News

May 24, 2021

Subverting the Power Dynamic: Student-Led Teach-In

The following story is based on interviews of the five student teach-in leaders in February and faculty leadership of the Lewis Center in March conducted by freelance writer and artist Mia Imani Harrison

By Mia Imani Harrison

How do you create sustained social change? Whose responsibility is it to do anti-racism work? In 2020, as many Princeton students were mourning the congruent loss of summer and the world as we knew it, five students from the Lewis Center for the Arts—Jasmine Rivers, Miles Wilson, Silma Berrada, Glenna Jane Galarion, and Jacy Duan—were sitting with these questions as they researched and developed methods to make the Lewis Center, and arts institutions in general, more inclusive. Earlier that summer, responding to the lack of student opportunities due to the pandemic, the Lewis Center committed to finding ways to offer students financially, intellectually, and creatively supportive possibilities over the summer. One of these was a call in June for proposals to develop a student-driven teach-in. The timing also provided the foundation to address what Associate Professor of Theater and Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Lewis Center Brian Herrera calls the “racial reckoning in the United States,” which had reached a peak in the summer of 2020. Feeling the weight of the tension on a national scale, and at a micro-level at Princeton, these students merged their lived-experiences with rigorous pedagogy as a means to advocate for institutional reform.

“For several years, we’ve been seeking to make Lewis Center programs more truly inclusive and to break down some of the real and perceived barriers to participation in our classes and programming. We’ve worked diligently to make sure that our spaces are genuinely welcoming and productive places for everyone to engage as their full selves. Supporting the teach-ins seemed like a way of learning, from our students’ perspectives, what work remains to be done.”
—Tracy K. Smith, Lewis Center Chair 

Jasmine, Miles, Silma, Glenna and Jacy responded to the paid summer research opportunity, an idea inspired by theater faculty member Elena Araoz. In April 2020 Araoz, a member of the LCA Climate and Inclusion Committee, suggested the Lewis Center hire students to present a teach-in in the fall on issues of identity and diversity from students’ perspectives aimed at raising greater awareness of and investment in these issues among the Lewis Center’s faculty and staff. The students were granted agency over the content, form, and presentation of their work, with the only condition being digital facilitation due to Princeton’s virtual environment last fall. That freedom, much like the project overall, was met by the students with feelings of both optimism and skepticism.

The language used in the Lewis Center’s call for proposals created uncertainty in each of the students’ minds. The open project description, paired with social justice buzzwords like “diversity” “inclusion” and “intersectional identity,” appeared like a surface solution to deeply rooted issues within the Lewis Center. Yet, the description also stated that the students would have agency to design a program they felt would work best. Miles, a junior majoring in visual arts with a background in leadership, assumed the faculty would allow his team “to craft a program we thought would be fitting, because they [the faculty and staff] realized they weren’t necessarily the right people to step in and make those decisions [about design of the program].” His assumption proved correct.

A student standing with her arms crossed.

Jasmine Rivers ’24 (Photo by Jon Sweeney)

For others, their on-campus experience informed how they reacted. When Jasmine, a first-year student majoring in anthropology with experience facilitating workshops, read about the teach-in, she was initially hesitant but saw the potential for creating a foundation. She thought that the center “might not only listen to what we have to say during these four workshops but also implement our demands for long-term change.” With three years left on campus, she hopes to “experience the concrete changes [she] helped to enact, as well as create a positive impact for future generations.” For senior Glenna, an anthropology major also receiving certificates in American studies, gender and sexuality studies, theater, and musical theater, her experience at Princeton has made her wary of the longevity of a project like this. “I think I was tired of the cyclical awareness that arises any time a Black man is murdered, a Black person is murdered on camera. Systemic racism is embedded [in the country] and in the fabric of Princeton. I think having experienced that since Ferguson and knowing that it was probably going to dissipate from my Instagram feed and Princeton discourse in general, I wanted to do something that would have a long-lasting effect, especially within a community that I care about.”

Although the students came from different academic departments, backgrounds, and years, each had previous experience with social justice work, in both navigating microaggressions in their daily lives and through their academic and communal work as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students. The only difference is that much of this emotional and intellectual labor went without pay. They saw this as an opportunity to be reimbursed for the work they were already doing. Yet, they were uncertain about the reality of how the project would take form. The gravity of tackling such a seemingly impossible task in a set amount of time was daunting. Dismantling oppression becomes a perpetual task that seems to have no clear finish line.

A student sits for a portrait in front of a modern building

Miles Wilson ’22 (Photo by Jon Sweeney)

There were many obstacles to overcome. First, the students selected to lead the teach-in had never met in person and would only be convening digitally for three months (July to October) to handle these sensitive topics. Anti-racism work requires trust and vulnerability. Finding ways to create intimacy across screens became crucial for them to feel comfortable doing the work. Miles recalls the awkwardness of an initial planning session, asking a question like, “all right, how should we go about this,” only to be greeted by silence and awkward looks. The team had to figure out ways to change the dynamic. They had to take the pulse of the shared screen, internally asking some questions that Miles recalled: “Who are the people I am working with on such a specific topic? Are they as passionate as me? Is this a safe space?” Not being able to fully see each other or reach into others’ quarantine bubbles necessitated creative ways to relate and render each other whole. “Our productivity increased so much once we broke the ice and felt more comfortable with each other. After that point, it felt a lot more like a community, or even like an LCA affinity space of some sort,” says Jasmine.

Next, it was time to plan how they wanted to construct the teach-in. The freedom of an open-ended project caused friction as the group members had different ideas about how to most impactfully deliver their message. Time constraints invited them to think of scale and depth. According to Silma, a junior majoring in English and pursuing certificates in African American studies, creative writing, theater, and visual arts, the group selected the overarching topics and small group discussion themes based on their own experiences at the LCA. “Whenever we had our meetings, we would go back and forth on how pedagogical to be. I was always pushing for talking about it systematically,” she explains. Taking a Department of African American Studies course on the philosophy of race shaped her approach to the teach-in. “We would always talk about how much historical context we should give. What room should we give for student experiences? What room should we give for LCA-specific moments versus just the arts in general?”

“What’s always been important to me in leading workshops, especially dealing with difficult topics, is reflecting space. I think that’s where the learning happens”
— Jacy Duan

A student stands for a portrait

Jacy Duan ’21 (Photo by Jon Sweeney)

Finding that balance would be difficult, but it would eventually pay off. At first, the project took an artistic approach but transformed into an educational series as the students focused on imparting knowledge and awareness among participants. Jacy, a senior majoring in sociology and pursuing certificates in theater and Asian American studies, had prior experience with leading workshops. She believed an instructional approach would be fundamental since many faculty and staff “don’t know the definitions or think they know them.” Providing a foundation of words and language would allow everyone to start on the same page. “That’s why we made the first session just a general ‘here’s what to know,’” she says. Reflection was another crucial element that was integrated into each module. “What’s always been important to me in leading workshops, especially dealing with difficult topics, is reflecting space. I think that’s where the learning happens, when you get a second to process everything you learned and think through your own life and your actions and your practice,” Jacy explains.

Another main struggle was deciding upon the specificity of the topics and presented materials. The dynamics of racism impact people’s lives at every level, yet how do you make them digestible for people possessing different levels of experience with and knowledge of anti-racist and inclusion practices? How do you activate these topics as they concern Princeton, and even more specifically the LCA? The group began to brainstorm. The amount of time spent combing through personal experiences, sharing perspectives, and overcoming unforeseen pitfalls stimulated individual and collective growth. “The process of researching and reading anti-racist literature, and, once we began to write and format the sessions, took a long time. But I think in that struggle, we all bonded, and that’s how we got close,” says Glenna.

A student is reflected in a window

Glenna Galarion ’21 (Photo by Jon Sweeney)

They leaned on each other when the number of topics, terms, and practices became overwhelming. They also decided to emphasize the faculty and staff engagement. As facilitators, the students wanted to make sure that the responsibility to implement these changes ultimately fell on the faculty and staff.

While they peeled back the layers of systemic oppression within the arts, on campus, and in their lives, the students began to reflect on their positionality in the project. Their reality as college students of color taking on deeply seated systems of oppression began to weigh on them. The stakes were high. Professors who didn’t agree with their ideologies could potentially retaliate. “It’s kind of scary to think that I will have to work with these professors, and I will have to ask to apply for a senior thesis. People could weaponize [these] experiences and hold it against us,” says Glenna.

Institutions of higher education are built on knowledge production and steeped in age-old hierarchies. The students had to come to terms with the inherent power imbalance at play and find new methods to disseminate their findings.

“We kept reminding ourselves, we’re just college students, what do we know about race? There was a big moment for me, and I think for other people as well, [questioning our own] legitimacy to be teaching these things. We’ve taken a few classes, but we don’t have a degree. That was something difficult to [reconcile] during the whole process. But we figured it out,” says Silma.

A portrait of a student

Silma Berrada ’22 (Photo by Saul Martinez for the Lewis Center)

The teach-in transformed into a four-part series over four successive Thursday evenings structured as curated lectures and mediated discussions. Creating a mix of personal experiences and pedagogical tactics, the students acknowledged and sought to honor where each participant was on their social justice journey. The sessions—”Facing The Artist,” “Outside the White Cube,” “Representation as Art,” and “Art Demands”—provided vocabulary, resources, guest lectures, and activities that put topics into practice. The themes pushed past surface-level buzzwords like “diversity” and “inclusion” into interrogations of how these words actually function in society, and on campus. This included definitions and examples of covert and overt manifestations of white supremacy, unconscious privilege, white normativity, racial gaslighting, tokenism, plastic representation, authentic allyship versus performative allyship, and more. The students made sure to provide macro- and microcosmic examples of how each issue impacts marginalized communities and BIPOC students, faculty and staff at Princeton.

To prepare the participants for the discussions, the students gave the faculty and staff weekly pre-work: two to three mixed-media resources that explored the topics, and an activity that put the terms into practice. In preparation for the “Facing the Artist” module, participants were asked to read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, watch a video segment in which Robin DiAngelo debunks common myths about race, and name five to ten effects of white privilege within the LCA.  Participants’ reflections continued in the group discussions and virtual breakout rooms where the students provided additional discussion questions, including “what questions might you have for students about their experiences of discrimination in the LCA?” Each two-hour session built upon the previous week’s concepts, providing the attendees with more vocabulary and tools to discuss successive topics. This growing fluency would—hopefully—help alleviate the underlying tension of discussing structural racism.

The initial apprehensions about meeting online began to fade as Zoom sessions offered a sense of connection in a time where most people felt isolated. But greater intimacy also brought opportunities for heightened vulnerability. “Some non-tenured faculty and staff didn’t feel free to say whatever they wanted in their program spaces because their positions weren’t secure in the way that tenured faculty are,” says Jacy.

The much-anticipated final session was the students’ opportunity to outline their demands for change. From the beginning, the students knew they needed a written document that could hold the institution accountable. According to Glenna, they all had thoughts on how the respective programs could change. “It was quite easy to just come up with all these demands. Of course, the format of each session was hard, especially the fourth one, but we always had demands.” The program-specific documents came with an initial timeline of three months to process the discussions and report the next steps for addressing the demands. To the students, the teach-in was the first phase in a series of conversations about anti-racism on campus.

Since the last session in October, many program directors have reflected on the project and ways to implement structural changes. Professor of Dance and Chair of the LCA Climate and Inclusion Committee, Judith Hamera was moved by the students’ preparation. “The pedagogy and the rigor were heartbreaking in their deep thoughtfulness, the way the sessions were handled with breakouts and facilitating with a generosity that was intellectual and social. And these were the most vulnerable people in those rooms.”

To Jane Cox, director of the Program in Theater, the amount of effort and detail the students put into the demands inspired her to move forward with changes the program had been previously considering. “The level of specificity that we were able to get into in the [Theater Program break-out sessions] was incredibly valuable because none of the conversations were new. But we got into some real nitty gritty of, for example, what exactly might an audition room look like? It was incredibly helpful to have [the students’] perspective.”

“We kept reminding ourselves, we’re just college students, what do we know about race? There was a big moment for me, and I think for other people as well, [questioning our own] legitimacy to be teaching these things. We’ve taken a few classes, but we don’t have a degree. That was something difficult to [reconcile] during the whole process. But we figured it out.”
—Silma Berrada

Systemic racism is not a surface problem; it is, by nature, deeply and historically embedded in a variety of structures and processes. Recognizing its presence and rooting it out is not a one-and-done kind of enterprise. Lewis Center Chair Tracy K. Smith was eager to invite students into the conversation. “The goal is to create a transparent process by which students can see what we want to do and even maybe understand what the institutional timeline will be for some of these initiatives. Students need to be involved, and sometimes being involved just means being kept abreast of what the goals are and what the steps toward reaching them will look like.”

Many Lewis Center programs have already created new initiatives, student-led groups, or ways to be more transparent. In direct response to the teach-in, the Program in Creative Writing created Centering Students in Creative Writing, a committee whose aim is to keep faculty connected to what the students want and need. The committee will engage with student demands, communicate with concerned students, encourage feedback, and put forward new initiatives.

As the LCA continues to work to dismantle racism on campus, it is crucial to reflect on its past. In the words of Brian Herrera, it is important to hold tight to the demands as a diagnosis, not as a prescription. “We’ve made this amount of progress, but clearly not enough. The nature of this work is cyclical and about returning to what we did last year and asking how we can improve or revise it moving forward.”

The teach-in is viewed as the beginning of an ongoing process to address greater equity and inclusion at the LCA. As Jasmine noted, “One thing that helped us frame our whole teach-in and that we kept giving reminders of at each session and especially at the last session, is that this should be just the beginning of continued conversations about this, and just know that our teach-in will not automatically solve everything…the LCA needs to be committed to continuing to create safe spaces in the future, to give students a voice to advocate for necessary demands.”

 

Meet the Teach-In Student Leaders

silma berrada closeup with curly brown hairSilma Berrada is a junior concentrating in English and pursuing certificates in creative writing, theater, visual arts, and African American studies. She notes her passion for the arts makes her grateful for the opportunities offered by the Lewis Center, citing the ability to work alongside outstanding mentors and inspiring peers within each program she is pursuing. She serves as a Lewis Center student advisor.

 

Jacy Duan is a graduating senior. She is a sociology major with certificates in theater and Asian American studies. On campus, she has been involved in many Lewis Center for the Arts productions and leads Princeton’s first and only Asian American theater company, East West Theater. She has also been involved in other theater groups on campus, such as the Triangle Club and Theatre Intime.

 

Glenna Jane Galarion is a graduating senior concentrating in anthropology with certificates in theater, music theater, gender and sexuality studies, and American studies, who identifies as Asian American, queer and from a low-income family. Her artistic work focuses on genre-defying, intersectional, feminist-minded, and nuanced identity pieces. She has performed in musical theater productions with the Lewis Center and Princeton University Players, is in the a cappella group Shere Khan, a vocalist in the Princeton University Rock Ensemble (PURE), and a DJ for WPRB. Beyond the arts, she is involved in SpeakOut and Woke Wednesdays and is a Lewis Center student advisor.

 

Jasmine Rivers identifies as a multi-racial, hapa, Filipina-American woman and is originally from San Francisco, or the native land of the Ramaytush Ohlone people. She has always been passionate about stewarding authentic equity, inclusion, and accountability; in high school she served as the leader of her school’s Multi-Racial Affinity Space as well as a student representative for their Multicultural Leadership Team. At Princeton, Jasmine is an intended anthropology major pursuing certificates in dance, neuroscience, Asian American studies, and gender and sexuality studies. She is a member of BodyHype Dance Company as a dancer, choreographer, and last year’s elected publicity chair. While currently taking a leave of absence from Princeton, Jasmine has been serving in multiple positions related to anti-racist activism, social justice fundraising, patient advocacy, and arts administration. Upon her return to Princeton as a sophomore this fall, Jasmine will serve as BodyHype’s vice president, a Lewis Center student advisor, and a writing fellow. She is grateful for the platform that this Anti-Racist Teach-In afforded to her and her colleagues, and she is looking forward to seeing concrete reforms that these four sessions have hopefully inspired.

 

Miles Wilson is a rising senior and member of the Princeton Men’s Water Polo team. He is also an active member and former treasurer of the Princeton Black Men’s Association as well as the president of the Ivy Eating Club. As a junior, Miles has had the opportunity to work as a residential college advisor (RCA) in Mathey Residential College, a job he believes has helped prepare him for his role as Ivy president. Outside of the pool and his leadership roles, Miles finds a great deal of joy in his academic work, where he focuses on multimedia storytelling through his studies as a visual arts major. Miles is from Irvine, California, and when he’s not spending time hanging out with family and friends, he loves to spend time at the beach surfing and snorkeling.

 


About the Writer

Mia Imani Harrison is an international interdisciplinary artivist (art + activist) and arts writer. Harrison interrogates the ways that disenfranchised communities can heal individual, communal, and societal trauma by creating works that live in-between the worlds of art and science. This “third-way” mixes unconventional methods (dreams, rituals) and science (ethnography, geography, psychoanalysis) to dream new potential ways of being. She activates this through experimental interviews, reportage, continued conversations, and the like. She strives to create generative pieces that allow the works of the artist to have a second breath outside of the confinements of an exhibition. Her creative and collaborative work has lived in the Northwest Film Forum, Seattle Art Museum Lab, Savvy Contemporary, and her work is expanding into digital and other interdisciplinary spaces. Her written work lives both digitally and in print within publications Cultured MagazineContemporary AndDaddy MagazineHyperallergicVice, and more.

Press Contact

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