Bridging gaps between students, people of New Brunswick
Cloudy with a Chance of Controversy
I have a question for the general Rutgers population: How many of you able-bodied folk have walked around New Brunswick? I do not mean the walk to Chipotle in downtown New Brunswick or to your favorite fraternity house right off of College Avenue. I am referring to the actual New Brunswick, the barrio, with the Dominican hair salons, the small (but, often crowded) homes and the bodegas on every street corner.
In my four years of being at Rutgers, I have heard countless students talk about how scary New Brunswick is. Most students will not walk past a certain point of New Brunswick. Some students will not even walk on George Street at night, let alone Jersey Avenue. Rutgers students will spend four years in New Brunswick, living on College Avenue and taking up space that could be used to improve the actual New Brunswick community, and then never associate with the community again. Most of us will graduate, boast about the degrees that we earned in New Brunswick and never reflect on how our presence here contributes to the marginalization and poverty that New Brunswick residents face on a daily basis. Many of us will go to Mexico and Puerto Rico for Spring Break, but we will keep a safe distance from "them" while we are in the States. We will all continue to get drunk on the weekends, women will continue to be harassed and sexually assaulted, people of color will continue to feel neglected by our University, queer folk will continue to be misunderstood, and trans* people will continue to be misgendered. Many people, especially those with complex intersecting identities, will not feel safe at Rutgers, but Rutgers will always be deemed safer than the city of New Brunswick.
As a privileged student who takes up space in New Brunswick, I have often reflected on my own presence here. I have walked around different areas of New Brunswick many times. New Brunswick reminds me of home: I cannot be scared here because the bodegas and Dominican hair salons give me a sense of comfort that I cannot find in the dining halls and classroom buildings.
This past Monday, I met with a representative of the Puerto Rican Action Board (PRAB) to invite her to speak to my "Latinos and Community" class. While speaking with her, she said many students are too scared to venture outside of the Rutgers community, which hinders them from being involved with organizations like PRAB. New Brunswick is an area filled with non-profit organizations, activism and culture, but scared Rutgers students see it as a city devastated by crime and poverty.
I am not here to say that these things do not exist in New Brunswick. There is crime and poverty in New Brunswick, just as there is crime and poverty everywhere. But when Rutgers students refuse to walk around in certain areas because they are scared, this creates a gap between Rutgers and the New Brunswick community. When Rutgers students refuse to be involved with the community, but still take from the community, this creates tension. Lately, the disconnect between Rutgers and the New Brunswick community is painfully obvious. Our libraries closed their doors to non-Rutgers patrons past a certain time, and as far as I know, we never opened our doors for the homeless when we had snowstorms (which we have done in the past). We cannot continue to turn our backs on the community that lives here, while simultaneously boasting diversity. Diversity cannot come without an understanding of privilege, power, oppression, space and race. If we truly understood these components of diversity, there would not be such a disconnect between the New Brunswick community and Rutgers University.
Now I want to leave you all with something to reflect on. The people who we call Mexican (while some may identify with an indigenous group before they identify with Mexico) have been in the United States for longer than many of us. Puerto Ricans have been around for decades and other Latino groups are increasing rapidly in numbers. Yet, the majority of us need to deal with institutional racism in many different areas. Some of us are able to escape this if we are white-passing, but the majority of us are not white-passing, which means we are more likely to be pushed into poor areas and receive subpar education. Our people are simultaneously overworked and underemployed. For many of our families, the cycle of poverty will continue until one of us is lucky enough to break it. So I encourage Rutgers students to understand the institutional racism that permeates the New Brunswick community. If you are truly concerned about New Brunswick being an unsafe area, work toward the correcting said issues rather than avoiding the people who inhabit them.
Kenya O’Neill is a School of Arts and Sciences senior double majoring in planning and public policy and Latin and Hispanic Caribbean studies with a minor in Spanish. Her column “Cloudy with a Chance of Controversy,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.