When Brittney Malik ’19 unfurled the new Black Lives Matter flag outside Stearns Student Center last November, she raised more than a bold-lettered banner — she raised awareness.
On a mostly-white campus in a majority-white state, the flag and other campus initiatives last semester have inspired discussions at Johnson State about race and racism. Since the installation of the banner — one of three raised in the fall to highlight social justice issues — Brittney has talked to the college community about her experiences being black and growing up in Randolph, Vermont.
“The flag is making the statement that we see what’s happened in the U.S. in all these cities to all these people who are being treated terribly… just because of the color of their skin… We’re saying this is terrible, and we need to fix it,” Brittney says. “I knew it was something the student body would push for.” For the most part, she was right.
“It was incredible to be part of,” she said of the flag installation, a project of the Student Government Association, of which Brittney is a member. “It warmed my heart even more because people really took to it.”
At the University of Vermont last semester, a Black Lives Matter flag, sponsored by the Student Government Association, was stolen. Brittney didn’t think that would happen at JSC. “What I knew about Johnson was that this would be a place where we could put up a flag like that, and people would come out and support it. It would just be accepted, and there wouldn’t be a second thought about it.”
That sense of support and acceptance was one reason Brittney chose to attend JSC.
“I visited Johnson and met the faculty and students, and it seemed like a place where they invite you in, want you to do well and will help you in any way they can. I was here for five hours and thought, this is great, this is where I want to be,” she says.
Brittney started at JSC as a biology pre-med major who planned to be a surgeon. Then in her first semester, she took a theater course with Johnson State faculty member Isaac Eddy, who had taught an improv comedy class she was in one summer during high school. “I was blown away by the Theater program here,” says Brittney, who switched to a double major in Theater and Communication. She was involved in theater and with a chorus and bands in high school.
She particularly appreciates Johnson State’s small classes, attentive faculty and close-knit student body. “When I got here, the teachers were super helpful in pushing me to be the best I could be,” she says.
There’s a cohesion among students, too. “Everyone, even if they’re doing different things and have different interests, is very connected and wants to be part of the experience with everyone else,” Brittney says. “It’s definitely an accepting campus, no matter where you come from, who you are or how you express yourself.”
Brittney, pursuing an acting and directing concentration in the Theater program, expresses herself on stage and as a trumpet player in JSC’s jazz and funk fushion ensembles. “At Johnson State, I figured out who I am. Music and performance started to become how I give off my blackness and show how I identify as African-American,” says Brittney, whose mother is white and who grew up in a white family. She was one of only three black students at her high school, and as a senior Brittney performed open-mic comedy about her experience being black in a mostly-white town. “My mom has always pushed me to connect with all parts of me. That includes the black part of me,” says Brittney, who may look into forming a JSC group for students of color.
Two other JSC initiatives last fall inspired Brittney to connect with the black part of her. At the “Awaken” exhibit opening at JSC’s Julian Scott Memorial Gallery, she read a poem by the late black poet Langston Hughes. The exhibit, coordinated by Johnson State graduate and artist Sabrina Leonard, highlighted oppression of black people. Brittney also participated in campus forums to discuss next year’s common book, “How to Be Black,” by Baratunde Thurston. “Those things, paired with the Black Lives Matter flag going up, started pushing talks about race and injustice,” she says.
As the book, flag and exhibit have raised awareness at Johnson State about race, they’ve also increased Brittney’s self-awareness. “I picture myself as someone who needs to push forward as a black person, an African-American, push forward what it means to be black. It just means to be yourself,” Brittney says. “It’s something I’ve grown into. I’ve identified with myself as a black woman at Johnson who’s doing something with the time and opportunities I’ve been given.”