“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” —James Baldwin
Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, a group of Commonwealth students and alumni/ae—Mosammat Faria Afreen ’16, Iman Ali ’18, Gueinah Carlie Blaise ’16, Tristan Edwards ’18, Kimberly Hoang ’21, Alexis Domonique Mitchell ’16, Ryan Phan ’22, Alan Plotz ’21, and Tarang Saluja ’18—mobilized to share their views that the school, which prides itself on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), has fallen short in its efforts to address racism and socioeconomic inequities.
One result of the tireless effort and sacrifices from these students to bring these issues to light: the inception of InCommon, a team comprising board members and current faculty and staff members that focuses on DEI work at the school. Read more about the work that InCommon has been doing.
Below, we hope to provide space for the petitioners to tell their stories.
Bringing the Past into Focus: Gueinah Blaise ’16
Gueinah Blaise ’16 was exhausted, and the spring of 2020, already heavy with the impending loss of the college community that had become her home and overshadowed by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, brought no respite. Then, just nine days after Blaise’s virtual graduation from Georgetown University, George Floyd was killed.
“I didn't even have the energy to be angry. It was more like a sadness and a sense of helplessness that had settled in on me,” Blaise says. “I also was bombarded by all the imagery of this Black man being murdered.”
Not long after, Blaise met with her former Constitutional Law professor and mentor to discuss her future law school plans. That conversation quickly turned to the protests roiling across the country, and they talked about ways, big and small, to feel more empowered.
“He just put things in perspective for me,” Blaise says. “I don't necessarily need to be shifting the entire world...I’m just trying to look for ways that I can make what little impact that I can make. Prior to speaking to him, I wouldn't have done it”—“it” being writing a letter to the school condemning its response to George Floyd’s murder, which did not address the pain, fear, or alienation felt by students of color.
“I remember being a Black student at Commonwealth looking for Black alumni/ae to relate to, because, honestly, none of my other classmates could quite understand my experience other than the other Black people who have gone to Commonwealth,” Blaise says. That was her mentality going into writing the letter with her peers Iman Ali, Tarang Saluja, Faria Afreen, and Alexis Mitchell; she wanted to let current students of color know that they're not alone.
“We literally went to work, almost line by line, saying, ‘here's what's wrong with your language. This is stuff you cannot do and you cannot say specifically about students of color,” Blaise says. “This was not an impulsive thing. This was a very thought-out process.”
Long days went into both the letter and subsequent petition, as the writers pored over every word. They edited each other, surveyed their peers, and made revisions after careful deliberation. In addition to conferring amongst each other, they met individually and in groups with current teachers, Board members, and other alumni/ae. They reached out to external DEI facilitators for their feedback. They organized a virtual event in July providing the Commonwealth community space to talk. And they balanced these efforts with their existing lives and responsibilities.
Yet, even as students, parents, board members, and alumni/ae rallied to sign and support the petition, Blaise and her fellow writers still experienced pushback from others throughout the community. They were told they shouldn’t be so angry. They should be grateful. And they should watch their tone.
There was a misconception, too, Blaise says, that the petitioners wanted the school to fail.
“I didn't write this [letter and petition] because I'm angry about Commonwealth,” Blaise says. “The only reason why I'm doing this is not for Commonwealth the entity as much as it is for the people going through the school. People like me.”
The petitioners’ youthfulness belies their experience; many have already been doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work for nearly a decade, Blaise included. She was involved in DEI throughout high school—“four straight years of putting [her] all into Commonwealth,” she says, despite facing micro- and macro-aggressions that started early in her freshman year and continued.
Despite the shadows of the past, Blaise found her niche at college. She majored in Government and became a staff writer for Georgetown’s student newspaper. She also double minored in Journalism and Jewish Civilization—inspired by a single class, Blacks and Jews in America—and the department became a second home. Along the way, Blaise interned for Senator Elizabeth Warren, Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) in Somerville, and at Voice of America (VOA), roles where she felt she could make a difference. With her advocacy work on behalf of Commonwealth students of color, she has done just that.
As an alumna, Blaise can’t speak directly to the petition’s impact on the school, but she does think that people are finally starting to listen, and communal norms are beginning to shift. “It's no longer okay for organizations not to stand firm that they are here for Black people, people of color, and all marginalized groups,” she says. “The voices of people of color will not be silenced.”
Even as the petition and DEI work consumed much of her summer, Blaise prepared for her future. While she intends to go to law school in the coming years, she decided to decline acceptance to law school for the fall of 2020 semester for several reasons, the pandemic chief among them. Now Blaise says she is glad to have an opportunity to garner more real-world experience as a paralegal for Holwell Shuster & Goldberg, based in New York City. While still considering her career options, she’s intrigued by constitutional law, which has already shaped her life, or perhaps sports law (“I'm a huge sports fanatic.”) or even sports journalism. “I'm very open to where things will lead me,” she says.
That Blaise wishes to become a lawyer, an advocate, is not surprising. She is a light, full of ethical fervor and passion. “I can't sit down and do nothing,” she says. “I'll let my voice be heard.”