Drexel student activist Tianna Williams posing outside of the Rush Building, which will soon be the home of the University's Center for Black Culture.
Tianna Williams isn’t one of those people who waits around for others to create the change she wants to see in the world. She creates it herself, or starts the process and pushes the envelope so that those who come after her can see and experience what she’s striving for.
It’s for these reasons that Williams, a fourth-year engineering technology student, got involved during her first year at Drexel University as a Liberty Scholar and with organizations like the Drexel Black Action Committee (DBAC), the University’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and as a student ambassador for the Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion. But she didn’t settle for being just a passive member of these organizations. She took leadership and work-study positions because she wanted to be an active agent for good and change on campus.
“It was a really natural progression just because of my identity as a Black woman on campus,” Williams said. “I needed to find people that I felt comfortable with, but I also like doing things I know help people around me or help people after me.”
Due to this natural progression and her current role as DBAC president, it’s fitting that Williams has emerged as the de facto leader of the undergraduate student initiatives toward creating an anti-racist Drexel, including her position as the only undergraduate student co-chair of the University’s Anti-Racism Task Force. Not that she doesn’t have help — DBAC is just one of the many student organizations that became involved with a larger student coalition calling themselves Drexel United with the goal of bolstering anti-racism initiatives and programming across the student body.
“I'm not going to lie, it does feel like that,” Williams admitted about being the “face” of this movement on campus. “It’s rewarding in some aspects because I do like to be on the forefront of things just because I like to know what's going on and I want to make sure that stuff is getting done in the best way possible. On the other hand, it can be very tiring. You get pulled into a lot of directions. There's a lot of meetings going on and the nature of this work is just very taxing emotionally.”
Williams was prepared to take on hard work like this upon deciding to attend a predominately white institution like Drexel, and go into a predominately white field of study like engineering.
“[My family] was telling me, ‘You're going to have to work hard and you're not going to see a lot of people like you,’” she recalled. “So, I already knew that that was just going to be the nature of things coming here.”
The nature of the very real trend of disparate police killings of Black people in America — killed at more than twice the rate of white Americans despite making up only 13 percent of the population, according to data compiled by the Washington Post — is why Williams said she wasn’t surprised when she first heard about the killing of George Floyd on May 25.
“For our community it’s not something that’s new,” she said. “At the time when it happened, my first reaction was just, ‘Oh no, another one. Another one to add to the long list of names that are out there.’ So it was one of those disappointing but not surprising kind of things.”
But one variable that became a catalyst, she says, is how the break from daily life caused by the COVID-19 pandemic jumpstarted and mobilized more involvement in the local, national and international demonstrations that followed. Especially for busy college students like her fellow Dragons, there were fewer barriers and less excuses. And she is happy that that spark, that energy, ignited within the student body through Drexel United and beyond, as well as across the University.
Tianna Williams at an event on campus commemorating Juneteenth this year. Photo by Hannah Beier.
“I think it gave us and other Black students, Black faculty and staff, [the ability] to really turn the eyes on the University and be like, ‘You know, this is just part of a larger issue of systemic racism,’” she said. “Now that it's out here in a way that people can't ignore, let's look at how this has its effects within the University and what we can do on that end.”
And now, along with 28 co-chairs and over 100 total fellow Dragons on the University’s Anti-Racism Task Force established back in June, Williams is focused on the doing. She is one of three co-chairs of the Task Force’s Undergraduate Student Life committee, which is one of 11 total committees ranging in focus from admissions and faculty and staff recruitment to business practices and community engagement.
Williams said she and many other co-chairs are working to stress transparency and action-orientation in the Task Force’s work.
“The time for talking and conversations is kind of over. We can still have them, but at this point, actual action needs to be taken. So that's what we're trying to do,” she said. “I feel like we're moving in a good direction and I feel like a lot of people in higher positions are kind of learning how this work actually needs to be done and that the way that it was being done in the past is not helpful anymore.”
So far, the Task Force has announced such institutional changes as the recognition of Juneteenth and Indigenous Peoples Day as University Holidays and the creation of the University’s Center for Black Culture set to open on the first floor of the Rush Building, with renovations already underway. The University’s anti-racism goals are also being incorporated into its 2020–2030 Strategic Plan which is currently being drafted.
Williams said she feels good about the Task Force’s forward motion and that, whenever possible, she’s recommending fellow student leaders to be a part of the conversation.
“Part of doing this work correctly is knowing that you're never going to know everything and that you're not always going to get stuff right,” Williams said. “So, it can be pretty jarring when you're asked to be the voice of a whole population, because at this point, [I’m not just asked] to be the voice of Black students, but all of the students being that in a lot of these spaces, I tend [be] the only undergrad there.”
Maurice Cottman, director of the Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion and a co-chair of the Task Force’s Undergraduate Student Life committee alongside Williams, recognizes this pressure she faces. And though no one person can speak for an entire group of people at all times, Cottman added, he believes Williams has a special understanding of how best to amplify voices of Drexel’s diverse student body within the larger University context.
“Doing diversity and inclusion work every single day in my current role, I see too many people who refuse to even acknowledge another’s ideologies if they aren’t in sync with their own,” Cottman said. “Galvanizing likeminded people is easier than moderating a room full of detractors and the uninformed. Bringing those people together can sometimes seem impossible. Tianna’s ability to do all of these things is what makes her a great student leader.”
Though it’s hard for her to put into words exactly what leadership skills she possesses, Williams knows that her work with DBAC and the Anti-Racism Task Force are helping her sharpen them. This includes the opportunities she’s had to plan, coordinate and organize with her fellow Dragons, and even students from other universities in Philadelphia, as well as to feel comfortable using her voice and be frank no matter who she’s speaking with.
“I’m learning to not censor myself and be able to be really straightforward with things,” she said. “I think that is something that is definitely going to help me, especially because I don't see myself not doing this after I graduate. Even if I'm working in engineering and stuff like that, no matter what my job is going to be, I'm still going to be attached to some kind of social work. I can't not do that. So this is definitely helping me learn how to do that.”
But before she does graduate, Williams is looking forward to spending more time doing this important work at Drexel, but maybe also finding more work-life balance. When reminding herself not to “doom scroll” on Instagram and Twitter, Williams can be found hanging out with friends or family, crafting or enjoying her new-found quarantine hobby: roller skating.
For other students who may want to get involved with the movement toward an anti-racist Drexel, Williams would encourage them to get involved with the student organizations they see at the front lines of these issues as well as engage with and ask questions of the Task Force, as well as hold it accountable.
Cottman echoed this importance of more student involvement and student leadership surrounding these issues.
“What better resource do we have as an institution than the experiences of our students?” he said. “The leadership of students like Tianna is critical for many reasons, but one that rings most true to me is the belief that students will keep applying the necessary pressure on us to be better. Steel sharpens steel; we won’t evolve if we spend our days around wood. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the fast-paced environment; it truly can be a pressure cooker for all involved. If we have strong student leaders in our faces and on these committees and speaking out in thoughtful ways, we have to act, because it can’t become an afterthought.”
Williams hopes the work of the Task Force is palpable by the end of this academic year, although she knows that the hardships created by the pandemic and continued remote undergraduate learning may complicate this timeline. Until then, Williams will undoubtedly continue to be the “face” of the change she wants to see, working and pushing and praying until she sees the changes in the world that she has faced head-on.
“The moment I'm able to talk to other students and some of our soapboxes become shorter and shorter, …. that they had an issue and they took it up with somebody and it was actually resolved,” she said. “… Once we reach that point, the work still hasn't ended — it's a continuous process — but then you can actually say, ‘OK, we're on the right track.’”