A Legacy of Activism

Photo by Jess Napp.

In honor of Black History Month, students from the Black Studies Department at SUNY New Paltz collaborated to curate and assemble an original art exhibition in the lobby gallery of Sojourner Truth Library (STL). The exhibition featured photography, original poster designs and protest signage commemorating historical figures and events from the program’s legacy.

Kimberly Roman, a third-year elementary education major, collaborated with her peers on the project. According to Roman, the project was part of the Black Studies Student Organization’s (BSSO) efforts to rebuild the department, which lost a significant portion of its faculty after the spring 2015 semester. Sociology professor Alexandra Cox pitched the idea for a Black History Month art exhibition, and students from the BSSO immediately jumped on board. An art gallery in STL’s newly reopened main floor seemed like a great way to get the BSSO’s work out to the student body, Roman said, and Cox agreed.

“It was really a delight to be able to work with students in this way,” Cox said of her role in the project. “[The exhibition] was super student-driven.”

With guidance from Cox and faculty from STL, Roman and her peers brainstormed ways to celebrate Black History Month and bring attention to the department’s achievements through visuals. Third-year Black Studies and sociology major Rosa Rosario helped collect different perspectives and input from students in the department.

Meanwhile, fourth-year sociology major Jean Padilla and fourth-year graphic design major Nicole Striffolino tackled the graphic design work and visual layout of the display.  Rosario loved the group’s #Iamblackstudies display, which she said was an instrumental part of the BSSO’s mission to get the shrinking department back on its feet. Roman praised Padilla and Striffolino’s design work and cited Striffolino’s “Black to the Future” graphic timeline of the department’s history as her favorite piece featured in the exhibition.

“Seeing all of the history in [the] department connected to the work I am doing with the department now was refreshing,” she added. “The work sometimes can be draining, so it was beautiful to see a reminder of those who have [made sacrifices] before me.”

The BSSO’s passion and efforts did not go unnoticed. Reference librarian Heather Shimon was impressed with the Black Studies Department’s longstanding history of activism. The plan for a February art exhibition celebrating the department was mentioned in a faculty meeting at the library, and Shimon decided to take on the task of helping Cox and students from the BSSO actualize their ideas. She was excited to help honor Sojourner Truth, the black activist and historical figure for whom STL was named, and spread Truth’s message of social justice.

The exhibition opened with a discussion panel and gallery walk in the library’s lobby on Wednesday, Feb. 10. Roman and other BSSO students facilitated the panel, and Roman and Rosario led the gallery tour. Roman’s role as the panel facilitator came easily, she said, since the panelists at the event had a plethora of interesting information and experience to offer.

According to Shimon, the panel was the first event hosted in STL’s new space since the main floor’s reopening in early January. The event was an amazing success and the perfect reopening event for the library, Shimon said. She was proud of how hard the students worked.

For students like Roman and Rosario, though, the project held greater meaning. The art exhibition and panel were a truly heartfelt tribute to the significance of Black Studies in the lives of the students who study it, they said.

“The Black Studies department gave me power and a space to explore what that power means,” Roman added. “I am so grateful for this department. [It] provides a transformative educational experience.”