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See It, Be It: The Power of Inclusion

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

By: Courtney Owens

Courtney Owens is a senior from Gahanna, Ohio majoring in Sociology/Anthropology with a minor in performing arts. Throughout her time at Ohio Wesleyan, Courtney has spearheaded initiatives such as the Women Empowerment Event and protests addressing inequitable issues on campus. She is also the Co-founder of the Movers and Shakers, the new student activist organization on campus.

Growing up as a Black child in a white city and in white schools, curricula, friends, teachers, and library collections did not reflect anything about who I was. This has continued to be the case at the predominantly white university I attend. As a result, my activism has been focused on increasing the sense of belonging for myself and marginalized students like me.

I vividly remember a quote I read my freshman year, which I wrote down as it had immediately changed my perception of the world around me. While I was new to Ohio Wesleyan at the time, I was no stranger to social activism. I knew I wanted to make a change at Ohio Wesleyan but did not know how. I was scared of rejection, criticism, and being “othered” in a space that constantly reinforced to me that I did not belong.

The quote said, “To the wrongs that need resistance, to the right that needs assistance, to the future in the distance, give yourselves.”

As a result, during my four years of undergrad, I dedicated myself to creating inclusive spaces and empowering all minoritized groups on campus. One day, I was invited on a panel with other students to speak about issues affecting BIPOC students on campus. To me, this was the perfect opportunity to express my vision for our student store. At the time, I already had a desire to diversify the student store but did not have the rapport or resources available to do so.

I shared how black students had no access to any hair products or tools for protective styles in the entire proximity of Delaware. To be able to fulfill their personal care needs, Black students would have to carpool to the nearest store, located 45 minutes away, in the next large city Columbus.

This was not by choice, but by design.

Both Delaware and our campus have majority white demographics. None of the local stores, hair stores, or big grocery stores stocked products catering to BIPOC people. I saw this as a manifestation of systemic inequality, as no other demographic of students was facing this specific issue.

Rather than awaiting university response, I began exhausting my resources to stop this disparity from persisting, with the help and support of many members of OWU’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. The following semester, the Thompson Convenience Store carried edge control, edge brushes, Cantu, Shea Moisture, Aunt Jackies, braiding hair, and more. Fellow senior Aaliyah Owens and I successfully became the pioneers to diversify the T-Store.

My pride was not merely rooted in this accomplishment but in the deeper significance it held in long-needed recognition of Black student needs. After moving back to campus for the new school year, I was able to go into the T-store and witness the products on display.

Courtney Owens '21 in the Thompson Convenience Store

I found myself overcome with excitement and joy. I shared this testimony on Facebook with my family and friends. After this, a woman from the Ohio Wesleyan Graduating class of ‘69 reached out to one of my professors to get in contact with me. Once connected, she began explaining that she and her friends had fought for the same change as students in the late 60s. She had a document that listed their claims, one of them pushing for “diverse hair care products in the student store.”

I was blown away, as I learned that she faced harsh rejection when advocating for this necessary change in 1969. Nonetheless, she felt she had planted a seed that long ago that had finally blossomed with me, five decades later. I could not have agreed with her more.

That day, the little Black girl in me that used to hate my hair, who believed blue eyes and blonde hair would make me more desirable or loveable, gave way to a young woman who began to love herself more. I started loving myself more and looking in the mirror a little longer. I believe this was a win for every Black person at our university, as much as it was for myself. It seemed like a small act but demonstrated to me how powerful inclusion can be. From saved trips to a store 45 minutes away, no more carpooling, and empty gas tanks: I changed the world by changing my world. Through the development of these skills and knowledge, we were able to make great strides in making Ohio Wesleyan a better place.

Social activism is often looked at as a choice, a higher calling people decide to commit themselves to in pursuit of changing the world. However, more often than not, activists are regular people who, as Angela Davis eloquently said, work every day to “change the things they can no longer accept.” The majority of us activists are responding to personal afflictions that worsened the well-being within our own existence, and thereby, ignite a desire for social change. The hope is that if we confront this inequality, we can live better lives.

Social activism is birthed from ordinary people, with an extraordinary amount of courage, who mobilize grievances under the commonality of shared experiences.

This has rung true to me, I did not choose social activism, it chose me. The grief associated with working tirelessly to strip myself of everything I was composed of to assimilate into the hegemonic white culture around me was overwhelming to me and many BIPOC students surrounding me.

As a result, we resisted; we refused their culture; we refused to assimilate; we chose to stand upon the strength of one another and the identities that intricately connected us on campus and beyond. We went about shaping OWU to look more like the rest of the world, not just a reflection of their worlds.

I believe that is the point of social activism, to see the wrongs in the world as an opportunity to do something great. A chance to save the next person from hardship and hurt. To not only take on social issues on a large scale but to address inequalities that may be taking place right in front of you.

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