Respecting the lives of Black people at the forefront of Towson University students' call for justice
Hundreds of Towson University students, staff and faculty showed up on campus June 13, donning masks in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, to march for justice and empower Black lives at TU and around the country.
With such a large turnout from Saturday’s event, the student organizers have their eyes on the future.
"It made the hard work very rewarding and I would definitely do it again," says senior Jaelyn Heyliger, president of the TU National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC). "And this is the beginning. We need to keep our voices heard and fight our good fight, and get the change we need and deserve."
When she saw fellow students—along with faculty, staff and neighbors— all came to support this movement, Heyliger said she was thrilled with the "small community."
While the U.S. attempts to confront the realities Black people in the country face-including racism and violence - there have been marches and protests happening in cities all across the world. TU rose to the challenge as well.
"I'm still in disbelief because the turnout was so much better than I thought it would be," Heyliger says. "I didn't realize how big the crowd was until afterward, and people had shown me pictures they had taken at the event. I loved seeing how many people were there, and they were passionate and moved by what our speakers were saying."
The event started on campus at Tiger Plaza, and featured several speakers addressing the audience. The marchers then walked from campus through uptown Towson and returned to campus.
While planning the event, Heyliger wanted the message to be clear—All Black Lives Matter. That's why when she was organizing speakers for the, she made sure to have a complete representation—including members of the LGBTQ+ community.
"One of the big things I really wanted for it to be 'All Black Lives Matter,' Heyliger says. "We keep forgetting there are those that are marginalized. So when getting speakers, we wanted Black men, Black women and Black members of the LGBTQ+ community."
The NPHC is the governing council for nine historically African American fraternities and sororities, seven of which have chapters on campus. The member chapters of this council work to encourage high scholastic achievement and service to the community, promote unity, develop leadership skills, enhance the educational and social life of minority communities and provide a forum for addressing items of mutual concern.
Heyliger and the NPHC executive board first began talks about the march and then communicated that desire to the other leaders in the fraternity and sorority community, which consists of the NPHC chapter presidents, the Inter-Fraternity Council president, the Theta Chi chapter president, the Panhellenic association president and the Independent Greek council vice president among others.
"I can't thank the NPHC Board enough," Heyliger says. "I'm a night owl, so it was pretty common for me to send out e-mails and text messages late at night. And to their credit, they got back to me almost immediately, or the very next day."
Heyliger also connected with SGA President Deguene Ndiong to assist in organizing the event. The SGA donated the water and snacks provided at the event.
It was the first time many members of the community had been on campus since the campus shifted to remote learning during the pandemic. It also was the first event that was sponsored by the new executive board of the SGA.
As Ndiong jokes that as the world "is falling apart," Saturday's march made her want to continue to push forward as SGA President.
"It makes me feel like [students] I'm leading are really passionate and fearless and care so much," Ndiong says. "It makes me happy to see people care as much as they do. It doesn't make it seem like we're so alone, especially with it being a PWI (predominantly white institution).
"To have everyone come together for a Black Lives Matter protest, it shows that while we might not be the majority, we do have a support system."
As a young Black woman, Ndiong says the events of the past few weeks have broken her heart, but it also has given her hope. It gives her hope that there are events like the one held Saturday on Towson University's campus, and that her generation is passionate about change.
"We're in the middle of a pandemic and we're seeing millions of young people out there taking risks and comforting one another," Ndiong says. "As a young black woman, I've experienced a lot of different things, not all good. But it's made me stronger. And I'm going to continue to fight because I would like to have my children have a different experience then what I did."
Heyliger echoes those same sentiments. In fact, after Saturday's event, she took a break from social media to help clear her head. She says the break was because that she was seeing something new everyday, and it made her realize that while we hear about instances of racism, there are many more out there that go unreported.
She also knows that while she is a 4.0 student, member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and president of the NPHC, all of that can be forgotten. That's because before any of that, she was a Black woman.
That's why she says Saturday was just the beginning.
"We're going to stay strong, protect each other, fight for each other and use our voices," Heyliger says. "We all have privileges in some way or another, and we have to be sure to use those privileges to fight for those who may not have them."
Note: This story was first published June 15 and reflections from student leaders were added June 17. All photos were by Lauren Castellana, Towson University's Director of Photographic Services.
This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: TU Matters to Maryland and Diverse and Inclusive Campus.