Celebrating Black Excellence in the Many Forms It Takes: Coleman Powell ’20

Coleman Powell ’20 is a senior completing an Honors special major in Comparative Racial Politics — a combination of Black Studies and Political Science — and an Arabic minor. As a Writing Associate, Lang Center Associate, and Student Leader working for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Community Development, Powell has a presence all over campus. They can almost always be seen at the front of a room making people laugh or engaging them in a thoughtful conversation. 

When I sat down with them, they had just come from an event that they, Lali Pizarro ’20, and Joy George ’20 had organized, entitled “What’s the Community in Community Care?”. Powell explained the intentions of the event.

“What we were trying to do there is think about what it is we actually mean when we say ‘community.’ I think that word and concept is thrown around a lot. So we tried to create a space where people could really think about who it is they actually reach out to when they want to feel affirmed, when they want to feel like they belong, and sometimes when they want to take accountability for harm they’ve caused,” said Powell.

Powell believes we must lean into these difficult but necessary conversations, and actively build spaces for them. In addition to being an advocate for collective repair and intentionality with regard to the use and identification of community, they are not afraid to imagine and take steps toward a reality which aligns with collective liberation and restorative justice. They embody their attitude towards justice most clearly in their self-identification as a prison abolitionist. 

“The sort of freedom dream I have is working towards a world without prisons, a world without police, surveillance, all those things,” Powell said. 

Powell puts emphasis on their anti-incarceration stance and goal of dismantling mass-incarceration systems and the prison industrial complex. They explained the problem of the prison and their role in making the facts of it known. 

“[Prisons] don’t actually address the root causes of violence [or] address the root causes of inequality. They just concentrate those things in a place [so] that we don’t have to deal with them … I feel like I’m able to sort of make legible how that connection manifests,” said Powell. 

Powell craves change, and their role as an agent of this change is guided by their need to make space for others. It is mainly for this reason that Powell does not embrace the term ‘Black excellence.’ 

“I think I really struggle with that term ‘Black excellence’ because I don’t think meritocracy is a real thing … whenever I try to move through a space, I’m always thinking about who’s not here, and who should be here, because I don’t think there’s really anything that makes me special,” Powell said.

To Powell, Black excellence is often used to describe well-known and visible Black people in their industries — often in white spaces. Powell believes that Black excellence should focus on uplifting all Black people. 

“I’m less concerned with excellence and more concerned if Black people are able to feel the full spectrum of their emotions and are able to express themselves in a multitude of ways,” Powell said.

While Powell acknowledged that not all people consider Black excellence in relation to achieving a certain status, they believe that this is an ingrained ideology that works in conjunction with other harmful forms of assessing one’s value to categorize and exclude folks. If the label of Black excellence is attached to particular achievements, excellence becomes available only for a select few. 

“Some people might interpret excellence as just making your way and living your life. But I think that the dominant narrative definitely is more tied to what is produced, especially when we talk about institutions,” Powell said.  

Powell’s interests lie in making space for those who are underrepresented and leveraging college’s resources to give opportunity to their fellow peers as an LCA. They put emphasis on the importance of utilizing the resources available from the institution in order to uplift others both within and outside of it.

“What does it mean to be in the institution, but not of the institution and to not let that define you? … [and] to leverage the resources of the institution for the people in communities that you really care about?” asked Powell.  

Powell actively engages this question when they are moving through different spaces. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky and having attended a public magnet school with academics as parents, Powell’s transition to Swarthmore was relatively smooth. Powell believed having academics as parents, however, made them reflect on Black excellence at Swarthmore. 

“A lot of their job is tied to producing things so, you can see how I might have sort of internalized ideas about Black excellence … There is this sort of balance between trying to make a living, but also trying to think about what true liberation of people actually looks like,” said Powell. 

Reflecting on the 50th anniversary programming for the Black Cultural Center and Black Studies Program, Powell said they felt the festivities were positive and enjoyable experiences, especially Nikki Giovanni’s visit. They also feel, however, that the events might mask an incomplete and unfinished story of Black Studies and Black resistance on campus. 

“The Black Studies [program] in reality is still a program, right? It’s still not afforded the resources that it deserves, even though time and time again, it is the students in Black Studies who are pushing the bounds of what academia is,” said Powell. “Black Studies was founded to be a liberatory force for us, for Black people to reclaim Black subjectivity without any caveats. When I want to talk about Black people, I’m just gonna talk about Black people. I think it’s very telling that 50 years later we still don’t have the resources that we deserve,” said Powell.

Powell made the connection between the lack of remembrance of Black resistance at Swarthmore 50 years ago — namely the sit-in in the president’s office and the demands made then — to the erasure of Black resistance on campus in recent years. Though they have mixed emotions about these histories, they gain strength from them as well. 

“The past couple movements I have been here for were all started by Black women and femmes … but rarely are the people who ignited those movements actually honored and given the space to heal or given the resources they deserve after they fought for it for so long … I’m happy to be in community with those people who came before me and learn from them,” said Powell.

Powell has proposed many direct actions the college that can take now and in the future — direct actions that would show solidarity with Black students and more generally have a mission of supporting marginalized folks. Amongst these actions are: the dismantling of public safety, the hiring of more Black C.A.P.S. professionals, the hiring of specifically Black Studies scholars, and the adoption of a scholarship or fellowship for formerly incarcerated folks to enroll at Swarthmore. Powell diligently asserted and described each of these proposals and the need for them. Their belief, for instance, that Swarthmore should do away with the current public safety system is rooted in the vision they previously laid out of a surveillance-free and police-free state as well as the historic relationship between police and Black folks which affects students’ day to day lives. 

“I think about how I am being perceived as I walk around campus and what it means to belong here. And so divesting from empowering Pub Safe to police Black students is something that makes a lot of sense to me. Re-engaging with how they interact with the campus community is something that needs to be happening. [We need to think] beyond representation. I don’t care if you’re a Black Pub Safe officer. You’re still doing work that oftentimes puts us in weird positions, just from things I’ve heard from my friends and experiences I’ve had in the past,” said Powell. “And then, [Pub Safe] is getting a whole bunch of resources, but we only have one Black person in C.A.P.S. Our health center is closed after a certain amount of time so in any crisis, who’s responding? The pseudo police force.”

Powell’s ideas for campus reform are aimed to support Black students and help them feel safe. This mission relies on concrete change, and Powell continues to push us to think about how we can achieve this. 

“I feel like there’s a lot of tangible things that we could be talking about that could move us more and more towards [better supporting Black students] … But I’m wondering how much capacity we have to have conversations around the things I just discussed to [actualize them],” Powell said. “Nikki Giovanni definitely lit a fire in a lot of us so that’s probably my favorite event so far. But where do we go with that energy to make tangible things happen?”

Powell is hopeful and believes in the specific power of Black organizing; it is the history of Black student activism at Swarthmore which influenced Powell’s decision to attend. Listening and learning with an open eye and focused mind, They have developed a value system rooted in justice that they hope to embody and express in all of their endeavors. Besides being a dedicated community member, student worker, and scholar, they have their own day to day life to enjoy. 

“I’m trying to be more positive in 2020. I think I’m doing a pretty good job of doing that. I go to the gym in the morning now and that’s huge for me. I never did that before. I don’t know, I’m just like someone who’s fumbling towards repair. I feel like we’re all healing,” said Powell.

A concert goer who loves to hang out with friends, Powell does not feel like their social life is special, but their scholarly application, authenticity, commitment to social action, and friendship certainly is.

Featured image courtesy of Coleman Powell

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