September 2020

Masks Up, Don’t Shoot

Kashae Garland and Black students at Villanova University sparked a social movement to redefine the campus and its culture.

by Kashae Garland

I remember twelve-year-old me sitting with my grandmother and watching George Zimmerman’s trial. I had no clue at the time the true impact of Trayvon Martin’s death, but my innocence did not prevent me from understanding it was racially influenced. I still remember following every update and matching my grandmother’s disgust at Zimmerman’s excuse for taking Trayvon’s life. I knew, even at that age, Zimmerman feared Trayvon because Trayvon Martin was Black. A child’s Blackness was the only motive Zimmerman needed to murder him. I clung on to hope until I heard the verdict—not guilty. I saw the protests emerge and heard the cries of Black people shouting “Black Lives Matter!” At 12 years-old, I felt their outrage, and the Black Lives Matter movement began to be part of my life.

As I grew up, Trayvon’s death was followed by many more names including Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice. Each death resulted in protests, but never accountability. These killings and the lack of justice that ensued traumatized me deeply and permanently. Now, as a twenty-year-old junior at Villanova University, a predominantly white institution, Black Lives Matter has become an even bigger part of my life.

Villanova is a prestigious school to which I should be grateful for accepting me, or so I have been told by adults outside of the university. It is a school where, when a Black person gets accepted, the common reaction is to be surprised rather than congratulatory. Reactions from white people often seem to assume that Black students only get to Villanova through affirmative action or athletics. Black students share stories with one another of white parents and students openly suggesting we received special privileges to be here. It is my third year and I am still searching for the privileges they are convinced I derive from my Blackness.

Before regular matriculation at Villanova, I was put into the Academic Advancement Program (AAP) through Villanova’s Center for Access, Success, and Achievement. It was a summer program I had to attend for two months at Villanova prior to my admission, where I lived with other underrepresented students. It was a fun two months full of laughter. We talked about our lives, sharing our hopes and anxieties about freshman year. We built a loving and accepting family, one where I felt my Blackness was normal.

The friendly atmosphere Villanova had created for underrepresented students during the summer of AAP led me to naively believe I could fit in at the school. Still, I remained anxious about the ways my racial identity would be received by my classmates and my institution more broadly. I faced countless microaggressions from my peers and professors exposing how racism is ingrained so deeply in the fabric of the Villanova community. In my first month of school, a white floormate injected that Stormi Webster would look more Black if she was born with cornrows. Later that year, a white professor touched my braids without my permission, exclaiming how she wished she could get them herself. Every semester I brace myself to be the only person of color in my classes and need to prepare to be called on as a spokesperson for all Black people. I was constantly searching for the joy I felt in AAP, but I realized the bubble had popped, and here I was, an outsider in my academic home. I quickly understood I would never truly feel like a Villanovan; my race would serve as a constant barrier between me and my university. 

That year, I decided to join Villanova’s Student Government Association (SGA). I was inspired to join student government because I realized how ignorant my peers were to racial issues on campus. I remember attending a debate for the possible senators to represent my Freshman class when a moderator asked the question, “What changes would you like to see on campus?” I expected issues of racism and homophobia to be mentioned; however, the suggestions ranged from more printers in the dorms to chicken nuggets in the dining halls. As soon as it was time for questions, I asked, “Since none of you talked about racism and discrimination on campus, how would you handle these issues?” There were no satisfactory answers.

After the debate, I heard SGA had started a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council (now called DE&I Department). Since I did not trust SGA to represent me, I decided I would have to do so myself. I joined the council. Still, the organization struggled to truly become an advocate for underrepresented students, because it was not yet a priority of SGA. Our labor was often used to educate members of SGA rather than actually help marginalized groups on campus.

In my sophomore year, I was promoted to the Director of the DE&I Department. We had big plans to reach out to the Villanova Community in Spring 2020. However, when we came back from spring break in March, we learned our semester had been derailed by COVID. Even with the coronavirus cases rising and colleges in my area closing down, I kept thinking to myself, “Villanova won’t close, we’re going to be fine.” First we were told we had an option to either stay on campus or leave with the possibility of getting a refund. I made the decision to stay because I had my own dorm and figured it would be easier to focus. Yet, three days later, Pennsylvania officially shut down. Instantly, my phone buzzed with an email from the University telling us we had to leave the dormitories in three days. A sense of urgency rushed over me and I called my mom to explain she had to pick me up that night. None of it felt real. 

Although a pandemic was going on, school did not stop and I had to adjust to online classes at home. I worried more for the plans I had for the DE&I Department than my classes until I made the decision to shut down the department for the semester. I went through the motions of waking up, logging on to Zoom, zoning out for the majority of my class, turning off my laptop when my day was done and going to sleep. I felt I had lost my purpose because the goals I wanted to achieve this semester, to change Villanova, no longer seemed possible. However, the feeling did not last long.

A seismic shift occurred for me personally and the VU community was catalyzed by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the reawakening of the Black Lives Matter protests. When I first heard about George Floyd’s death, a wave of numbness washed over me. I scrolled through my Twitter feed feeling the rage course through my body over another innocent Black man’s life being taken by the police that are supposed to protect us. Once the anger subsided, I was hit with the grim reality that living life as a Black person in the United States means living in constant fear. I waited for Villanova to make a public statement and on May 29th, a message from the Office of The President popped up on my phone. I opened it and when my eyes read the first line, “Just breathe,” I was shocked. I went on Twitter to see other opinions about the email from my friends and found they too were frustrated. We read his words as an ignorant way to sympathize with the community while undermining the severity of the situation. Whether it was Father Peter’s intention or not, the message was clear: Villanova had a lot of work to do.

Kashae at a protest for Black Lives Matter at Villanova.

After the email, the cycle of emotions I felt continued as the days went on and the protests began. The videos of Black Lives Matter protests were inspiring. Seeing their faces bloodied after attacks by police and hearing protestors screaming, “Take it to the streets, fuck the police, no justice no peace!” made me want to do my part. As the days went by, I grew angrier that I was not seeing action from SGA or the administration. I knew I had to do something. I began by involving Villanova’s Student Government Association in the Black Lives Matter conversation. The Villanova community had been quiet besides the Black and other students of color who were constantly posting or vocalizing their opinions on social media. As a member of SGA with a role specifically designed to address these issues, I could not allow my organization to sit in silence any longer. I wanted SGA to make changes, but I found if I did not speak up about what needed to be done, then nothing would happen. It started with convincing SGA to post about the death of Ahmaud Arbury on social media along with resources, which was not an easy task. I was met with apprehension from leadership because SGA does not usually get involved in social issues. However, I explained, this was a civil rights issue, an issue that directly impacts the lives of the students we are dedicated to advocating for.

That was the moment I decided I would dedicate the rest of my summer, already occupied by a 40-hour work week, to this cause. Working with another student of color in SGA, we found ways for our organization to become part of the conversation. I advised SGA to post a solidarity statement with Black Lives Matter and Black students. I became part of the Black Student Leaders group and we created a list of demands to present to the President of Villanova as well as other administrators. We worked exhaustively throughout the summer knowing creating a more equitable and anti-racist campus community at Villanova was an important effort that was long overdue. Black student leaders came together to put their collective ideas into a direct action plan for the University. We met with Father Peter and other administrators at the beginning of July and a month later, a complete list of demands were sent out to the Villanova Community. The demands ask for a diversity requirement for all students, diversity training for faculty and staff, defunding the Villanova Police Department, a Diversity Building, a look into reporting racial discrimination, intersectionality with the LGBTQ+ community, and regular meetings for accountability. The demands were well-received in the summer, but the semester is halfway through and yet there has not been a single update about the progress so far from administration.

Eight years ago, I thought Trayvon’s death would awaken the world as it did for me about what it truly meant to be Black. Foolishly, for eight years, I believed every time a new name trended on social media, it would be enough for the world to take notice that Black people are being murdered due to the systematic racism of this country. It took eight years and the death of George Floyd for the world to acknowledge that police brutality is an issue despite the countless deaths of Black people before him. However, the world’s acknowledgement seems temporary, though it will likely resurface again due to another Black body being violated on camera. When will the government, educational institutions, and U.S. citizens understand that witnessing the murder of Black people should not be part of the Black experience. A Black person should not have to die for racial equality to become a priority, but unfortunately, a Black body is only valued when it is dead.

Kashae Garland is a junior at Villanova University from Bensalem, Bucks County PA. On-campus she is a student leader that advocates for underrepresented students. She is the Director of Diversity, Equity Inclusion in Villanova’s Student Government Association. She is also the co-chair of VU Pride, Villanova’s LGBTQ+ organization. This past summer, she dedicated her time to be part of the Black student leaders who sent a list of demands to Villanova. She hopes that with the work she does, she can change Villanova for the better.

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