At the premiere for Georbina DaRosa ‘17’s documentary “I Am Because We Are,” Maurice Tiner ‘17 opened with words that I had heard in our interview earlier that day: “The essence of this film is about community… And we’re gonna have to be cozy. If you have to sit on the floor, sit on the floor.”
Amid apologies, Tiner issued this instruction because the room was packed. Ten minutes before the scheduled 5 pm start, students, faculty and staff had filled the auditorium seats in Blaustein 210, occupied the extra chairs and begun lining the sides of the room with standers, kneelers and the cross-legged. In the pre-screening interview I conducted with DaRosa, Tiner and Gil Mejia ‘17, DaRosa admitted: “We thought about doing Evans Hall, and we should’ve done that, but this will be more intimate… It’s gonna be over-capacity; there might be fire violations.” Tiner added: “I told her: ‘it’s gonna blow up.’” It did.
DaRosa’s film, whose March 31 airing marked the culmination of a Holleran Center project spanning more than a year, reflected the experiences of six self-identifying Black and Afro-Latino students at Conn: seniors DaRosa, Mejia, Tiner and Yasmin Fabian, and sophomores Jermaine Doris and Ivana Lamptey. Noting the assumptions that prospective viewers might make upon learning of the film’s content, Mejia observed that the film “isn’t so much about reacting or responding as it is about building or restoring… We’re talking about how to exist in a Black body at a white institution; people are gonna be like ‘alright, they’re struggling, what are they doing to make sure that they’re better?’ but it isn’t about that. If the project was about that it would be validating and making systems of power at the center.”
The film employs a multi-platform approach to storytelling and features works of visual art by Lamptey and Brynne Radin ‘17; spoken word poetry performed by Vessel Day ‘20, Nifemi Olugbemiga ‘20 and Shameesha Pryor ‘17; music performed by Doris and Sterling Rowe ‘19; and video testimonies from the six starring students. Transitional points during the film feature quotations by Audre Lorde and Nina Simone, which DaRosa credited to a course taught by Professor Nathalie Etoke of the French Department.
“All of the quotes were from that class,” DaRosa said of Etoke’s Spring 2016 course “Existence in Black” during the post-screening panel, which was facilitated by Professor Cherise Harris of the Sociology Department. DaRosa, Fabian, Mejia and Tiner all participated in the course.
During our earlier interview, Tiner noted: “I think we changed from being in that class. So [it] will be featured heavily in this film.” This extends to the point, according to DaRosa, of its title; the name “I Am Because We Are,” she said, was inspired by Etoke’s class.
In the film, participating students discuss the interrelated subjects that affect their daily lives on campus and in the world outside. Mentioned themes include spirituality, athletics and activism.
Students embrace the term “activist” to varying degrees, with some noting that they intend to reach higher personal development and clarity before claiming the term, and others explaining how they grew comfortable with it. After the film, Fabian commented: “First I was labeled as [an activist], and then I owned it. I received an email that was like, ‘You’ve been identified as a student activist.’” But she unpacked the term and grew to understand it, she explained, in classes with Professors Etoke and Hybel.
When athletics emerge in the film, Tiner acknowledges Lamptey’s prominence on the track team as a form of excellence to be recognized beyond the obligatory work of the academic sphere. Their conversation highlights the intrinsic link between excellence and pressure, as students who apply themselves to academics and engage in extracurricular activities, especially those dedicated to activism, often find themselves stretched thin. This leaves little room for mental health and spirituality, which DaRosa ties together in her own testimony.
Both DaRosa and Tiner commented, both in the film and the panel, that while they are devoted to faith, the environment at Conn proves challenging. Tiner noted: “This is not a space that really welcomes spirituality… from the students,” referring to a culture which prioritizes night life over worship on weekends and does not appear outwardly religious.
DaRosa added: “It’s not just a Conn issue; it’s an issue in America with the way the education system is set up,” nodding at the expectation that students will prioritize their academics and resume-building over mental health. For her, faith– and by extension the space and time to practice it– is inextricable from mental wellbeing.
Mental health, some students noted, can serve as its own form of activism. Fabian highlighted the power in “re-defining activism,” explaining: “a smiling Yasmin is different from a Yasmin who’s running around, and you can see the stress on her face… so for me, [this form of activism] means slowing down.”
The theme of activism remained throughout the panel, and one related question managed to make presenters squirm: an inquiry about the legacy that the students would leave after graduating. After a prolonged, bashful silence, the presenters began to engage with the idea of who and what would succeed them on campus, voicing a mix of hope and frustration.
“Thinking that I will have a legacy is hard to even fathom,” Lamptey admitted.
Recognizing the challenges of the question, Doris considered his own experience as a first-generation college student from an immigrant family– which he discusses in the film– and commented: “I never want another student to feel like that ever again.” But he added that such a sentiment can be constructive when used to motivate change and advised: “Think about yourself in terms of a legacy.”
Tiner contrasted exasperated and optimistic sentiments, noting: “My frustration was with students of color… I felt very discouraged when I would call on my own people for help and they would let me down,” making him worry for the campus after his graduation, but he added: “I’m kinda over it now.”
Tiner explained that because of strong mentorship on campus, he has learned to respect the difficulty that comes with making oneself visible– and therefore vulnerable–on behalf of a cause. Regarding his mentors on campus, Tiner said, “Africana Studies has changed my life” and “with new leadership fostering and mentoring the community, there’s hope… I’m glad that [the College] didn’t realize too late.” He referred to the hiring of Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion John McKnight and “professors that really care.”
Despite the leadership of highlighted faculty and staff McKnight, Etoke and Harris, work remains to be done on campus. On this subject, Doris noted that “One of the biggest demonstrations of white privilege is the ability and power to create a moment, to step in and step out… Even [with] something as powerful as this [film], people will walk away and the next week it won’t be on their minds. And that’s not on us. I used to think it was on us. That’s the nature of privilege.”
DaRosa’s film draws a clear distinction between those who have the option to walk away from an issue and those who do not, but it does not ground itself in the negative, instead portraying a celebratory account of a difficult but impressive reality. Of the film, McKnight said: “This is a piece that deserves to be in the archives.”
As Tiner highlighted, community lies at its center, and of this Mejia noted: “There are times when it gets really rough and you convince yourself that no one else will understand… Give yourself permission to find the best parts of yourself in someone else.”
For those who missed the screening but still wish to see the film, DaRosa promises that it will be online soon, though the large file size makes processing difficult. “I’m gonna find a way to make it accessible for those who wanna see it,” she assured.