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The Changemakers

The Changemakers

Get acquainted with a selection of School of Communication alumni, faculty, and students who tell us in their own words how they are using art and scholarship to work toward social justice, fight racism, and establish a culture of better representation and equity both here and Northwestern and in the world beyond.

BIMBOLA AKINBOLA

Assistant professor of performance studies

My interest in African diasporic cultural production has everything to do with my upbringing. Both of my parents were born in Nigeria, and I come from a family of artists. As a first-generation Nigerian American, I’ve always been interested in the complexity and nuance of diaspora, and as an artist I’ve always looked to the realm of aesthetics for answers. My work helps expand the performance studies department’s already strong focus on transnational performance and also connects us to the African studies program and the incredible Herskovits Library—the largest separate Africana collection in the world. I hope at Northwestern I can join the community of scholars expanding the ways we talk about Africa and its diasporas.

I also bring to my teaching my own movement and visual art practice, which allows me to offer students the opportunity to delve into their own creative process and more fully understand theory in practice. I think performance has historically been used to help people cope and make sense of the world in times of crisis. I see performance as particularly equipped to help us connect, process, and remember during difficult times. Performance is also such an important part of the history of protest in the US and around the world. Thinking about social change through the lens of performance allows us to continuously envision new ways to respond to our changing world.

STAN BROWN

W. Rockwell Wirtz Professor, director of graduate studies for the MFA in acting program

When I was a graduate student actor, a world-renowned voice and speech teacher who was white took me aside and told me in private that the English language didn’t belong to Black people. She told me this would keep me from ever being able to speak Shakespeare’s words. She knew then, as did I, that if I reported her, not one person at the premier US regional theatre where this occurred would protect, defend, or even believe me. That’s how it was back then. I said nothing. She turned and walked away.

Years later, after being invited on multiple occasions to work with the voice department at the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, I wrote and published about how that dark moment in grad school opened my eyes to racism in actor training, in the American theatre, and in the entire entertainment industry. However, as hurtful as that moment was to my heart, mind, and spirit, it also helped to shape my professional goals. I knew there had to be a more humane way to teach.

Almost 20 years after I’d published about that dark moment, a younger generation of BIPOC and ally voice and speech trainers began to contact me to thank me for being the only BIPOC voice teacher writing about the issues that they too confronted in their training. I was shocked—not because the article had actually encouraged people, but that students a generation younger than myself were still struggling with the same issues.

The most radical and antiracist thing about my teaching is that I honor the way all humans speak. I honor spoken language as living and evolving. I expect vowels and consonants to sound different in the mouths of people who are different from one another, people who just happen to have access to the same language. Otherwise, how can the theatre seriously claim to reflect the world? Finally, I never perceive English as belonging exclusively to white culture, especially given white culture’s long history of appropriating from other cultures. Where blindness to white privilege is concerned, I’m often reminded of the quote, “How is it that a fish doesn’t know that it is in water?”

Northwestern is trying to learn and trying to learn how to learn. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

“The most radical and antiracist thing about my teaching is that I honor the way all humans speak.”

—STAN BROWN

ASTA CEESAY

Sophomore communication studies and African American studies double major, who is active in the Black Mentorship Program, A&O Productions, Black Pre-Law Association, For Members Only, and Scene+Heard student groups

Oppressors aim to take agency from those they oppress. The objectives are to control, to diminish the quality of life, to make those they wish to oppress miserable. To retain that agency Black people must locate joy in our everyday lives—from the smallest things that make us smile throughout the day to the biggest triumphs of our lives. We amplify the voices and happiness of our fellow classmates. We speak affirmations of love and kindness to one another. We practice compassion and self-care for ourselves. We laugh, we sing, we write, we smile, we simply exist. And to me, that is the greatest weapon: the ability to find joy in an anti-Black world that is unjust, misrepresentative, and inequitable for so many Black folks.

During my time at Northwestern, I’ve come to learn, both in and out of the classroom, one of the greatest forms of resistance is joy. Black folks face immense trauma, pain, and suffering, and these distressing scenes are often produced and reproduced in the media and on social media, creating an inescapable, agonizing reality for many Black people. A pain that Northwestern is not immune to. Anti-Blackness penetrates every aspect of society whether that be found in classroom discussions or the broader discussions of safety and wellbeing of Black students. Moreover, I have found that while direct action, education, and consistent pushes toward change are vital to the movement, there is so much power in experiencing and reproducing Black Joy.

The truth of our collective pain must be counterbalanced with joy that provides an avenue for healing and resistance. Here at Northwestern, I am involved with A&O Productions, a student-run organization which brings entertainment to campus. We recognize the importance of highlighting Black artists, films, and speakers, especially those that embody joyfulness and the ability to live freely. Additionally, I serve as a mentor of Northwestern’s Black Mentorship Program, which I believe is one of the greatest resources to Black students at the university. The executive board puts a large emphasis on making space for, affirming, and creating community among Black folks, which is especially important when we are often overlooked or repressed in other spaces.

Many people in the Black community, at Northwestern and elsewhere, are calling attention to the importance of caring for our mental health. Experiences of oppression and continual reliving of trauma coupled with a lack of resources makes focusing on Black joy that much more important.

While we may not escape the pain produced by this society, we can find spaces within them to not only survive but thrive. It’s my hope that this urges others to find those spaces where they can be themselves unconditionally.

MELISSA DONALDSON (GC17)

Senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Wintrust

Mine is a winding story, including a career mosaic of industries, disciplines, and experiences. The path was neither clear nor straight. There were highs, lows, and lots in between. My background spans sales, professional services, career consulting, learning and development, and now diversity and inclusion. I’ve felt firsthand the sting of unfair treatment, the joys of mentorship, the disappointment of being “not it,” and the loss of business due to lacking the right associations. I learned that people do business with people they like and who could help them meet their goals. A wise man once told me, “If you can’t change your environment, you change your environment.” Diversity and inclusion found me during my evolutions of change.

In retrospect, I benefited early in my career from what I now understand as formal inclusion practices. These included being tapped for niche initiatives and being invited to exclusive events designed to connect executives of color with like young professionals to impart wisdom on how to navigate the landscape. Those strong influences heavily shaped my outlook on corporate America. How could I make a difference for other first-generation college graduates and aspiring professionals of color like myself?

The linchpin occurred in 2005, when I pitched a business case to the CEO and CHRO at a technology services firm to start a formal diversity and inclusion practice in response to a changing marketplace. Every professional zigzag has led me to where I am today. I continue evolving with the work, even coining the mantra “inclusion drives business” as a reminder that it takes a village to build careers and achieve success. My resolve is to reinforce humanity in business, to challenge inequity, and to encourage emerging professionals to expand their capacity to learn and lead inclusively.

Toxic workplaces will undoubtedly destroy great talent if left unchecked. As a Black woman with height, I have at times been the target of unfair treatment, marginalization, and outright discrimination. I’ve received unmistakably racist comments and been penalized for my appearance. I’ve heard consciously biased characterizations of professionals of color and women as less capable and as unprepared for stretch assignments. These behaviors don’t disappear. They lurk in the shadows of every industry, regardless of workplace size. An effectual diversity and inclusion practice is critical to the health and success of the contemporary employer.

Step one toward bridge-building is to engage in open dialogue, followed by a collective commitment to positive action. As a graduate of the program, I believe the school can leverage its master of science in communications curriculum (yes, I’m biased!), which promotes collaborative leadership, elegant communication, and managing complexities. Advancing diversity, inclusion, and equity calls for all three elements.

Northwestern University epitomizes possibilities and potential. Embark on lasting change by engaging faculty, administrators, and students in healthy discourse across cultural and positional identities to uncover perspectives, promote mutual respect, and explore promising outcomes.

JABARI EVANS

Doctoral candidate in the media, technology, and society program; prolific musician, known by the name Naledge, with Chicago hip-hop group Kidz in the Hall

My dissertation is an ethnographic project that focuses on Foundations of Music, a nonprofit organization that provides quality music instructors to Chicago public schools in low-income communities of color, looking specifically at the district’s Hip-Hop Songwriting and Production program. My three years of fieldwork were done at two of these schools and explored the utility of student-driven hip-hop artistic practices in the classroom as a means to reform music education in urban schools, a model for media literacy education, and a culturally relevant pedagogy for African American youth.

Ultimately, I’ve found that hip-hop as an artistic practice is a great way to bridge student interests and informal learning to formal literacies in academic spaces. These findings are important to offering new ways of thinking about hip-hop pedagogy’s role in approaching the learning equity gap that continues to impact the professional and academic success of Black children.

The value of hip-hop music to my own academic and professional pathways placed me in a position where my dissertation topic found me well before I was accepted into Northwestern. I worked as a student mentor for Foundations of Music for two years, and I kept tabs on their songwriting and producing program even as I entered my master’s program. I used to think of that series of events as luck, but now I see it as my preparation meeting my opportunity. Both of my jobs are driven by personal curiosity about the social world. As a rap artist, I always have sought to understand human emotions, relation- ships, and behavior. I think writing a song has quicker (and more widespread) gratification, but both jobs have collaborative and personal aspects to the work process. I’m a qualitative researcher who primarily does ethnography work, so my personal interactions and observations are always at the front and center of the work—which almost mirrors my prior work as a songwriter.

CHELSEA FRANKLIN

Junior radio/television/film and creative writing double major with a minor in African American studies

I utilize my RTVF (screenwriting) and creative writing majors to write about the complexity of matters affecting marginalized and oppressed people. A recurring issue that my writing addresses is racism. Whether my story focuses on microaggressions, mental health, or generational trauma, I also use the knowledge from my African American studies minor to ensure my writing accurately amplifies Black stories and Black strength.

While my background in research helps me thoroughly and accurately report on all my topics, the minor constantly reminds me how intricate my ancestors’ history is— it helps me depict Black people as they are, rather than how white media make them appear to be. I aspire to be a writer who motivates marginalized communities to stand against their oppressors, and I want my writing to make oppressors aware of their roles.

In 2020, I learned that my generation is one that won’t sit idly by while others try to oppress us. This generation of students has paid attention to history. This generation of Black people has listened to our ancestors. We recognize when we’re being treated unfairly, whether by the US government or the president of Northwestern University. My generation only inspires me more as I watch student- led groups (such as NU Community Not Cops) open the eyes of students, including myself, to the repeated dismissal of Black students by our university. They motivate me to do my part by opening the eyes of others.

MARYAM IKUFORIJI

Junior communication studies major with a minor in legal studies and pursuing an integrated marketing communications certificate; photo editor of Blackboard magazine, a student publication catering to Black Northwestern students

I work toward achieving a more representative and equitable culture by creating. Whether it be through writing, photography, or visual arts, I strive to create projects that communicate the experiences of and beauty within underrepresented communities. More than anything, my time as a communication studies major has taught me the

importance of developing strong narratives, which has only strengthened my belief in the power of visual storytelling.

More tangibly, I work to succeed in spaces not created with people like me in mind, so that those who come after me and hold similar identities know that there is someone like them who has done it—so they can too—and there is someone willing to support them in their journey. This support manifests itself in sharing the resources I have gained access to during my postsecondary experience, such as knowledge about this institution, clubs, grants, internship opportunities, and more—like those who preceded me did for me. However, I am also understanding that achieving representation and equity in our culture is not an individual task and the bulk of the work to ensure that both are achieved must be done by the institutions that hold the power to do so.

I am hoping to develop a mentorship program that promotes the creative development of Black youth. I think oftentimes what is forgotten in this cultural moment is that the nightmare that was 2020 is reflective of the experiences a number of people have faced for a very long time. The reality is that combating anti-Blackness is not new for Black people, housing insecurity is not new for the homeless, the fear of illness is not new for the immunocompromised—and the list goes on. This year has only illuminated the number of ongoing problems that marginalized communities have endured for centuries, whether it be racial injustice, medical inequality, or financial insecurity. And even while I recognize my privilege as a financially secure, college-educated, Black woman, there is a lot unknown regarding what the world will look like post-COVID.

TASIA JONES (GC20)

Lecturer in the theatre department and a recent graduate of the MFA in directing program

My artistic mission is to create civic engagement and conversation through theatre and to promote positive societal change at the individual and community levels. As a director, I enjoy highly collaborative work that creates opportunities for community conversation and individual introspection and growth.

That can happen working on a published play, devising something with an ensemble, or working with community leaders and organizations to address a specific need.

I think the way to improve representation is to improve representation—I think it’s that simple. Northwestern needs to improve its recruitment of Black and Brown students and the number of BIPOC faculty in the theatre department. Students will feel more welcome when they see themselves represented in the student body as well as the faculty and staff. Dean Johnson and the department chairs have begun the work of increasing representation in the faculty and staff, as evidenced by my being here. Now it’s time for the larger University to do the same work within their student recruitment.

Until then, the theatre department needs to acknowledge the lack of representation and listen to the needs of its Black and Brown students. Theatre makers (students and faculty alike) should think about what kind of theatre industry they want to go back to when it’s safe to do so and how theatre can be applied outside of the traditional regional theatre model. It’s become clear that many of our systems and processes are not working for us. We need to come up with more equitable ways of working that promote healthy lifestyles and provide greater access to artists and audiences. Our skills and talents can also be applied in so many different areas of our society. There’s lots of work to do if we expand our definition of theatre.

“The way to improve representation is to improve representation — I think it’s that simple.”

—TASIA JONES

ASHLEY O’SHAY (C15)

Chicago-based cinematographer and creator of the documentary Unapologetic; cofounder of the Multicultural Filmmakers Collective student group

Since my graduation from Northwestern in 2015 I’ve been working on my feature-length directorial debut, Unapologetic, which premiered last August. It’s a documentary about two young Black queer women organizing within the Movement for Black lives in Chicago. That has been my bread and butter for the last four-and-a-half-to-five years, in addition to working as a freelance cinematographer in Chicago.

Soon after I graduated, I was lucky enough to get an internship at Kartemquin Films, a documentary powerhouse here in Chicago. And as part of that internship, we were asked to make a short film about any topic of our choosing. The fall of 2015 was a time when young Black people were continuing to organize around police brutality in the city, related in particular to a case around an off-duty police officer who killed a young Black woman named Rekia Boyd. With that incentive, and also just having been made aware of it on social media and the contacts I started to make in Chicago, I was really interested in showing how this movement could hold the Chicago Police Department accountable—but also that my project would be told from the perspective of young Black women and queer folks, and that was something I had just never really seen in my formal education. Even though this was originally just for the internship and it was a short piece, I decided to continue and expand the project just because of what was happening in Chicago. And I was starting to meet other brave and courageous people that I wanted to keep following.

I partially began this film in a selfish attempt to be able to educate myself around the Black women at the center of this work—Janáe and Bella—who have been working in movements for years. Also, I wanted to learn more about the history of political organizing in Chicago, because that’s not something with which I was familiar at the time. And even just learning the institutional infrastructure of Chicago and how that feeds into a lot of the violence and brutality that we see, and how young Black organizers are really strategic about that information, really delicate and detailed in their approach. Until last summer when the Black Lives Matter movement had the floor again, so to speak, I don’t think a lot of folks understood the work that goes into it.

This film in particular was my contribution to the movement for Black lives. As a filmmaker I started to think about my camera as a tool, as a resource for the movement. In general, I think there’s limited archiving of Black movements, and a lot of times that’s something that’s done in reflection and not when it’s actually happening. I wanted to contribute to a living archive, and even If this project isn’t something a person or community sees for five, 10 years down the line, it’s important to have it documented so people can remember the major shift they were able to make over that time, and that we can encourage the next generation of organizers and activists.

NICOLE PATTON TERRY (C99, GC02, GC05)

Olive and Manuel Bordas Professor of Education in the School of Teacher Education, director of the Florida Center for Reading Research, and deputy director of the Regional Education Lab-Southeast at Florida State University

I’ve always been interested in the healthy development and well-being of children. Even as a premed student at Northwestern, I wanted to become a pediatrician. However, over time, it became increasingly clear to me that children’s healthy growth and development depend on many factors above and beyond what can be gleaned from their biological and physical health. Many of those factors exist beyond the children and their school and include the family and community, the sociopolitical context, housing and economic patterns, race and culture, and so on. All of these issues collide in schools, where children’s lives absolutely hang in the balance, because school success is tied to individual and generational health, prosperity, opportunity, and overall well-being. So what happens in schools matters a lot, and it matters even more for children who are vulnerable to failure in school.

In the US, arguably the academic skill that is most important to overall school success is reading, and the student populations most vulnerable to poor reading achievement and thus poor school performance are students with disabilities; students from racial, ethnic, and language minority groups; and students growing up in poverty and low-income households. In part, that is why my research, innovation, and engagement activities have always focused there. But it is also because I am very much aware that the student populations that tend to struggle the most in school are those I belong to and include my own children and my own family. I am also very aware that we have a great deal of knowledge, resources, capacity, and power to improve outcomes for those populations, should we choose to do so. Simply put, we often choose not to, and I cannot abide by those choices.

The factors that make children more vulnerable to poor reading achievement are present throughout the nation but are certainly more common and more pervasive in underserved and underresourced communities where many poor Black and Brown people live. These problems are complex and compounding and cannot be addressed within one academic discipline or profession, so they require a cross-sector approach to create sustainable change. That is why we take an interdisciplinary, collective-impact approach to our work. Working collectively across sectors and disciplines is not without its challenges! But if your intent is to ensure that all children are reading and succeeding in school, then working in this way is nonnegotiable. Each of us has to show up with the talent, expertise, and resources available from our sectors and find ways to collaborate to achieve the same equitable outcomes for all our children, together.

DETRA PAYNE

Lecturer in the theatre department

My personal experiences as an African American female performer and teacher enable me to connect and relate to many students of color as well as other students with diverse backgrounds. As diversity and inclusion are integral to my teaching and creative endeavors, my approach to both is evident not only in the materials and texts I use in my courses but also in the focus and attention I give to identifying, recognizing, and introducing artists from marginalized groups to my students. The productions I have overseen or performed in and the plays I choose to direct reflect my personal commitment to showcasing and celebrating the stories of those who might otherwise be forgotten or overlooked.

What makes Northwestern students and our community uniquely equipped to improve the surrounding Chicago theatre culture comes from what I know of my colleagues in SoC. I believe I am fine to say that the school recognized it had a few missing voices in the song of humanity that was being expressed. Without those voices being heard and their stories being told, growth in the human condition cannot be complete. The faculty and students asked for change, and Dean Johnson has begun to implement these very welcome and embraced changes. The students will benefit from the adjustments and additions taking place, resulting in their graduating from their programs with a more well-rounded and thorough education—which in turn will effect necessary changes in the landscape of not only Chicago theatre but theatre around the country and beyond.

NOLAN ROBINSON

Senior theatre major in the music theatre certificate program; creator and star of the 2018 web series Where’s Noah, about a Black student navigating the challenges of attending a majority-white university

After creating Where’s Noah, I wanted my next project [a short film titled Grief Night Club] to combine what I have experienced through all my studies at Northwestern: music theatre, composing, choreography, writing, and acting. With this new film, my goal was to combine the talents of as many students and alumni—from various schools, majors, and backgrounds—as I could, to make this particular project as interdisciplinary as possible. I also wanted to integrate a message in my piece that surrounds the unspoken struggles that are seldom seen as those that Black men face: anxiety, depression, and grief.

In terms of writing the piece, one thing that I learned at Northwestern about race is that very few people experience the same level of feeling as I and other Black men do in regard to certain external circumstances and how to deal with those feelings when we need to. I had very few people to call on when I needed help figuring out the best way to craft a character whose grief lies in how the world perceives him and his relationship to that world as well as his own mortality. I had to draw from my own experiences, which at times became too difficult to sit with. The preproduction process felt lonely, simply because no one around me could be as helpful as I needed them to be, because the protagonist’s identity includes experiences that those in this very homogeneous community have never had.

I’ll say that during my time here, my knowledge about myself and the world has grown, which has subsequently lent itself to growth in social justice activism. This growth has certainly made me consider going into politics—Ha! Who wants to go into politics?—but I love entertainment, and my sanity, too much to do that to myself. However, it did allow me to discover the ways I can use my art politically and to advocate for the issues crucial to my own livelihood as well as for those who have been neglected by the government.

In my studies, and in the School of Communication in general, we learn how to communicate, how to be strong with our words, and how to seek out the truth. I have been defeated by the constant ignorance and misinformation I see spread through social media. How can I use the skills I’ve learned here to effectively promote the truth and get to share some of my light with the world in the process? I want to help grow our nation back. We’re in a dark spot and challenging times for sure, but what can I do to make us just a little bit better? Whatever that answer is, that’s what I’m going to do.

ANGELA D. R. SMITH

Doctoral candidate in the technology and social behavior program and researcher of emerging adults experiencing homelessness and their use of and relationship with technology 

My research into homeless young adults’ technology needs and usage started out of happenstance, and I stayed because of the impact. In my second year, I collaborated with the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies and ultimately partnered with a local homeless shelter, interacting with the residents and hearing their experiences through my studies. Some of the more interesting findings are their distrust of technology, due to experiencing a number of perceived and encountered risks, and an overall preference to engage in person.

This population is often left out of the conversation. When thinking about individuals experiencing homelessness, we tend to think of adults, leaving this subset behind. While I have not experienced homelessness, I know the feeling of being excluded based upon uncontrollable factors. I hope my research provides an understanding of how systems fail people and the differences particular kinds of interventions can make.

Northwestern does not have a great reputation for community- based research. I have always felt my work was less important because it was not hot or trendy. When doing research with marginalized communities, making improvements should be a collaboration, both with and for. Northwestern and researchers doing this work need to ensure these relationships are mutually beneficial—we cannot simply go into communities and take. There is a long, documented history of taking from marginalized communities without giving back or giving credit.

“Northwestern needs to ensure these relationships are mutually beneficial—we cannot simply go into communities and take.”

—ANGELA D. R. SMITH

KANTARA SOUFFRANT (GC17)

Curator of community dialogue at the Milwaukee Art Museum

My professional mission is to use the arts as a tool for leaving the world a more equitable place, especially for BIPOC people and Black women. In the still-relevant words of the Combahee River Collective, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

My new role is equal parts program planning, curating, and building sustainable community partnerships that emphasize Black and Latinx audiences. For me, the position is fundamentally about cobuilding a more accessible, culturally relevant, and culturally responsive museum for all of Milwaukee. Having worked here previously, I came to know both the museum and people’s perceptions of the museum. Like other art institutions, MAM is racialized as predominately white and classed as a place for affluent visitors.

Beauty is political. Performance studies professor emerita D. Soyini Madison rightly observes that beauty is “liberatory” and “invokes deliberation.” A museum is a space for beauty, for gathering, for bearing witness, for imagining possible futures and the storied past. Access to these beautiful and reflective spaces is politically charged. What’s most exciting for me in this position is that I get to place this politically charged access to beautiful spaces at the center of my work.

Sometimes going to visit a museum is a luxury that can’t be afforded. Barriers for would-be visitors include the cost of admission, negotiating travel, learning the unknown cultural codes that need to be performed within museums so that you don’t feel “uncultured,” and the fear of being racially taunted or socially policed. These are real-life barriers that have prevented people from visiting museums or left them feeling unwanted and unwelcome. In this role, I get to live my professional mission of using the arts to make a public space of the future: a museum where people, regardless of their racial and ethnic background, income level, and schooling, feel welcomed, valued, and understood. People get to bear witness to the beauty and feel a sense of ownership over these spaces, to shape them in ways that serve their present needs while also looking toward the future.