AREJ spreads communal anti-racism message during workshop

Courtesy of Nicholas Gayle ’23

On March 30, Vassar College’s Anti-Racism, Equity, and Justice organization (AREJ) invited members of the Vassar and Poughkeepsie community to come together for “Breaking Down and Building Up,” an evening of passionate discussion and workshop. Participants convened around tables in the Villard Room, introducing themselves and mingling with one another. I was immediately impressed by the turnout from members of the Poughkeepsie community. As Talent Davis, organizing member of AREJ, explained: “The goals were simple—to break down silos and communally analyze anti-racism activities in the City of Poughkeepsie and at Vassar and build up a coordinated social justice network to collaboratively dismantle racism.”

In a warm-up activity, each person wrote their own definitions of anti-racism on Post-It notes, which were pasted around the Villard Room. Then, members of AREJ gave a brief but expansive presentation on the history of racism in the Poughkeepsie area and at Vassar College. Attendees learned that Vassar did not admit a student who openly identified as Black until 1940, and about  Poughkeepsie’s history of redlining. The presenters spoke at length about the 1969 takeover of Main Building by Black female students demanding Vassar take better diversity initiatives, which lead to the Africana Studies program and the creation of the ALANA center. Davis presented some startling statistics: “Today, over one in five city residents live in poverty. Over one in four Black residents live in poverty. And nearly one in three school-aged children live below the poverty line.” The presentation concluded with a striking a cappella performance by the trio Souls United of the Hudson Valley. 

Courtesy of Nicholas Gayle ’23

There was a break for appetizers and mingling. Robin Green, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said, “I think it’s wonderful…I like the mixture of students, community people and organizations, because that’s really what we need to achieve anything.” She added, “There’s unity in strength.” 

Attendees then split into smaller groups to examine Vassar and Poughkeepsie using the SWOT technique, which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The purpose of a SWOT analysis is to devise a strategy for the future by identifying the present framework of a given system. In a written correspondence, Isis Benitez, AREJ member and event facilitator, explained, “The decision to do a SWOT analysis was because it was one of the most simplest yet data driven ways to dissect the racism and where the communities can work together.” She mentioned she was pleased with the participation: “I was so happy to see the engagement and see that people were actually willing to work closely together despite the different characteristics and communities they come from.” 

Courtesy of Nicholas Gayle ’23

Davis agreed, stating, “The SWOT exercise was evocative. I heard some things that I’ve heard since I was a child and some novel things that sent chills down my spine, but I was grateful for the candid truth telling that occurred. However, I was most grateful for the solutions that were forged in the strategic plan.” 

One group spoke at length about the division between Poughkeepsie and Vassar and land possession, considering that Vassar is a wealthy, predominantly white institution located in a diverse city where approximately 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Anne Lancellotti, who belongs to two anti-racist community organizations, End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN) and the Poughkeepsie Community Action Collaborative, said, “I think that the idea of what Vassar does with its land is very important…For instance, if you own some of the businesses here, having respect for their need to attract the entire community, not only a small community of Vassar students and giving those businesses a little leeway in the rent so that they can attract people from the wider community.” 

Courtesy of Nicholas Gayle ’23

Laura Motoya, who works with the Poughkeepsie Farm Project and the Hudson Valley Language Justice Collective, suggested Vassar take part in a community land trust. “I’m pretty sure [land trusts] started in the south, where Black folks basically couldn’t have ownership of their land, or basically, they would have land, and the land would be taken away because they didn’t have resources or the way to keep the land,” she explained. “What it means is that the house might be owned by an individual, but the land is owned by a land trust.” The land trust consists of a three-part board, including government, community members and outside experts. “If we live in a project or a housing community, you and I have no say in what happens to those projects, how the walls get painted, how our rent goes up…in a community land trust, we make those decisions together,” Motoya continued. “Vassar could donate two houses to start it off. Or the money to get two houses from the city that are dilapidated. Or, I don’t know if there’s some kind of youth build program here, where young people can also help…Let’s not even say money. The social capital that Vassar has, the brains that are here–you can start a community land trust for Poughkeepsie.” 

The night ended with empanadas, caramel-filled cupcakes and more entertainment. Brian Robinson, member of AREJ, played two stunning piano pieces. The dance trio Bethel Missionary Baptist Church Sisters of Glorious Praise gave a moving performance to Cynthia Erivo’s song “Stand Up,” complete with straw hat costumes. The Vassar a cappella group UJIMA sang two songs. Davis ended the evening with a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. In a written correspondence, he explained, “I was raised as a Pentecostal Christian at my family church here in Poughkeepsie. Back then, the old folks used to say that hallelujah was the highest praise. So as a Spiritualist now, that resonates as Hallelujah is the highest vibration and my intention was to send the people home on the highest of vibrations, inspired, and motivated to action!” 

Courtesy of Nicholas Gayle ’23

“Breaking Down & Building Up” was a wonderful and productive event. Nicole Beveridge, director of the ALANA Center, explained how her aspirations for the event came to fruition, stating,“My hope for the event was to strengthen the current ties between Vassar and neighboring communities, and to move forward with plans, policies, and action steps that center antiracism. Secondly, to establish new partnerships. Several community organizations were represented at this event and the entire AREJ team was grateful for their support and desire to do this antiracism work.” Overall, it was an extremely successful night. As Benitez wrote, “I 1000% want more events like this. Right now we are looking to analyze the data we received and are trying to figure out where to go. We want to hold an event like this twice a year at least to check in and hold each other accountable, and maybe this big event be yearly to reconvene as a larger group. So many big plans to come from this work!” 

One Comment

  1. It never made sense that today’s Vassar College did not try to obtain at a bargain price the unused elementary school next door, with several acres on Raymond Avenue. This would have gone a long way toward creating an integrated setting for joint programs between VC and the Poughkeepsie community. Instead, discussions and money was spent on designing and redoing parts of VC as a liberal arts institute, somewhat separate of the community. As a liberal school, VC should have been more engaged 30 years ago regarding minorities, disabled, neurodivergent, and migrant farm workers in the Hudson Valley. Now, VC is playing catch-up.

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