The State of Blackness: Carrying the torch to an inclusive community

Students walk the red carpet Photo/Heratch Ekmekjian

Sonali Anderson '22 and Nicolas St Cloud '22 walk the red carpet.

Deborah Ault
Photo/Heratch Ekmekjian

Deborah Ault '22 and guests sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing", known as the Black National Anthem.

Students, faculty, staff and the Alumni of Color Network came together on April 1 and 2 for The State of Blackness, a celebration of 69 years of art, activism, and cultural contributions from the Black community and people of color at Brandeis University. The event was created and presented by The Black Action Plan with support from the Intercultural Center, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

The Black Action Plan, written by Sonali Anderson ‘22 and DeBorah Ault ‘22 with the help of other campus members, was created in 2020. During 2020’s nationwide protest against the killing of Black people by police and continued systemic racism, the two were inspired to take action at Brandeis.

They reached out to clubs on campus, asking students of color to join a virtual meeting to share their concerns. With more than 100 students in attendance, the two created a list of concerns that quickly turned into solutions. Many of their initiatives have influenced change on campus, and they continue to work to improve the community experience for students of color at Brandeis. “Everyone here has the opportunity to be the change we want to see,” said Anderson.

When Anderson had the idea for a celebration, she leaned on her network for support in bringing the event to life. “The Alumni of Color Network was so helpful,” said Anderson. The network supported the event in funding, brainstorming ideas, and joining the day of celebration in-person.

The State of Blackness recognized the antiracism work done since 2020, as well as the seven decades of intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical contributions made by black and people of color students, faculty, staff and alumni. The student-planned events included a Friday night dinner followed by a speaking program at the Rose Art Museum and an after-party at the Intercultural Center with music by DJ Dacaso (Darryl David ’09). Saturday featured a brunch, Cafecito Con María jewelry owned and sold by María Aranibar '22, and book drive. Janice Johnson Dias '94 presented her book, Parent Like it Matters. 

Students in formal attire filled the Faculty Club for the Friday night dinner. Leah Naraine ‘22 shared her appreciation for the event. “This is a celebration of so many things we don’t get to celebrate everyday. Joy, unity, community and the hardworking people who make this university a better place,” she said.

With help from the host, former Dean of Students Jamele Adams, all in attendance spent most of Friday evening on their feet, cheering, laughing, dancing, and singing.

Ault began the evening’s performances by reciting The Hill We Climb, the poem written and recited by Amanda Gorman at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. “I chose this poem because I related our nation to the Brandeis community. I can’t change this country, but I can change my community,” said Ault.

Bob Jones stands in the Rose, sharing speech
Photo/Heratch Ekmekjian

Robert Jones ‘71, MA’75 shares the importance of an inclusive legacy on campus.

Her recitation was followed by a dance performance by Aerionna Stephenson ‘21, a group step performance from the Platinum Step Team and a speech from Intercultural Center Director Habiba Braimah.

After dinner, the party moved to the Rose Art Museum where speakers shared their experiences and hopes for the future of Brandeis.

Robert Jones ‘71, MA’75, who participated in the occupation of Ford Hall in 1969, spoke to audience members about the importance of creating an inclusive campus legacy.

“One of the critical things about Brandeis University is our roots that can endure. It’s important that we build institutions that are inclusive and will continue to fight after we’re gone,” said Jones. “We have to pass the torch on.”

Carmen Hicks, Heller MPP’14 and a member of the Heller Alumni Association Board, shared the value of advocating for other students of color. During her first year at Heller, she had an idea to improve the inclusivity of the school, but was hesitant to advocate for her community. With a nudge from University Professor Anita Hill, she gained the courage to pursue change. “She told my group of peers that we needed to provide a voice for students of color at Heller,” said Hicks.

Hicks and other students helped establish the Heller Diversity and Inclusion Pledge, now posted annually on Heller office doors.

Before the evening closed with the after-party, Anderson and Ault shared their hopes for the future of the Black Action Plan and appreciation for the celebration. “It’s surreal that this is taking place. I would have never thought something this big and beautiful could have come together.”

This document was revised on April 11th to reflect the Alumni of Color Network's support in The State of Blackness event.

Categories: Alumni, Arts, General, Student Life

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