The Juilliard Black Student Union: A Vision Revived

My idea for starting the Juilliard Black Student Union arose out of the perceived need for a space for black students to consolidate and support one another in solidarity. I think it’s safe to say that at this point in our nation’s history, when across the country social activist groups like BlackLivesMatter are challenging the systemic racism in our society and breaking down racist norms, we are experiencing the second wave of the Civil Rights Movement. While the movement has gained a lot of momentum in recent years, there are thousands of instances of racism that people of color, especially black people, face on a continuous, daily basis—the effects of which are, more often than not, destructive in every way. From a police shooting of an unarmed black person published across mass media to micro-aggressions from colleagues, these instances affect us mentally, emotionally, psychologically, financially, and physically.

Black students at Juilliard are not exempt from racism. As a matter of fact, black students often feel ignored and “erased” due to the almost complete silence on these serious issues on the part of the larger Juilliard community. When people do talk about these issues, one, two, or three of the following usually occurs: 1) the issue at hand is discussed in a hurried and dismissive manner; 2) black students’ colleagues place a ton of unwarranted pressure on black students to know every detail about the issue and thus recall the trauma that may have been induced; 3) the black students’ colleagues make extremely ignorant and, quite frankly, racist comments on the issue. Therefore, I wanted there to be an exclusive space for black students in which their thoughts, emotions, and voices would always come first.

 I want the discussions we have in events to move into our classrooms, offices, studio classes, staff and faculty meetings, and performances.

I wanted to build a community for black Juilliard students, so that they could come together to uplift each other and engage in fellowship with one another, where they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so due to their extremely busy schedules.

My secondary purpose for creating the Juilliard Black Student Union was to raise awareness within the larger Juilliard community about social, political, and worldwide issues. Almost every student, faculty, and staff member will tell you that Juilliard is a bubble. Due to everyone’s ridiculous schedules, there is almost no time in our day to check up on what is happening in our neighborhoods, let alone in the rest of the world. It is my hope that by first addressing the issues that plague the black community, we will be able to open up a door for the school to have conversations about other issues pervading our society.

My greatest hope for the JBSU is that it will inspire sweeping change in how the school has conversations about racism and other issues in our society. I want the discussions we have in events to move into our classrooms, offices, studio classes, staff and faculty meetings, and performances. I want the JBSU to be a leading example of students who have fully embraced their roles as citizen-artists, and as the rest of the school watches us move forward, I hope they’ll follow our example.

My other hope for the JBSU is that it continues to grow. I hope more students, black and non-black, will join and listen to our conversations about racism and all of the issues that intersect with it, in an effort to understand it better. I hope that the network and community of black students that we build with the JBSU will be so strong that it will remain intact once its founding members have graduated, and that we’ll continue to support one another even when we’re alumni. When our careers have taken off and we’re traveling the globe, I hope that even then, our network will thrive. I hope, too, that the JBSU will do larger projects that involve community service beyond the Upper West Side—reaching places like Flint, Michigan, and potentially even communities in other parts of the world, on different continents. And finally, I hope the JBSU will persist. I hope there will be students willing to take the reigns and continue to shape the JBSU into an organization that is effective and full of purpose.

When I first came up with the idea to start the JBSU, I did not have any ideas in mind other than the fact that it would be a safe space for black students. I didn’t know that we would be coordinating most of MLK Week, I didn’t know that we’d have a huge outreach of alumni who supported us and wanted to be a part of what we were doing. The leadership team also includes Tatum Robertson, 4th-year Voice student, Toney Goins, 3rd-year Drama student, Daniel Davila, 3rd-year Drama student, and Jeffery Miller, 3rd-year jazz student. A month (and two public meetings, three student leadership meetings, several emails, and some staff meetings) later, and now we’re here. And I have to say, the JBSU has been off to a wonderful start.