In the warm and neighborly atmosphere of Conte’s Pizza on Witherspoon Street, six Princeton University graduate students met with the town of Princeton’s local Civil Rights Commission on Tuesday. Over pizza and cold drinks, a spirited conversation occurred concerning what issues the commission is responsible for, what civil rights issues Princeton faces, and what students can do to become more involved.
The meeting was organized by Chris Tokita, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University and a Diversity Fellow for the Graduate School, in collaboration with the Pace Center for Civic Engagement.
“Graduate students are an important part of our campus community,” said Geralyn Williams, program coordinator at the Pace Center. “They have a wealth of skills, knowledge and energy to invest into our communities. And from the conversation tonight it’s clear that they are interested, involved, and ready to do more within our local communities; and our local communities welcome them if they are ready to listen, learn, and serve beside them.”
Nick Choquette-Levy, a graduate student with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, also noted that “it’s important for university students to understand the issues of the community where we live, and to think of ways to get involved.”
The four members of the commission that attended the meeting described how they deal with education, conflict resolution, and advising in order to represent the community’s civil rights interests. For example, commission member Fern Spruill described an incident where a local high school student came to the commission with concerns of racial slurs being used in her high school, and how the commission is working on coordinating with the superintendent to address that.
The members also addressed the question of what effect the university has on the local Princeton community. Commission Chair Thomas Parker, who works in Mail Services at the University, noted that while there are issues and points of tension between the town and Princeton University, service programs can bridge that gap and improve the community for everyone. “Pace Center programming, such as Community House, helps with this,” he said.
When asked what students can do to get involved, Parker replied saying “Show up to our meetings, and participate in the dialogue. Also, we have ad hoc committees that can be made for specific issues, committees that aren’t standing committees.”
“If you see something wrong in your community, tell us” added fellow member Lew Maltby. “We can’t do anything about issues in the community if nobody brings them to us.”
After the meal ended, the graduate students were invited across the street to the Princeton Municipal Building to the commission’s monthly meeting. There, a variety of different programs and initiatives were discussed among the members, including the Study Circles program, an initiative meant to facilitate dialogue between students, faculty, and parents in the Princeton high schools. In these spaces, the students are encouraged to discuss their concerns regarding civil rights and racial bias, with the goal being to develop programs to address these issues. New outreach programs were also mentioned, with the commission aiming to create materials to educate students about their civil rights. A similar idea was discussed concerning employee civil rights, as the commission emphasized the need to protect vulnerable, low-wage workers who primarily work in the food-service industry.
Additionally, Commissioner Maltby mentioned a concern brought to him by a local imam regarding the portrayal of Muslims and Islam in local school materials. It was stressed that it is crucial for the commission to be aware of how minorities are being represented to young, impressionable students not just in the textbooks, but across all areas of their school experience.
As the meeting concluded with time for public comments, graduate student Mochi Liu thanked the commission for allowing the students to attend. “You guys are awesome” he said to some laughter. The commission members finished their time with the graduate students by once again encouraging them to participate in the process and invest in their local community here in Princeton.
“We really wanted to do something in the local community that had a connection with Pace Center,” said Chris after the event. “And I thought it went great. It was great to get the graduate students into the community, off campus, and out of the bubble.”
More information about the Civil Rights Commission and Princeton Graduate Fellows can be found here: