Celebrating Black Excellence in the Many Forms It Takes: JJ Balisanyuka-Smith ’21

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Photo courtesy of JJ Balisanyuka-Smith '21

In honor of the anniversaries on campus — the 50th anniversary of the BCC, 50th anniversary of the Black Studies Program, and 25th anniversary of the Chester Children’s Chorus — the college is Celebrating Black Excellence through programming for this year. The Phoenix, in addition to event coverage, will be publishing features of students on campus who embody Black Excellence in the many forms it takes.

JJ Balisanyuka-Smith ’21 is a junior majoring in Cognitive Science, minoring in Computer Science and Psychology, and fulfilling the requirements for a Math major. 

He is motivated to initiate change on this campus by acknowledging and correcting the difficulties that exist with being a Black student at Swarthmore College. 

In his time at Swarthmore, Balisanyuka-Smith has been involved with all Black affinity groups: he is a member of Swarthmore African-American Student Society and Swarthmore African Student Association, and he helped refound Students Of Caribbean Ancestry. He is also a Residential Assistant, serves as director of Swaudio, helps run the radio station, and is currently founding an Effective Altruism club. 

Balisanyuka-Smith’s varied involvement in the arts community at Swarthmore has helped provide many sources of entertainment such as parties, Worthstock, and Acapella concerts to the campus which he is proud to be a major part of. 

“I think legitimately a lot on this campus would not be happening without me and I am very proud of the people that work for and with me at Swaudio. I think we train them very well,” said Balisanyuka-Smith. “I feel like a lot of the things that happen in the arts happen, partially because of my involvement. For instance, Worthstock, I’m on the committee and I’m trying to get more funding for that, hopefully, I’ll be successful.” 

Aside from his involvement in the arts, Balisanyuka-Smith feels that he brings an interesting and new perspective to the campus because of what he looks like and where he comes from.

“I bring a very different perspective. In my time at Swarthmore, I’m the only person that speaks like me and that looks like me. The fact that I am the way I am does bring an interesting difference in people’s lives,” said Balisanyuka-Smith.

During his time at Swarthmore, Balisanyuka-Smith has come across the words “Black excellence” in a multitude of environments and finds its definition reflects what the term suggests.

“For me, [Black excellence] is a Black person that’s being very extraordinary. I guess it’s just doing something that is at the top of your field while being Black. It means that there’s something distinctly excellent about the people in those kinds of fields,” said Balisanyuka-Smith.

While he acknowledges the importance of vocabulary like “Black excellence”, Balisanyuka-Smith feels as though the term shines a negative light on the idea that Black people’s achievements are out of the ordinary. 

“As a general context, I think it’s important in a lot of fields, especially outside of the traditional entertainment field, but I think a lot of Black people are afraid of that word [excellence],” said Balisanyuka-Smith. “One problem I do have with Black excellence is when it’s used in fields like maths because it suggests there’s something that’s out of the ordinary about you doing it. And I think that while you are praising somebody for what they’re doing, you are also shining a light on the fact that what they are doing is out of the ordinary when it shouldn’t be.”

When reflecting on Swarthmore’s engagement with Black excellence and students, Balisanyuka-Smith believes Swarthmore is not acknowledging the Black struggles associated with the excellence they choose to highlight. 

“I don’t necessarily think Swarthmore does all that well with Black excellence. I think, like a lot of institutions in order to function, Swarthmore embodies a lot of hypocrisy,” said Balisanyuka-Smith. “I agree that there has been a push into Black excellence, but without a genuine need to acknowledge that concurrent with Black excellence, there is a Black struggle. And they only seem eager to acknowledge Black struggle from the farthest end when there’s something very recent glaring them in the face.”

Balisanyuka-Smith has faced many struggles on and off Swarthmore’s campus that have made him question his safety.  As a result, he wants to use his role as an RA to ensure other students do not experience the same fear he does. 

“I very strongly care about my community as an RA and will do anything to keep the people safe. On the other hand, I think that the fact that I don’t feel safe and I’m not the only one is a very strong telling,” said Balisanyuka-Smith. “My body has always been hyper policed and, yeah, I can honestly say, for the most part, I’d never internally felt scared of a security force, but the moment that I thought I could have been arrested and deported was like the scariest moment of my life.”

In order to make strides towards correcting the mistreatment of Black struggles on Swarthmore’s campus, Balisanyuka-Smith suggests that the administration should engage with the community in a restorative dialogue. 

“I think there’s very good evidence that restorative justice does work. And a very big part of restorative justice is buy-in. I think that there needs to be an actual effort by the administration because then people who hold the purse strings can actually engage students in making a restorative dialogue with the buy-in of students,” said Balisanyuka-Smith.

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