Students, faculty, alumna and guest speaker discuss social issues on 22nd Annual Unity Day

By Tatyanna Carman

Students, faculty, alumni and a keynote speaker discussed a variety of topics, such as racial justice, voting, representation and the 2020 presidential election, at the 22nd annual Unity Day held on Oct. 12 via Zoom from 1:10 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. 

Unity Day consisted of two student panels titled “Minority America: A Conversation on Race and Identity in America,” and “Diversifying the Rider Dollar,” a session conducted by a Rider alumni titled, “The Importance of Your Vote,” and a keynote address titled, “Policing, Prison Reform, and Racial Justice in 2020.” 

Director of Multicultural Studies Program and Professor of English Pearlie Peters said that the entire faculty and staff of the Multicultural Studies Program were organizers for this year’s Unity Day celebration. 

She shed some light on how the designated day of unity originated. According to Peters in her introduction, Unity Day was created in 1998 as a response to perceived “tensions growing on campus in light of a racially insensitive pledging practice by one of the large fraternities on campus.” 

“Unity Day from its inception has focused on promoting racial harmony and community, not just [on] campus into actions, but also in all walks of everyday life, even beyond the university,” Peters said. “All of Rider’s [Unity Day] programs have been generated and planned by students, tailored to their changing lifestyles and response to urgent social issues.”

She also stressed that this year’s program was generated largely by students and their urgent interest in current events. Approximately 295 people attended the all-day virtual program, according to Peters. 

Rider alumna Petra Gaskins ‘15 expressed the importance of voting in session one, “The Importance of Your Vote”, and shared how voting “changed her life.” She explained that her parents “opted out” of parenting her at the age of twelve and as a result, she lost the right to attend high school since she was a “homeless unaccompanied youth.” This led her to move out of her home state of Texas to Hawaii, and eventually New Jersey, where the law stated that she was still unable to attend high school without parental permission and would be sent to a juvenile detention center because she was under the age of 15.

“Your vote or lack thereof has a direct impact on someone else’s life,” Gaskins said. “When we are in a position of comfort when everything is great in our lives, we don’t often realize that we can change the entire course of someone else’s life. A law was changed by someone newly elected. They sponsored that law. That changed my life.” 

She also compared voting to brushing teeth and not voting to not brushing teeth, saying that not voting causes the decay of democracy. 

“Politics isn’t just about ideals. [It is] not just about theoretical positions. It is about people,” she said. “Real specific people whose lives are affected one way or another by governmental policies. Those lives will be affected regardless if you vote or not because policies and laws will be implemented regardless if you vote. The question you have to ask yourself is if you’re willing to use your voice, are you willing to use your vote to make a stand for what you believe in?”

The keynote speaker and Executive Director of the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Amol Sinha shed light on what the New Jersey ACLU is working and focusing on which include immigration rights, criminal justice issues and racial justice. 

“There are problems in the education system in regards to racial justice. As we’ve seen recently, the people on the wrong side of the digital divide right now are suffering,” Sinha said. “There are currently people who are being required to have their families learn virtually, but don’t have the technology and so often, which is related to wealth and socioeconomic status and so often socioeconomic status and race are inextricably intertwined in our society.” 

Two student roundtables consisted of student panelists discussing various social issues as well as what it is like to be a minority on Rider’s campus.

Sinha also highlighted the issue of racial justice in the criminal justice system.  

“We are incarcerating disproportionate amounts of people of color, particularly Black folks in the United States,” he said. “We are arresting Black folks for drug possession, marijuana possession in particular, at a rate four times that of white folks even though we know that both groups use marijuana at the same rates.”

He also talked about ACLU’s work on marijuana legalization and related it to the current presidential election. Sinha explained that the question asking whether or not someone supports the legalization of marijuana is an important question because most people who are thinking about the election right now are thinking about, “what they want to vote against.” 

“There are people that are thinking about the lesser of two evils and those sorts of calculations in their minds about how they’re going to vote,” Sinha said. “Here is an opportunity for us to actually vote for something. And that’s voting for racial justice. It’s voting for improvements in our economy. It’s voting for tax revenue to go to the hardest-hit communities by the war on drugs. And these are all things that I think that New Jersey needs to invest in.”

Sinha spoke on the increased conversation on divesting from policing, no-knock warrants, the funding of the public safety budget and questioning the “unnecessary interactions” with police which were triggered by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. 

He said that the ACLU has been working on policy changes that will help with police, community relations that focus on transparency, civilian oversight of police and “chipping away the doctrine” of qualified immunity and limiting the use of deadly force. Sinha ended his talk by focusing on how the coronavirus has impacted the prison population. 

The student roundtable panel, “Minority America: A Conversation on Race and Identity in America,” had 10 panelists with a student and faculty moderator. The faculty moderator was Professor of Communications and Journalism Bosah Ebo. The student moderator, senior psychology major Laeuna Chisholm, asked the panelists questions about various topics such as their definition of an ally, how to encourage peers to vote, how to have a conversation about race and what it’s like to be a minority on Rider’s campus. 

Panelist and freshman global studies major Kayla Mcintyre shared what she thought were the qualities of an ally. 

“You have to be actively anti-racist. You have to actually start dismantling little by little the racist system so we can all be 100% equal in all aspects of everything,” Mcintyre said. “So it’s going to be a lot, but in order for you to  support us, you’re going to have to actively participate in that. And I think that more people need to start to realize that now and start working toward that.”

When the panelists talked about being a minority on campus, freshman marine sciences major Melody Turner spoke on how she felt about Rider’s lack of faculty of color. 

“I don’t have [any] professors that look like me or are darker than me at all,” said Turner. “So I find it really hard to stay motivated when I see that even in a university there isn’t a lot of representation of people of color, so going into that field I know that I’m still going to be the minority even in the career choice that I’m going to make.”

The second student roundtable panel titled, “Diversifying the Rider Dollar,” focused on topics related to Rider’s campus specifically, such as availability of diverse classes, diversity training, student support systems and representation. The faculty moderator was Adjunct Professor in Political Science Roberta Rusciano. Questions were asked by junior sociology and criminal justice major and student moderator Dana Walcott toward the nine student panelists, some of whom were in the previous panel. 

Freshman arts management and pop music double major Yusef Collins-Bryant shared his opinion on if there should be a more intense diversity training or graduation requirement. 

“Absolutely, because it can only help you understand someone else’s culture. That’s not something that can harm you or deter you from reaching a goal. That’s something that will help you in the world.”

Walcott shared that sentiment and said that it should be a graduation requirement because it’s, “preparing you to go into the workforce.”

Each event ended with an open Q&A with the audience. 

Peters said that this year’s program was a “tremendous success” in terms of meeting “the original goals and the original Unity Day,” despite it not being its usual two-day event. 

“The audience and speakers gained an understanding and appreciation of the ties that bind us as a university and as a nation, of diversity and difference, of campus unity, universal brotherhood and racial tolerance,” Peters said.

Senior psychology major Javier St. Rose said that he gained reassurance that some professors are willing to listen to students and it gives him hope that “Rider is going to commit to making the changes they vowed to make.” 

Collins-Bryant said,“I was so honored Dr. Peters asked me to be a part of the Unity Day panels and planning process. We truly need to have more of these student-led panels where a real open conversation is had and no student is dismissed or censored. I look forward to having more of these discussions in the near future.”

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