Tags Posts tagged with "social justice"

social justice

Jonathan Wharton

Jonathan Wharton, associate professor of political science and urban affairs, recently published an op-ed on CT News Junkie: “The Sudden Interest In Race In America…And Our Backyards” (July 3, 2020). In the op-ed, Wharton expresses his curiosity “as a Black American . . . why it took so long for many white Americans to understand race in our country.” He discusses racism in New England in particular, and questions how long the deepened interest in race and racism will last.

Read Wharton’s op-ed



owls stand together

Southern’s Director of Athletics Jay Moran has announced that the Department of Athletics will host an anti-racism virtual panel discussion on Thursday, July 9, 2020 at 6 p.m. “Owls Stand Together Against Racism” is open to all SCSU student-athletes and will be the first of several in a series of programs to discuss and address racism.

Read more about the panel discussion

The panel will be moderated by Dr. Steven Hoffler, Ph.D., L.C.S.W, associate professor and member of SCSU’s Social Work Department and will feature a panel consisting of Southern Connecticut Hall of Fame members James Barber and Dawn Stanton, Men’s Basketball Head Coach Scott Burrell and Volleyball Assistant Coach Marshay Greenlee, who designed the concept of the forum. In addition, a Southern Connecticut student-athlete will be chosen to participate on the panel. The five individuals will also serve as group leaders during break-out sessions, with Dian Brown-Albert, SCSU’s Coordinator of Multicultural Affairs, serving as a co-facilitator for the session led by the student-athlete.

An article in the Connecticut Post, “SCSU coach knows uncomfortable conversations key to discussion of race” (by Jeff Jacobs, July 2, 2020), highlights Greenlee’s inspiration to bring such a discussion to Southern’s Athletics Department and her efforts at bringing it to fruition.

Marshay Greenlee


The SCSU President’s Recognition Committee proudly presents our eleventh group of SouthernStrong awardees. These awards shine a light on faculty, staff, and students who are lending a helping hand, with acts of kindness large and small, not only for their fellow Owls, but also for friends, neighbors, and strangers.

We recognize and celebrate Evalisa Alvarez, Taylor Bird, Oscar Clark, Ludmyr Merlain, and Karen Musmanno for their commitment to making a difference and stepping up during the pandemic crisis. Their acts of kindness are making a positive impact during this difficult time.

Do you know an unsung hero who’s been making a difference during the pandemic? Please nominate them so their kindness can be celebrated!

Evalisa Alvarez

Nominated by a colleague, Evalisa Alvarez is a secretary in the Registrar’s Office. Her nominator wrote that Alvarez took on a project to digitize the department’s academic record archives during this pandemic, and that it was no small task. “She understands how important this was to help our office continue to work from a safe remote location,” her nominator wrote, “while still striving to provide the same level of excellent service for our students and alumni needing access to their records. Evalisa prepared, indexed, and boxed 250,000 records last week, that’s huge! These are now shipped off to our vendor to become digitized, this was a great service to the University, and our entire office is truly grateful to her for taking this on!”

Evalisa Alvarez

Taylor Bird

Nominated by a faculty member, Taylor Bird is a graduate student in the Department of Communication Disorders. Her nominator wrote that she has been a positive force for change within the department by providing open and honest communication with faculty and leadership about her experience and perspective as one of the few Black female students within the department. She organized and produced a powerful video in support of the Black Lives Matter movement featuring a message from every graduate student in her cohort. “Her open letter, along with the video, has deeply affected all of us,” her nominator wrote. In her letter, Bird said that she hoped her actions might “spark some positive change within the department.” “However,” her nominator wrote, “her actions have gone beyond a spark and have provided the fuel to ignite significant change. Her bravery, honesty, and leadership have inspired our department to take direct action that will result in diversification and inclusion, today, tomorrow and in the months and years ahead.”

During these past four months, Bird has skillfully navigated her school practicum placement which transitioned to remote learning during her final semester. She has been working effectively as a graduate clinician providing speech and language treatment services for children with communication disorders via remote learning. The transition to remote education has been a daunting task for experienced clinicians, and yet Bird navigated this uncharted territory with skill and grace. She will graduate in August 2020 and enter the profession as a speech-language pathology clinical fellow.

Taylor Bird

Oscar Clark

Music Department Secretary Oscar Clark was nominated by a member of the community. Clark not only works full time at Southern and serves as a religious resource for his community, but is also the agent of  VetFuel, Inc., a (501-C3) nonprofit agency based in New Haven. The directive of VetFuel, according to its website, is to “Offer all of Connecticut’s Veterans seamless assistance with mobility, health access, & means tested advocacy for the purpose of reintegration into civilian life.” Clark, as VetFuel’s agent, is responsible for all risks associated with the agency, the direction of the agency to some degree, and calculated growth within its mission. According to his nominator, Clark “came up with this great idea to market VetFuel as a brand and we are working toward that goal right now with very powerful attorneys who are working pro-bono. Under Oscar, we have had three successful presidents assist the organization, we have grown exponentially in our mission, and our grant awards, and have always had a keen eye on social justice.”

Clark’s nominator added that it was Clark who suggested “we run a neighbor to neighbor program in the Connecticut Valley Area to ensure people of Muslim faiths, affected by the war, and former soldiers could sit down in a space of peace and talk about how war has affected them. And it was Oscar Clark, that helped an ailing veteran in his final hours of hospice care, holding his hand, singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ as the man passed.” Clark is much more than just an SCSU employee, his nominator wrote, adding, “He is a community anchor and a recognizable figure of social justice at the local, state, and federal level, since we are now working with federal agencies as potential grantors.”

Oscar Clark

Ludmyr Merlain

A graduate student in Marriage and Family Therapy, Ludmyr Merlain was nominated by a member of the community, who wrote that she “has been lending a helping hand by helping youths in her community get through these difficult times. She been having Zoom meeting with children from her church where they talk about any issues they maybe having in these difficult times. I know she’s been a great help to . . . families in the church.”

Merlain’s nominator wrote that her weekly Zoom meetings with the teenagers’ class at church helps to “uplift them through all the unforeseen circumstances happening in this world right now. In these unfortunate times parents are trying to find ways to keep things as normal as possible for their children and Ludmyr is doing what she can to help the teenagers process and understand what’s going on. I wanted to highlight her efforts because sometimes i feel like they go unnoticed and i want to appreciate her for all that she does.”

Ludmyr Merlain

Karen Musmanno

Nominated by a faculty member, IT Systems Manager Karen Musmanno is, her nominator wrote, “truly one of those people the community relies upon to support individuals and University-wide initiatives, such as in May the Faculty Senate elections and most recently the Digital Evaluation project. She is consistently a thought partner in driving technological advances to enable greater learning outcomes as well as building enhanced efficiency and capability in faculty. There are a few who see the future and act on it. Karen has been on the forefront of providing support and driving innovation through generous sharing of her knowledge, time and unwavering belief that we can also always be better.”

Tim Parrish

English Professor Tim Parrish, coordinator of the creative writing program and author of the memoir Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, recently published an op-ed in the New York Daily News, “Our work cut out: What whites need to try to learn and change when it comes to race and racism” (July 1, 2020).

In the op-ed, Parrish looks at the antiracism protests that have been taking place across the country, and considers the work that white people must engage in for real systemic change to occur. He writes, “Will we justice-and-equity-leaning white people, especially middle-and-upper-class whites, continue to make a difference? Only if we do the hard work personally and politically. We have to listen to people of color and educate ourselves about black Americans’ reality through books, articles, documentaries and even movies by black people. We have to look into our own heads and hearts and root out racist indoctrination from privilege and institutions.”




The SCSU President’s Recognition Committee proudly presents our tenth group of SouthernStrong awardees. These awards shine a light on faculty, staff, and students who are lending a helping hand, with acts of kindness large and small, not only for their fellow Owls, but also for friends, neighbors, and strangers.

We recognize and celebrate Ashley Burkell, Alyssa Maddern, Jay Moran, Sal Rizza, and Meredith Sinclair for their commitment to making a difference and stepping up during the pandemic crisis. Their acts of kindness are making a positive impact during this difficult time.

Do you know an unsung hero who’s been making a difference during the pandemic? Please nominate them so their kindness can be celebrated!

Ashley Burkell

Nominated by a faculty member, Ashley Burkell is a public health major, and her nominator wrote that “each year she strives to do more to promote equity.” Burkell recently emailed her nominator, who is also her advisor, to tell her that learning about privilege freshman year had led her to understand how she needs to help others with less privilege. While educating herself on social media and attending recent protests, she still didn’t feel it was enough. On a recent weekend, Burkell decided to use her week’s grocery money to make vegan pasta and garlic bread and sell it in her neighborhood (with contact-free pickup) to support Black Lives Matter Global Network. In fewer than three days, she had already raised $1100. Her nominator reports that Burkell intends to repeat this drive in July with a local social justice/equity group as the recipient. Burkell, her nominator wrote, even included instructions for safely warming the food, to avoid food-borne illness. Burkell, she wrote, “is using all she has learned in her public health and nutrition classes to help promote health equity.”

Ashley Burkell

Alyssa Maddern
Nominated by a faculty member, Alyssa Maddern is a full-time student who completed her undergraduate degree in recreation & leisure (concentration: therapeutic recreation) and is continuing her education for her master’s at Southern in recreation therapy. She was hired in February as a part time activities assistant at Maplewood Senior Living at Orange (MAO); however, amidst the pandemic, she has been working more and has been given more responsibilities and challenges to overcome. Due to this pandemic, her nominator wrote, Maddern “has been able to prove herself and her expansive abilities through creating innovative activities for her residents. Those activities include developing and distributing a daily BINGO newsletter to play together, but apart from others, a Workout From Your Apartment packet that shows her residents how many repetitions of an exercise they should do, a detailed explanation of how to do the specific exercise, and a hand drawn cartoon figure, properly doing the exercise, a Fun Brain Fitness Packet she creates for each and every Friday that includes themed sudoku, word searches, crosswords, anagrams, hidden pictures, etc. She has also provided Happiest of Hours to her residents’ apartments, facilitates 1:1 Hallway Exercises, developed and distributes a TV Guide for her residents to follow and tune in to entertaining movies and shows Thursday through Sunday, rolls around a cooler as the ice cream woman and distributes a variety of ice cream to her residents, developed and collaborated with her residents to create a ‘We Are All In This Together’ banner, and the list continues on.”

For all of her efforts, Maddern was recently awarded the H.E.A.R.T Award for the month of May at MAO; H.E.A.R.T. is the philosophy MAO associates embody in their work performance, going above and beyond with all their heart. H.E.A.R.T stands for Humor, Empathy, Anatomy, Respect and Reaching Out to Others, and Trust and Triumph. Her nominator wrote that “Each and everyday Alyssa brightens the lives of older adults who have been separated from family and friends during this epidemic! She is truly a hero!!”

Alyssa Maddern

Jay Moran

Nominated by a colleague, Southern’s Director of Athletics Jay Moran has led his staff, coaches, and teams — comprised of approximately 500 student-athletes — through, at his own admittance, his most challenging year as an athletic director. The department was faced with the EEE scare in the fall, which Moran addressed, and through coordination with his staff managed to avoid canceling any athletic competition or practice. Shortly thereafter, Moran’s nominator wrote, “the athletic department and gymnastics program, to say nothing of the entire SCSU community, was struck with the tragic loss of [student gymnast] Melanie Coleman. Jay has dealt with personal tragedy of his own, and never backed away from lending a helping hand and the needed patience to anyone that needed to talk.”

Moran then oversaw a midseason coaching change and was later confronted with the coronavirus pandemic. His nominator wrote that “he has been at the forefront of coordinating efforts for the entire Athletic Department in lending support to its student-athletes, and has worked tirelessly with the message being the same along the way: we have to get our student-athletes safely back on campus and get our fall student-athletes a season. Jay’s style of leadership ensures inspiration to his staff and coaches and presents himself as personable and approachable to student-athletes, as they are always first in line for his attention.”

Jay Moran

Sal Rizza

Nominated by a student, Sal Rizza, director of Orientation, Transition and Family Engagement, was described as having “contributed numerous outreaches and important knowledge to Southern students and people in general during this hard time for people fighting for a change in systemic racism. He has been a shoulder to cry on, person to reach out to, and an educator to fight for this change and make it possible for others to fight too.”

His nominator added that he recommended Rizza because students look up to him. Rizza has been on Instagram lives with students “to send positivity and distractions from being in quarantine,” wrote his nominator. “He has tried to give students a positive place to go, in order to feel like they are at home on Southern’s campus. There were many Instagram lives and event schedules that he and his orientation crew put together that truly helped me and other students during this time.” Rizza is also a part of the Orientation Ambassador Alumni group on Facebook, and his nominator wrote that he is “always available to reach out to and support those who are suffering through the tragedies in the black and brown communities.” Rizza, his nominator wrote, has always supported students and lifted them up through hard times, but “he has just truly shined through during this time. He was an amazing boss when I worked as an orientation ambassador during my time at Southern and he is an even more amazing person inside and out. Students are very lucky to have him on Southern’s campus.”

Sal Rizza

Meredith Sinclair

Nominated by a student, Meredith Sinclair, associate professor of English education, is described as having always been a supportive professor: “As soon as we went online” when the pandemic caused campus to close in the spring semester, her nominator wrote, “she assured us that our mental health was the first priority, and she adjusted our class to meet the needs of the students. Her biweekly TEAMS chats provided a place not only to discuss class content, but to express how we are feeling during these times.”

Sinclair taught an engaging class not just on the methods of teaching, but on unlearning racist biases in order to become better teachers, her nominator wrote. Sinclair is a member of the Educational Justice Collective at Southern as well and has reached out to the group to arrange discussions on teacher activism. Since the semester has ended, Professor Sinclair has continued to show her support for the Southern community by voicing her support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the end to racial injustice, especially within education, and attending protests.

Meredith Sinclair

The SCSU President’s Recognition Committee proudly presents our ninth group of SouthernStrong awardees. These awards shine a light on faculty, staff, and students who are lending a helping hand, with acts of kindness large and small, not only for their fellow Owls, but also for friends, neighbors, and strangers.

We recognize and celebrate Rondell Butler, Adam Cohen, Chelsea Harry, Debra Risisky, and Barbara Tinney for their commitment to making a difference and stepping up during the pandemic crisis. Their acts of kindness are making a positive impact during this difficult time.

Do you know an unsung hero who’s been making a difference during the pandemic? Please nominate them so their kindness can be celebrated!

Rondell Butler
Nominated by three staff colleagues, Rondell Butler is recognized as an exceptional member of the Registrar’s Office staff who goes above and beyond in demonstrating commitment to students and the community on a daily basis. His supervisor has many examples of Rondell responding to calls to speak to area high schools and student groups to share information about Southern, personally delivering transcripts to scholarship organizations on behalf of students, calming upset students and more. These activities are not part of Butler’s regular job description, but he does them because, in the words of his supervisor, “that’s just who he is.” Among his fellow administrative support employees, he is a leader they seek out for guidance and assistance with challenging student service situations because they trust him to bring grace, compassion, and respect to every interaction. “We’re grateful to have someone with Rondell’s integrity and service orientation on the Enrollment Management team,” wrote one nominator.

Another colleague noted in his nomination of Butler, “Rondell without question is an ambassador for the university. He does not hesitate to contribute above and beyond that which is required. His investment in the community on behalf of the university is remarkable. He not only volunteers as a presenter to youth and other community based groups, but also shares opportunities with other colleagues and coworkers encouraging their involvement. I recommend him without reservation.”

A third colleague wrote of Butler, “Mr. Butler is a major asset to SCSU. Knowledgeable, Hard working, fair, honest, loyal for starters. He solves problems, reviews all matters, Fantastic Human Being teammate.”

Rondell Butler

Adam Cohen
Adam Cohen, head women’s soccer coach, has been an outstanding source of leadership, guidance, and inspiration for the women’s soccer team and others during this pandemic, wrote his nominator, a fellow staff member. Cohen is in communication with the the student-athletes everyday on a variety of topics, including monitoring their academic involvement, checking on their families, sending motivational messages and COVID information, and keeping tabs on their overall well-being. Cohen’s nominator wrote that “He is providing the resources that show the student-athletes that they are cared for in a complete manner at SCSU. He has been accessible at all times for players to call or have video chats with so that they may discuss whatever is on their minds during this unprecedented time….and many have come to him and will continue to. Individually during this time he has continued to better himself by taking part in many webinars so that he may better serve the student-athletes of SCSU. The group is in a good place collectively as a result of Adam Cohen’s guidance.”

Adam Cohen

Chelsea Harry
Chelsea Harry, associate professor of philosophy, “has gone above and beyond in volunteering relative to food insecurity in the New Haven area during the pandemic,” wrote her nominator, a student. Her nominator explains that Harry has been on many food runs (picking up food from certain places and delivering them to people’s houses) and has worked with local soup kitchens many times to provide food for those in need. Most importantly, Harry’s nominator wrote, she “has extensively educated her students in her Honors 300 Service Learning course about what food insecurity is and how they can help in making a difference during this time of need by giving them the resources necessary to participate in food runs and volunteerism themselves, as well as discussions of the real effects that a lack of food has on society in such an unprecedented time.”

Chelsea Harry

Debra Risisky
Nominated by a student, Associate Professor of Public Health Debra Risisky is, the student wrote, “the person who opened my eyes to my white privilege as a white woman in America. Dr. Risisky taught me about equity, health disparities and social justice issues and how it is our responsibility to make change. Before I crossed paths with Dr. Risisky at Southern, I was blind to my privilege and had not put much thought into the struggles that BIPOC face every single day. Dr. Risisky encourages us to vote, march and demand justice. She’s an honorable woman and she has an incredible impact on students like me. During the outpour of Black Lives Matters and demanding justice for the lives lost due to racism and a broken system I decided to take direct action. This week I have sold vegan comfort meals out of my home to raise money for Black Lives Matter Global Network. As of today, I have raised $1,100 for the cause. I say this with my whole heart, if I did not cross paths with Dr. Risisky and open my eyes to the racial inequality and inequities, this money would not have been raised. Social justice is something I am very passionate about and will continue to speak out on for the rest my life and this is because of what Dr.Risisky taught me. Dr. Risisky has an incredible impact on her students and she is creating serious change for our generation.”

Debra Risisky

Barbara Tinney
Nominated by a student, Barbara Tinney, assistant professor of social work, was lauded for helping her students to stay on track after classes were moved online due to the pandemic. Her nominator wrote that Tinney “checked in with her each and every student at the beginning of each WebEx meeting. She also relaxed due dates at the beginning of the online transition, allowing us to plan ahead and lower the stress and anxiety that surfaced through this transition. She communicated consistently! For me, this was imperative to my academic success because I have an anxiety disorder and I felt my mind and body shutting down through this tough time. She made me feel that my learning was just as important to her as it was to myself! Thank you for providing a platform to recognize her efforts!”

Barbara Tinney

On June 16, English adjunct instructor Shelley Stoehr-McCarthy and her family will share their lives on a national stage when a documentary film about the family, Little Miss Westie, is screened on several TV channels. Stoehr-McCarthy, a graduate of Southern’s MFA in creative writing program who teaches composition at Southern, won the university’s prestigious J. Philip Smith Outstanding Teacher Award for 2017-18 and, more recently, the CSUS Board of Regents Adjunct Faculty System-Wide Teaching Award. She and her husband Chris McCarthy are the parents of two transgender teenagers, and the family’s journey over the past few years has been captured in Little Miss Westie. The film is named after an annual beauty pageant that takes place in West Haven, where the family lives. In the film, the McCarthys’ daughter, Ren, a trans girl, competes in the Little Miss Westie Pageant, and her older brother, Luca, a trans boy, coaches her on posing, make-up, and talent. Luca competed several years ago when he was living as a girl, so he’s an experienced adviser.

The film was made four years ago when son Luca (19 now) was 15 and daughter Ren (now 14) was 10.

“Little Miss Westie” premieres on WORLD Channel Tuesday, June 16, at 8 p.m. during his LGBTQ+ Pride Month and on worldchannel.org as part of its “America ReFramed” series. (It’s also on certain PBS stations Tuesday, namely WGBY in Springfield, Mass., and streaming platforms such as amdoc.org and PBS.org.)

The New Haven Register recently ran a feature about the McCarthy family and Little Miss Westie. Read “‘Little Miss Westie’ tells of West Haven family with 2 transgender kids,” by Joe Amarante, June 12, 2020

Download the PDF: ‘Little Miss Westie’ tells of West Haven family with 2 transgender kids

Shelley Stoehr-McCarthy



In recent days, the senseless, brutal killing of George Floyd and its ripple effects have placed the issues of racial inequality and injustice under an intense spotlight across the state, the nation, and around the world. To promote campus-wide dialogue, Southern is hosting a virtual panel discussion with Southern faculty, students and community members. Please join us.

Wednesday, June 17 (12 – 1:30 p.m.)

A community online forum streaming live on Southern’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SouthernCT/

A community online forum moderated by Jonathan L. Wharton, associate professor of political science and urban affairs, Southern Connecticut State University.

This event is open to the public, and a Facebook account is not required to attend.

Submit questions for the panelists here.


Shanté Hanks, ’97, M.S. ’99, 6th Yr. ’05, is the deputy commissioner of the State of Connecticut Department of Housing, with professional experience spanning government affairs, public policy, affordable housing development and education. She holds two Southern degrees and an advanced certificate.

Solomon James, ’22, a rising junior at Southern, is a community activist and the co-organizer of a recent racial justice march held in Danbury, Conn., in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Julian Madison is an associate professor of history at Southern with a scholarly focus on race and ethnicity, civil rights, culture and the Jazz Age. His books and manuscripts cover a wide range of topics, including desegregation of sports and the fight to end school segregation.

Cassi Meyerhoffer is an associate professor of sociology at Southern. Her research and teaching interests focus on systemic racism, racial residential segregation, and the role of race in American policing. She is working on a book proposal: From the Old Jim Crow to the New: Tracing the Roots of Reconstruction to Residential Segregation, Police Brutality, and the Mass Incarceration of Black Bodies.

Orisha Ala Nzambi Ochumare is one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter New Haven. She is an anti-racism organizer and has done work with youth in local schools. She is currently the LGBTQ+ youth program officer at the New Haven Pride Center.

Timothy Parrish is a professor of English at Southern, an award-winning writer, and one of the architects of the university’s MFA program. He is the author of three books, including Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, a Memoir (U Press of Mississippi).


Xia’ian Carrasco (center) Photo courtesy of Lindsay Vigue Photography

Solomon James, ’22, had never organized an event in his life. “Not even a birthday party,” he says. But that was before he saw a social media post seeking support for a local march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The gathering — to be held June 6 in his hometown of Danbury, Conn. — would echo protests throughout the nation and, indeed the world — and would provide the community with an opportunity to express anger and sorrow over the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25.

James knew the march — kickstarted by Serenity Schreiber, a white high school student — was important. And he also knew the protest wasn’t garnering the support it warranted. So, he reached out. James is well-known in Danbury, active in sports and church. He has a large, loyal social media following. “So I said, ‘I want to help.’ I cosigned in Twitter and it got a buzz going,” he says

After that, James hit the ground running. Despite his lack of experience, he knew one thing: the protest had to remain peaceful. “Anything else would undermine our message, and they would say, ‘See? We shouldn’t gather.’” And more than anything, James felt, now was the time to gather. Like other students at Southern Connecticut State University who are joining statewide protests and speaking out, James felt the overarching racial impact of Floyd’s death couldn’t go unaddressed.

“It’s not just George Floyd,” he says. “[These protests are] the accumulation of lifetimes and lifetimes of injustices.”

James spent the next week seeking advice and securing the appropriate permits and endorsements for the march. He made phone calls, staying up until 3 a.m. and waking at 6 a.m. He spoke with everyone from Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Police Chief Patrick Ridenhour to Wesley Johnson, pastor at The Gathering Community Church. He reached out to Dorothy Day Hospitality House, which supplied masks and water bottles.

Solomon James, far right, marches in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement

When the June 6 march finally came, it started with a prayer. As protestors walked from Danbury Public Library to City Hall, they chanted in unison: “I can’t breathe” and “Say their names.” (Accounts of the numbers of attendees vary from the hundreds to the thousands.) They marched to the police station, where Chief Ridenhour fielded questions about his police force. Half the crowd then marched to I-84, where, with the help of police, the highway was shut down for an hour.

Standing on the highway, James could feel the tension growing, and he reminded his fellow protestors to keep the conversation on the cause and not on personal feelings. “I knew that just one bad incident could ruin the whole protest,” he says, of the protest, which remained peaceful.

A Community of Support
Fellow Southern student Xia’ian Carrasco, ’22, understands the challenge firsthand — the delicate balancing act of expressing raw emotions during a fraught, emotionally charged protest. Like James, Carrasco was compelled to take action, when she took the microphone at a June 4 peaceful protest in Bristol.

“I’m very emotional and wear my heart on my sleeve,” Carrascox says. “My friends and I have attended nine protests, all in Connecticut, but I just recently got the confidence to take the megaphone to speak to the masses. At first it’s nerve wracking, but I center myself and realize the movement and purpose is bigger than my emotions. I know that that will get through to people more.”

Xia’ian Carrasco

As a black woman, Carrasco says she feels disbelief that it is 2020 and “we still have to fight for equity.”

“I was 12 when Trayvon Martin was killed and now that I’m 20, I realize that these are hate crimes committed by someone who is supposed to protect us,” she says. “It’s definitely a challenge. Police are on our side in Bristol. They were there at the protest and listening. As for everywhere else, I keep my head on a constant 360. I, too, fear the people who get paid to protect us.”

Madison Johnson, ’22, a political science major at Southern and a self-described social activist, shares experiences similar to Carrasco’s. This fear and disbelief led her to join the protests as well.

“I’m a black woman so [Floyd’s death] hits home for me,” Johnson says. “I’ve had brothers and cousins affected by police brutality and I know this could be my dad. It has been my cousins. . . . I have been around this all my life, and I want to stand for my people and be a voice in their corner.”

To keep the momentum going, Johnson and a group of fellow supporters, including a Black Lives Matter group, are organizing a June 19 march at Bushnell Park in Hartford. “I’ve always been vocal about social justice and things that are important to my people,” Johnson says. “I definitely think there’s more movement toward change. This time it feels like people are listening. We are pushing to get in front of important people, trying to get them to pledge to take action.”

There are encouraging indications that important people are listening. Sen. Richard Blumenthal attended the first Danbury march. Johnson has been in touch with black legislators in anticipation of the Hartford march. Mayors, police chiefs, and town officials have been part of the dialogue.

In the city of Danbury, James notes that the conversation continued, too, after protestors walked off I-84 and back to town, where the police chief fielded more questions. To James, that accountability is absolutely necessary to affect real change, but it’s only one part of the equation.

“I’m so proud of the turnout,” he says. “It was white Danbury, Hispanic Danbury, Asian Danbury, straight Danbury, LGBTQ Danbury, black Danbury. Everyone was there! It was amazing to see everyone in unity. But after the march, I didn’t want it to be over. We need to keep asking questions. This isn’t a one and done situation.”

He continues: “This gets the ball rolling. But we can’t let it get to a flat surface so [that] it stops. Protesting is the easy part! You’re surrounded by people who share your cause. The hard part is when you’re by yourself. What happens when you’re the minority? Will you still be able to talk out against it and educate people? What you’re willing to do in the light, you also need to do in the dark. You can’t stay silent.”

Education and raising funds for support services may be key, too. “If we spent half the time educating police officers about educational reforms — and had more social workers and nurses in schools, that could make a change,” Carrasco says. She envisions a community where people would receive needed resources; a call for support rather than a call for police action. “So that [a] person could end up in a safe place instead of in a coffin. That’s why we’re here. This isn’t a trend, and I don’t want it to die out,” she says.

Rayon Lennon, '09, MSW '16

Poems can be prayers, life savers, and eye-openers. Poems can be therapeutic and transformational. For Southern alumnus and poet Rayon Lennon, ’09, MSW ’16, poetry is all of these things and more. So when the moment calls for a poem, Lennon answers that call, saying that poetry’s purpose “is to make us see — by clarifying and deepening our understanding of what it means to be alive.”

Lennon has won a number of writing contests, and his most recent accolade — his poem “Any Light” won the journal Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” contest on June 2, 2020 — is for a work that speaks to the moment we’re living in right now: a moment of global protest and the raising of millions of voices in support of racial justice.

“The poem originated from an incident I experienced on the golf course a number of days after the George Floyd tragedy,” Lennon says. The Poets Respond contest is Rattle‘s solution to the length of time it often takes for a poem to be published in the print journal. The contest recognizes poems “written within the last week about a public event that occurred within the last week.”

Lennon’s poem was published on Rattle’s website on June 2, 2020, eight days after George Floyd was violently killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Read “Any Light”

Born in rural Jamaica, Lennon moved to New Haven County when he was 13 and now lives in New Haven. He earned a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing, as well as a master’s degree in social work, from Southern, and in addition to his successful career as a poet, he works as an adolescent psychotherapist. His work has been published widely in various literary magazines, and his poems have won numerous poetry awards, including the 2017 Rattle Poetry Prize contest for his poem “Heard” (the poem was chosen out of 15,000 contest entries and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize), for which he received a $10,000 cash prize. His poem, “Heaven Tree,” was nominated for Best of the Net by The Indianapolis Review in 2018. His first book of poems, Barrel Children, was released in March 2016 by Main Street Rag Publishing Company and was a finalist for the 2017 Connecticut Book Award for best poetry book.

Below, Lennon shares his thoughts on the power of poetry, living in a racist society, his work as a clinical therapist, and more.

1) How did you get started writing poetry?

My poems are prayers, I think. I write with the sense that God is reading my words and tweaking the world because of them. I write to map my emotional world too. I started to write in general at an early age because of a budding stutter (I still stutter). I write too to bridge my inner and outer worlds.

I was beyond sad to leave Jamaica when I was 13; in Connecticut, I wrote to preserve my warm memories of Jamaica. But the more I wrote the more I discovered that there were issues clouding paradise — issues I wanted to highlight.

I’m primarily a place poet. I draw from the world around me. I imbue objects in my surroundings with human qualities.

People have told enough lies about me for me to know that it’s not the truth that usually survives; what survives is the most compelling story. People can ruin your life that way. A good storyteller matters. I’m the child of divorced parents. I didn’t know my father well until I came to Connecticut. My father is easily the best storyteller I know. He can weave a story so intricate and moving that you forget that it may be a world of lies.

I can tell you there is nothing as thrilling as creating a poem. I would even take that feeling over winning the lottery or falling in love.

The poet Jericho Brown has talked about “crafting a rant.” That’s exactly what I do in my poems now. I let myself go and then package it in a poem.

The poet Tiana Clark has said she writes to save her own life. That’s true for me too.

2). You give a brief explanation as to the origin of the poem “Any Light” on the page below the poem. I like Rattle‘s idea of poetry that responds to events in the moment, and becomes part of the conversation — and your poem certainly does that, very powerfully. Can you talk a bit more about the golfing incident that inspired you to write the poem? Can you tell me about the poem’s title, which I see comes from a line in the poem?

Yes. I love Rattle’s Poet’s Respond contest. I think it encourages poets to look outside of themselves and to help to bring about change by making connections and enlightening people — with striking language — about who we were, who we are, and how we live now. The poem originated from an incident I experienced on the golf course a number of days after the George Floyd tragedy. I will say that the poem is a heightened version of what happened. In reality, it was a cordial exchange. In the poem, I sharpened the language and brought current events and history into the fold. I captured the spirit of that moment while also tailoring the incident to fit the needs of the poem. It was not the first time that someone hit a ball my way while I was on a golf course. It was the first time I confronted someone about it — in that way. Those other incidences also shaped the poem. It was twilight and I was playing the last hole at a golf course. I was about to hit my second shot into the green when a ball zinged by my head. I couldn’t believe it. Someone on the tee behind me had hit a tee shot while I was close enough to be hit by it. I knew the person had seen me before he hit the shot. I waited for the person; and saw it was a young white guy. He was nonchalant about the incident — as though he hadn’t valued my life. I was nice to him, but made him know that it was wrong. I was wearing a red shirt. So he must have seen me. In golf, one is supposed to wait before hitting a ball if the person is close and could get hit by the ball. I immediately thought about George Floyd then as I knelt to read the putt — the way the officer had devalued Floyd’s life and kept his knee on his neck even as Floyd begged for air. That’s how the poem was born. I wrote it within an hour.

I’m usually not very good at analyzing my own poems. I leave that up to readers and scholars. But I’ll give it a try.

I think the title, “Any Light,” can have different meanings for different people. “Any Light” can mean any source of hope. It can mean that any light — self-awareness, love, kindness, empathy, etc., — will help to root out racism. For me, it also means people can choose to make you invisible if it benefits them. Someone can see you in any light they want. That means that the person who is viewing you is projecting on to you whatever internalized/generalized perceptions that person has been harboring about you or people like you. That person can choose to see you as good or bad. It’s a choice. It can also be the poet/speaker’s way of asking for any “light” of kindness in these trying times. Any light, any hope to increase racial harmony. People can choose whether to see or treat you how they want to see and treat you. What’s important is that we treat each other fairly and well. In the poem, the poet speaker tells the offending golfer that the golfer — before hitting his ball — should have been able to see him in any light because he was wearing a red shirt. But also, the poet speaker is saying that the golfer chose to not see him; and it’s his choice whether he wants to challenge and root out racist programming or continue to live by it. It’s not only that he hit the ball towards me, but it’s if I were invisible to me. And that’s a choice he made.

On another note, I love golf because it teaches me about life. Tiger Woods, the first African American golfer to win the Masters and who is now tied for the most wins in PGA tour history, once said that his father used to yell the N-word at him during practice sessions just so he would get used to hearing it, so he wouldn’t get distracted by hearing it from people in crowds during tournaments.

Golf teaches me how to be patient and roll with life. In golf, you can hit a perfect shot and it ends up in the water or the woods. You have to be patient and be mentally tough. I typically play 18 holes (4-5 hours of walking); and a lot happens in that time. It’s an adventure. I started to golf to find peace on weekends after working a long week of providing therapy to families. I love the groomed greens, clapping leaves, and bodies of water. I love how the game occupies my thoughts. It’s brought me peace.

I also stutter and the key in golf is to not swing with all your power. If you swing hard you will likely lose control of the club and ball. The key to managing my stutter is to slow down my speech.

3) Of what use is poetry in today’s world?

I love what Salman Rushdie says about poetry: “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” Yes. Poets “name the unnameable.” Poets live to point out connections. I can’t say exactly what poetry means to the wider world. I can say what poetry means to me. I don’t want people to fall in love with my poems. I want people to be uncomfortable when they read my poems; I want them to question their lives; I want them to change. I know a poem has matured when I can’t read it without crying or getting angry. The singular gift of poetry is its ability to open up a window into another person’s perspective. Poetry tells you what the other is experiencing. It tells you in a moving, eye-opening and startling way. I want to startle people into action. I want to know what someone else sees and feels. I think on some level I’m talking about empathy, which is key to love and unity. And as a clinical therapist, I do use poetry in therapy. Poetry is my therapy. Poetry shows us that we are all mostly tiny dots down here facing the same hurdles to happiness. Poetry has this ability to open my eyes and enlighten me, helping me to see and think differently. I love being enlightened by poems on a line to line level. I remember discovering the poetry of the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott and understanding for the first time how poetry can deepen and define a country and a people’s understanding of themselves. How everything, as Walcott indicates, is a poem. Poetry’s work then is to make us see — by clarifying and deepening our understanding of what it means to be alive.

4) Tell me about your experience as a creative writing student at Southern. Were there particular courses or professors or experiences at Southern that you would say especially made an impact on you?

On a more formal level, I fell for poetry after failing as a fiction writer in college. I attended SCSU and attained a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing. I learned much of what I know now from the terrific creative writing staff there. In college, I wrote an unpublished novel (which was really a prose poem). I flirted with narrative poems and discovered that my thoughts fit better into this form. I love being able to fit a whole short story into a page-long, enlightening poem. My poems tend to have a strong narrative spirit running through them (because of my previous relationship with fiction). I want readers to get wrapped up in the narrative of my poems. My poems operate somewhere between fiction and poetry. I like to mix genres.

The English Department at Southern made me into the poet I am today. Jeff Mock (poetry professor), Tim Parrish (fiction professor), Robin Troy (former fiction professor), Jennifer Holley Lux (former creative writing professor), Vivian Shipley (poetry professor). All of these people shaped me into the poet I am today. Also, other English professors at Southern played pivotal roles in my growth as a poet. I received unconditional support from Steven Larocco, Brandon Hutchinson, Dana Sonnenschein, Dr. Ogbaa, Anthony Rosso, etc. These professors regularly read my budding creative work outside the classroom and provided me with valuable feedback.

Nearly two decades later, I still continue to communicate with many of the above professors. Vivian and Dana provided blurbs for my first poetry book. I regularly trade poems with Brandon Hutchinson. Steve Larocco and Rosso were like my therapists and good friends while I attended Southern. I stay in touch with Tim as well. I am proud of the work that Tim has done to transform the creative writing program into a powerhouse MFA program.

When I was struggling as a poet while in college, Steve Larocco pointed me toward Derek Walcott’s work (Derek Walcott is a towering, Nobel-winning, Caribbean poet). This helped me tremendously. I learned a lot from Walcott’s work. And this helped me — perhaps more than all other factors — to become the poet I am today. Walcott’s themes and way of writing matched my poetic vision. His work taught me how to see differently; how to find poetry in everything.

Also, the creative writing contests and literary journals at Southern helped me to gain confidence as a writer. I still remember the thrill of seeing my first published story in Folio, the undergraduate literary journal at SCSU. I remember the deeper thrill of winning the magazine’s poetry and fiction contests some time later. One year I won both of Folio‘s contests — poetry and fiction. I think I won the poetry contest a few years in a row. I also won many SCSU creative writing contests. To me, these early successes fueled my confidence and led me down the path I am still on today. Those early poems would take center stage in my first poetry collection.

Southern was good to me. I even received speech therapy for my stutter from the Communication Disorders Department. I think I attended speech therapy there for years. I learned a lot. They taught me how to manage my stutter and how to accept it — and embrace my gifts and my challenges. This was crucial for my growth as a poet, person, and therapist. While in college, I would ask my friends to read my poems at poetry readings. But after speech therapy, I gained enough confidence to go on stage and read my work. It empowered me. And I continued to challenge myself by reading to a wider audience.

After I left Southern, I helped to start a poetry workshop group of former creative writing students. We meet at each other’s homes once per month and workshop each other’s poems; and drink wine and eat pastries and fruits. The group has been meeting for four years. There are currently five members in our group: Lee Keylock (founding member), Pat Mottola, Matthew Beacom, and Maryanne Bowen. The workshops are serious and fun, and have played a pivotal role in my success as a poet.

5) Can you tell me about the work that you do in your profession of clinical therapist? Do you see a connection between your work as a poet and your work as a therapist?

Yes, there is a connection. I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I received my master’s in social work from SCSU. (On a side note, while attending Southern as a social work student, I won the graduate poetry contest. It proved to me then that my true calling was poetry and that I ought to continue to write.) I work as a psychotherapist. I provide in-home therapy to a range of clients. I provide individual, couples, and family therapies. I frequently utilize art in my work. Especially with clients who are artistic. My work drives my art and my art drives my work. I work to empower people and to shine a light on their perspective.

6) I see on your website that your mission is to help Barrel Children in Jamaica. Can you tell me the nature of this work and why you do it?

Barrel Children are children whose parents leave Jamaica to come to America to make a living and send back money and barrels full of essential and nonessential items for them. The barrels replace the parents. The children are left with relatives or others. They face psychological and physiological challenges. It’s a major problem in Jamaica. I am a Barrel Child. My goal is to increase awareness around this challenge.

Also, my first poetry book, Barrel Children, came out of a special project I completed in order to fulfill my requirements for my master’s degree in social work. A good many of my poems are about feeling “Homeless at Home.” Or being an immigrant in a sometimes cold foreign land.

I recently completed a new poetry manuscript called “Heard.” And I’m working on a new chapbook called “Notes for Wedding Vows during a Pandemic.”

Learn more about Rayon Lennon and his work.