not only want to talk about this from a scholarship perspective, we want to come together in an open dialogue and provide an outlet to students to express their feelings and ways that we can support them in this,” Hood says.

Looking forward, Pennington outlines how the University will continue to fight for social justice: “We’re not perfect, but we are trying. 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.

“It makes no sense to come and get an education when you aren’t able to debate, discuss, see and learn new things.”


Story by Staff Writers Marilyn Joyce Lehren and Mary Barr Mann.


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