UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State junior Briana Blackwell started the Youth Empowerment Program, which pairs Penn State students of color with students in the Diversity Club at nearby State College Area High School.
Every other week, Blackwell and others visit the school and recommend books or films, provide emotional support and, most of all, get students thinking about larger issues. During the weeks in between, they recruit students to join the high school’s African American Support Group, and they visit the Diversity Club at the Mount Nittany Middle School once a month.
“I fell in love with social justice and activism when I came here,” Blackwell said, “but it would have been nice to have that passion prior to coming to college. So I take an interest in the students who are already forming that passion, and I just want to help them train for college or wherever they go after this, so that they’re able to be leaders of effective change and advocacy.”
Blackwell has turned her own passion into a busy and productive collegiate career. A triple major in political science, philosophy and African-American studies, who carefully schedules classes that will cross over into multiple disciplines, she enrolled in the Schreyer Honors College as a Gateway student this past fall, though she hadn’t planned to when she first came to Penn State.
“When I started to take a few honors courses, it wasn’t intentional at first. I’d take a class and only the honors section was offered,” said Blackwell.
“But then I realized the difference between the honors courses and then the regular, huge lecture classes I was taking. I just loved how I was forming a relationship with my professors. The ‘honors’ might scare people, but I learned a ton more, and I actually met some of my best friends in those classes," she said.
Blackwell has spent time as a writing tutor and teaching assistant for the University’s Comprehensive Studies Program and has been an organizing fellow for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, an officer for Sovereign Magazine, a member of The Black Leadership Union and a member of the Multicultural Resource Center Leadership Council.
The native of Monroeville, Pennsylvania has also been heavily involved with the Penn State chapter of the NAACP and is currently the group’s vice-president.
This October, as a response to police brutality nationwide, the chapter organized a peaceful, sit-in protest during a Penn State women’s volleyball match in Rec Hall. Roughly 50-60 students dressed in black — a sharp contrast to the white t-shirts in the rest of the section — and raised their fists during the national anthem.
“Even though we don’t have police brutality on campus, it’s still important, because whenever we go home on the weekends, a lot of the places that we go to, there is a lot of it,” Blackwell said. “And if something would happen to a student, it’s going to affect us here just as much as if it happened on this campus.”
Blackwell has heard of, or directly experienced, various “microaggressions,” — casual degradations of socially marginalized groups — on campus, she said. The sit-in was a response to those as much as anything.
“I think a lot of times we brush it off because we don’t want to start anything, but we have to let people know that we really care about race relations here,” Blackwell said. “We do care about equality here. And even though the black population makes up about four percent of the campus here, we still matter.”
Blackwell said the negative feedback she received was less than she anticipated, though others thought the protest should have been done in a different way.
“It was a little bit stressful, but at the end of the day, I think we all want the same thing and that did help us,” she said. “I think it brought awareness that we do care about these issues on campus, and that people should consider it in their day-to-day activities.”
Blackwell hopes to pursue a career in civil rights law. Her dream job would be to specialize in law that involves issues of police brutality, and work in Washington, D.C., though she would also consider non-profit work.
“I’m trying not to keep my views too narrow,” she said.