SUNY Buffalo State Stretches Hearts and Minds Through Social Justice Storytelling

Katherine Conway-Turner makes it her business to talk to students on a daily basis. As president of Buffalo State College, State University of New York (SUNY) — the largest and most diverse comprehensive four-year college in the SUNY system — she sees this contact as a way to stay grounded within the campus community.

“It’s important for me to hear from students because it allows us to refine what we’re doing,” she says. “There’s always a temptation to think your campus is perfect, but things are changing all the time. There’s no such thing as resting on laurels; there’s no such thing as staying static.”

Raised in a small Midwestern town, Conway-Turner was the first in her family to attend college, and she says her background has strongly informed her presidency. She believes the intersection of her identities allows her to connect with the diverse students who call Buffalo State home.

“As a woman and an African American, I get how a person can be marginalized for being who they are,” Conway-Turner says. “And as a first-generation student, I really understand the experience of first-generation students, and I’m able to have an open dialogue with those who may be struggling and let them know they’re supported here.”

She is proud of the opportunities Buffalo State provides for having difficult dialogues on a campus where more than 40 percent of the undergraduate student body comes from underrepresented minority groups. She says the Black Cross Project, staged last fall, is one such example.

In November, faculty in the social sciences department conceived of the project, an installation of 300 small black crosses on the campus’s Horace Mann Quad. The crosses represented all the unarmed people of color who were killed by police or who died in police custody in the U.S. between 2012 and 2015. The initiative included a presentation and panel discussion titled “Race, Violence, and the Struggle for Social Justice.”

Additionally, located where it is in the heart of the urban center of Buffalo, the college is able to use the city as a classroom for social justice. The nearby West Side neighborhood — with its growing population of refugees from Somalia, Sudan, and Burma — is one place where Buffalo State students take part in literacy and U.S. citizenship training.

“Developing social responsibility transforms students’ lives,” Conway-Turner says. “The West Side is a laboratory that has a need for the energy and physical power that students bring.”

Social Justice Through Storytelling
Karen Clinton Jones, PhD, chief diversity officer and Title IX coordinator for Buffalo State, says

Karen Clinton Jones (photos courtesy of Bruce Fox/SUNY Buffalo State)
Karen Clinton Jones (photos courtesy of Bruce Fox/SUNY Buffalo State)

that since she began in her post four years ago, the college’s Office for Equity and Campus Diversity has greatly expanded its diversity programming. This growth has included the addition of monthly diversity dialogue sessions, as well as a music series and a film and discussion series held in partnership with the SUNY Buffalo State communications department and the college’s Burchfield Penney Art Center, where the events take place.

She says the recent hiring of Jason Parker as the diversity program coordinator has also broadened the office’s impact. It often partners with numerous academic and student affairs departments and student organizations across campus. During the last academic year, it co-sponsored diversity events with the Native American Student Organization, Student Life, the Women and Gender Studies and African American Studies departments, the Weigel Health Center, and the Student Union. It has also conducted film screenings and panel discussions with grant funding from the Faculty-Student Association and Target Corporation.

For Jones, though, Buffalo State’s most distinctive diversity initiative is its Anne Frank Project (AFP), which uses her writing as a basis to address racial reconciliation, community building, and conflict resolution.

Buffalo State junior Ashanti Bryant plays with a child in the Rwandan village of Gashora during an AFP trip to visit with the leaders of women-led cooperatives and entrepreneurial projects in the town.
Buffalo State junior Ashanti Bryant plays with a child in the Rwandan village of Gashora during an AFP trip to visit with the leaders of women-led cooperatives and entrepreneurial projects in the town.

Every person has a story to tell, and every person’s story matters. This is the lesson Drew Kahn, professor of theater at Buffalo State and creator of AFP, tries to impart to his students — and the wider Buffalo State community — through AFP.

The project started as a simple theater production in 2006, when Kahn announced that the college would be putting on The Diary of Anne Frank. That year many non-white students objected, saying it was yet another play that had nothing to do with them.

“I’m a Jewish boy from Los Angeles, so I thought, ‘What? Of course it does,’” Kahn says. “But … I tried to answer ‘How can [students of color] see themselves on stage?’”

The result was a reimagined version of the Anne Frank story, in which Kahn added the character of a Tutsi girl hiding from Hutu extremists during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

“I realized that the genocide in Rwanda — although very different — had a lot of important mirrors to the Holocaust that were really haunting,” Kahn says. “We didn’t change the text of the play at all [to accommodate the new character] because we didn’t need to. … How many diaries are we missing because lives were cut too short? There’s an Anne Frank in every genocide.”

Dolores Battle, who at the time was Buffalo State’s senior adviser to the president for equity and campus diversity, encouraged Kahn to present his version of the story at a diversity conference in Amsterdam that year. From there, AFP grew to include an annual festival on the Buffalo State campus, outreach to local middle
and high schools, and a student trip
to Rwanda.

“[AFP] provides a vehicle and a service for examining the social issues that fall under the diversity umbrella,” Kahn says. “My personal hope is that it’s made us [as a campus] more intentional about stretching students’ hearts, as well as their intellects.”

One of the central activities of AFP is teacher training in story building and drama-based education, which make students active participants in learning through kinesthetic movement and storytelling.

Additionally, AFP hosts an annual two-day festival — free for students — which is “one-third theory and two-thirds application,” says Kahn. The festival brings together an array of people to share their stories and discuss genocide, reconciliation, and community building. It has even featured a classmate of Anne Frank, who spoke at the event. The goal of the festival is to bring students into the peace-building process now, as opposed to someday in the future.

“We want [students] to walk out of the festival not as actors but as activists and diplomats,” Kahn says.

Another aspect of AFP is the yearly trip Kahn leads to Rwanda. Ten students from a variety of disciplines are chosen via an application process to visit the country and train local teachers in drama-based education methods.

While in Rwanda, the group lives with and interviews survivors of the genocide; they also go to the prisons and interview perpetrators of the violence. Through a government-sanctioned program of reconciliation, perpetrators undergo unity training and are given an opportunity to ask for forgiveness from survivors.

Upon returning from Rwanda, students write a play based on their impressions from the trip. Kahn asks them two questions: What was inspirational to you in Rwanda? What do you think high school students today need to hear? He says the plays students create in response to these prompts are never the same from year to year.

This year’s play is called Hello, My Name Is ______. It’s about a girl trying to shape her identity in a dystopian world that strives for conformity. In the fall, Kahn’s students will present the new play to local schools.

AFP also has a residency in Lafayette High School, which serves Buffalo’s West Side refugee population. The students speak more than 50 languages, and more than 70 percent are refugees or immigrants. After facing academic struggles, the school reinvented itself and now calls itself an international high school.

At Lafayette, AFP provides teacher training in drama-based education and “helps provide the ethos of strong community and what that means.” For example, the whole school starts every day with five minutes of meditation — the students, janitors, teachers, everyone — to create the sense that they’re writing the day’s story together. As with all aspects of AFP, Kahn focuses on storytelling.

“‘Your stories matter,’ I tell them. ‘You matter.’ For some of these students, that’s the first time they’ve heard that,” Kahn says. “I tell them, ‘If you want to change your world, you need to know that your story matters.’”●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. SUNY Buffalo State College is a 2013, 2014, and 2015 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.