Collaboration, discussion, confronting political issues head-on and maintaining a family-like feel have been the key components that have shaped the African American Alliance, differentiating the organization from others on John Carroll University’s campus. This past year, AAA made a name for itself by dramatically stepping up on-campus events as well as renewing efforts to reach out to other groups on campus.
However, these changes did not happen overnight.
According to AAA president, junior Mercedes Lewis, the group underwent a drastic transition in a short period of time. “When I was a freshman, the group was a dying organization,” said Lewis. “Curtis Walker (’13) was in the process of reviving it, but it was a challenge because there was never any framework for what to do.”
During Lewis’ freshman year, the group met for discussion-based meetings and organized open mic nights. However, they wanted to do more.
Once Lewis helped establish a core group of members, AAA rapidly became a more prominent organization. Establishing an executive board was key to its growing success, and also engaged its members in a unique way.
“Being on the AAA Board has enhanced my college experience tremendously,” explained junior Tyra Sadler. “We have a new, diverse path on John Carroll’s campus that I hope the next generation of students will continue to walk down. We define what it means to be student leaders.”
Freshman Brittany Kincaid agreed with Sadler, saying, “I love being a board member of AAA because it gives me a purpose. Although sometimes met with hostility, hesitation, and other obstacles, I feel that AAA’s activism on this campus could really change the climate in the future.”
In terms of on-campus engagement, the organization continued to focus its attention on reaching out to students and faculty in different organizations.
“Everything is changing,” said Lewis. “We started throwing more socially-based events my sophomore year, and took the opportunity to collaborate with other organizations.”
According to Lewis, collaboration is a key element of AAA’s mission.
“What we do isn’t just for the benefit of our organization – it’s for the JCU community,” explained Lewis. “Some people think organizations collaborate for monetary reasons. That’s not the case for AAA.” Rather, collaboration helps bridge the gap between social groups.
“Sometimes, organizations and groups of people at John Carroll are separated,” added Lewis. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing because JCU can be a cohesive community. But, you see a disconnect with clubs at times, so it’s important to develop relationships with people you would’ve never have thought to work with.”
Sophomore Dwight Venson also emphasized this point. “I would like the JCU campus to know that AAA is not only for African American students, but is for everyone that wishes to see a more diverse and inclusive campus,” said Venson. “I am proud to be a part of AAA because against all the obstacles and naysayers, we have been able to successfully promote our culture through many events and activities.”
Over the past year, the group has collaborated with entities both inside and outside of JCU including SUPB, Oxfam, Allies, the LGBT Centers of Cleveland, the Latin American Student Association, the JCU Police Department and Cuyahoga County.
Lewis noted the group really began to collaborate when the new board took over this past January.
“This is when AAA really evolved,” said Lewis. “Before, we just always focused on being social. I could sense my freshman year that the organization was mainly concerned with just looking good and getting people to come. But now, we’re becoming a little more political while trying to include the John Carroll community in our events.”
This transition coincided with the “black lives matter” movement, when Americans turned their attention to the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
“I always had a big plan for Black History month,” explained Lewis. “We only had one speaker during my freshman year, and the talk was fairly generic. But this year, we had the crazy idea of organizing week-long events.”
The group sent out daily facts in the Inside JCU email blasts, and hosted multiple events and discussion panels, hoping to educate the campus community.
Lewis noted a particular day that arguably garnered the most attention from the JCU community.
On Wednesday, Feb. 18, the members of AAA gathered in the Lombardo Student Center Atrium to take a stance against police brutality. The group organized a peaceful protest, reading poems and testimonies of police brutality. Then, during lunchtime, the busiest hour on campus, the group organized a die-in, lying on the floor of the Atrium, chanting “black lives matter.”
According to Lewis, the location and time of the die-in was all strategic, hoping to get the attention of students, faculty and staff, and ultimately spark conversations.
“It’s not the peachiest conversation, but it needs to be at least thought about,” said Lewis. “Our goal was for students to see the protest, become curious and Google police brutality.”
Lewis knew the die-in wouldn’t receive a positive response from everyone, but felt that the protest was necessary.
“Sometimes, you just have to have the uncomfortable conversations,” said Lewis. “That’s how you bring about change. Some may think, ‘Oh, we’re just students.” But ultimately, John Carroll is for the students, and we need to help make the changes.”
In hopes of bringing about these changes, AAA has participated in other politically related events outside campus over the past year, including the March on Washington and a protest against mass incarceration at Public Square.
“Being a part of this has been totally inspirational,” explained Lewis. “I heard about protests and the Civil Rights Movement from my family growing up. But, to actually be a part of this has been amazing.”
However, Lewis adds that none of this would have been possible without the support of the members of AAA and the JCU community.
“Sherri Crahen (dean of students), Donna Byrnes (associate dean of students), Salomon Rodezno and Danielle Carter (director of the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion) came to all of our events,” said Lewis. It was amazing to receive support from these faculty members and from the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion.”
Despite the overwhelming support from many JCU community members, the group has received some covert backlash and criticism for tackling the more political issues.
“We’ve received anonymous bias reports, micro-aggressive side comments and the week two Black history month banner got torn down and crumpled up,” said Lewis. “People think racism or discrimination has to be some huge ‘in your face,’ violent stuff, but it’s really covert stuff that happens. That’s why we overtly do what we do.”
Going forward, AAA hopes to educate, include and inspire the JCU campus and the surrounding community by their political and social events.
“We’ve done a lot these past couple of years,” said Lewis,” but we’re going to do more. I see AAA as being something huge. We’re not going anywhere. Yes, we’re always going to keep our social events and maintain collaborative efforts, but we’re always going to talk about the heavy topics and political events going on.