Rabiyatu Jalloh's impactful work leaves long-lasting legacy

Abby Fortin
June 13, 2019

Whether she was performing in a poetry slam or heading new initiatives on campus, recent College of Education graduate Rabiyatu Jalloh left a lasting impact on the college and the community. Jalloh, who double-majored in education and public policy, and African-American studies, received numerous awards during her time as a student and made a tremendous effort to give back.

Jalloh is a Brook J. Lenfest Scholar and a Ronald E. McNair Scholar. Her strong commitment to social justice has influenced her research, educational engagement and service work. As a McNair Scholar, she wrote a paper titled, "Staying Alive: Black Women's Resistance During Slavery." Jalloh also is an alumna of the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship and has worked with the Restorative Justice Initiative (RJI).

"For McNair, I did a research project on slavery, which is a depressing topic to study," Jalloh said. In her paper she explored the ways in which women resisted bondage during the time of slavery through the creative and cultural media of sex, dance and poetry.

"Writing my McNair paper was an amazing and sorrowful experience for me. The work that I did was extremely important, however I quickly realized that researching slavery was difficult," Jalloh said. "On the other hand, I was researching Enslaved Women's Resistance so it was nice to see how black women created ways to resist an awful system, so that kept me going through the experience."

This past spring, Jalloh set the inaugural Hakkille Robing Ceremony into motion at Penn State. The event, presented by the Penn State Black Caucus, took place on May 2 with the graduating class of 2019.

"We had over 100 participants," Jalloh said. "It's a legacy I left at Penn State and I know that it will be able to carry on because it's very important to celebrate black graduates."

Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity, gave special remarks at the ceremony. "When Rabiyatu first introduced the idea of creating a Robing Ceremony, I thought the event would not only celebrate the commonalities of the African-American student experience, but it would also highlight some of the distinct challenges that characterize the intellectual growth of Penn State graduates," he said. "Involvement in this event was important to acknowledge the values and uniqueness of the African-American community and commemorate the many accomplishments by the students who participated in this inaugural ceremony."

Jalloh's motivation to create the ceremony was partly because it was an event that Penn State had not yet established. "We needed that space," she said. "Even though it was a lot of work and it was so stressful, it was worth it because people were so happy with the outcome."

According to the event program, the ceremony is named Hakkille after one of the four codes of behavior known as Lawwol fulbe, which means the "Fulani pathways." These are codes passed on by each generation as high moral values of the Fulani Tribe, enabling them to maintain their identity across boundaries and changes of lifestyle.

Hakkille means wisdom, intelligence, forethought and personal responsibility. The Hakkille Robing Ceremony recognizes and celebrates the successful passage of these students through Penn State and into the community.

The Kente Cloth presented to the graduates is custom made, using the colors black, green, yellow, red and gold. The cloth was designed and woven in Ghana, West Africa. The patterns and colors woven into the Kente represent distinctive qualities exemplified by the Penn State graduates. The colors black, green, yellow, red and gold represent maturation, harvesting, sacrificial rites and royalty.

Also this past spring, Jalloh earned the Volunteer Service Award from the University's Multicultural Resource Center. It is awarded to the student who has given an exceptional amount of volunteer effort to on-campus or community service organizations and who has made an important contribution to those organizations.

Among her service projects, she developed a learner-centered, values-based curriculum on social justice issues for an under-resourced, high-need high school in Washington, D.C., and co-taught an arts and creative writing course at the Centre County Correctional Facility.

This past spring Jalloh worked as a teaching assistant for the RJI, an initiative headed by College of Education Assistant Professor of Education Efrain Marimon. The RJI is a partnership among University experts and community groups, formed to provide educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals to succeed in society upon their release.

"Efrain had me create a curriculum and write lesson plans for the art course," Jalloh said. "We'd do a conglomerate of writing and fine arts. On normal days, we'd do an ice breaker. Next we'd bring in a poem or a piece of art to get the students' brains flowing and thinking about art." Jalloh would end the class by engaging her students in a drawing or writing exercise.

"Rabi is one of the most passionate and talented students I’ve worked with at Penn State," Marimon said. "During her time in the fellowship, she was highly engaging, thoughtful and caring working with the high school students in Washington, D.C."

In her work in the women's unit at The State Correctional Institute at Rockview, Jalloh further showed her ability to work with students and guide them to success. 

"Rabi is masterful at creating a space that nurtures growth and critical reflection with students. Her innovative teaching strategies helped students grasp complicated concepts and made her lessons accessible by using culture, experience and context to help students make meaningful connections," Marimon said. "She helped expand students’ awareness of themselves and others, find their voice, and use art as a form of healing and positive transformation."

Going forward, Jalloh is interested in continuing to teach prison education programs and in working with those who are incarcerated. "It was a very great experience, the students were so intelligent and so great," she said. "The crazy thing was they were all older than me, which I thought could be an issue. They were so respectful and it really created a community."

Jalloh worked with the students to create their own pieces of art, which were then displayed at the College's Prison Education and Reentry Summit in March 2019. She spoke about the artwork — and the artists — with President Eric Barron and others who attended the summit.

During her time at Penn State, Jalloh was president of the Writers Organized to Represent Diverse Stories (WORDS) group, a BLUEprint mentor, an international slam co-champion, and a member of the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) Team. She traveled to the 19th annual CUPSI in April at the University of Houston with a team of students to compete. The Penn State team won the overall award and Jalloh was awarded Best Poet.

"I've always been interested in reading and literature. I mainly started getting involved with poetry around high school," Jalloh said. In high school she was mainly exposed to white poets, poets to whom Jalloh said she couldn't relate.

"A lot of the poets I knew were white, like Robert Frost. He would write things about nature and I felt like I couldn't relate because I'm from the city and I don't see nature a lot," she said. As Jalloh has grown older, she has discovered poets whose works speak to her more than the works of poets she learned about in school.

"My main motivation with poetry is that it's something I love to do. I love poetry, especially black poetry and the work that my peers are bringing in," she said. "Going to CUPSI, being around the next big poets of our time … getting to be in that space is so great."

Jalloh also was recognized with the Stand Up Award from the Rock Ethics Institute this spring. First established in 2008, the annual Stand Up Awards recognize Penn State undergraduate students who have demonstrated ethical leadership by "standing up" for a cause, idea or belief. By honoring and celebrating their courageous examples, the awards aim to inspire others at Penn State to become ethical leaders. Jalloh said she believes her involvement with WORDS and RJI is the reason she was nominated for and received the award.

She also worked hard to put on a memorial show for Ntozake Shange, an African-American poet, writer and dancer. The show brought in different artists, Penn State alumni, community activists and dancers to honor Shange's life.

"She has really expanded the space of the conversation on issues that black women deal with in her play 'Colored Girls,'" Jalloh said about Shange. In coordinating and executing the show, she felt like she "just had to do it."

The memorial show allowed the Penn State community to learn more about a woman who has done so much work, particularly for black women. Jalloh's goal was to honor Shange, who she said helped shape her as a poet, writer and performer.

Although she finds motivation in contemporary poets and in her peers, Jalloh's roots are a large factor in why she's involved in the work she takes part in.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Jalloh's father was a member of an organization that would organize funerals, help with baby showers and visit hospitals when a patient was in need of language translation. Her mother would assist in translating and event coordination.

"My parents are from West Africa and my mother was the first of her father's children to come to the United States," she said. "My parents have done so much work for the community and I feel like watching them do these things — for free — has really inspired me to be someone who is there for the community and does things that benefit everyone."

Jalloh's graduation from Penn State may mark the end of her time at the University, but her legacy as a passionate artist and innovator will live on.

Last Updated June 13, 2019