Back when Jae M. Williams ’08, MA ’16 attended his student orientation at Emerson College, he looked up at the stage, to his left and right, and all around him.
Not seeing anyone who looked like him led him to question whether he belonged there and how he would navigate the Emerson community.
“What I experienced in 2006, fast forward to 2021, and it’s what students are still experiencing in every class,” said Williams. “At what point does it stop?”
Those personal experiences, combined with discussions he has since had within the Emerson community, and now as the director of special projects for the Social Justice Center, led to the birth of the Creative Café. Launched in Fall 2021, this monthly series is open to all students, and is a space for conversations on culture, entertainment, and politics with a focus on empowering communities of color. Professionals from different industries join the conversations to mentor students, and encourage artistic collaborations using a social justice framework to bring their ideas to life.
“I wanted to find ways to make students feel more welcome and have a safer space that fosters creativity,” said Williams.
Williams loves the vibe of cafés — talking in dim lighting over coffee and tea.
“There’s no better place to meet or create or engage with people than over food and conversation. That’s what the café represents to me. It’s a vibe I want to pass on to our next generation of story tellers,” said Williams, a doctoral student at Northeastern University.
Williams’s creation both attempts to reverse engineer the lack of diversity in stories told by Hollywood in mainstream media, and supports the ideas he presents in his dissertation, America’s Empathy Deficit: Our Bloody Heirloom and the Invisible Backpack.
“At what point does education intersect within what we see in media? As a product of [Emerson College] how does my career and education reflect what is provided by the mainstream media?” said Williams.
The “bloody heirloom” title refers to author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2017 article “The First White President,” published in The Atlantic, and the “invisible backpack” is from Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack“.
“I use those two terms to set the stage for a societal problem. It’s an empathy deficit that we can’t look past our own experiences to include others,” said Williams. “That’s rooted in white privilege and passively impacts our students of color trying to get access to education, particularly authentic stories about their experiences.”
The Creative Café last fall tried to change that dynamic through four events on the Boston and LA campuses, when students engaged with 10 BIPOC industry experts and speakers, and four alumni speakers in film, television, acting, marketing, music, choreography, fashion, and makeup.
The speakers participated virtually and included actress Chrystee Pharris ’98, writer/director Felica Pride ’05, visual artist and director Taj Stansberry, stylist and executive groomer Neicy Small, and more.
Pharris wanted to participate in the Creative Café for two reasons: to connect students and alumni, and to bridge some gaps at Emerson. Pharris had a similar experience at Emerson as Williams, and added that students tended to socialize with those within the same major.
“If you are a Theatre major, you only hung out with people who were in Theatre,” said Pharris, who is co-president of the EBONI Alumni Association. “I think [the Creative] Café is bringing so many people together and you get to know people outside of your major and department.”
Pharris attended the café virtually, and spoke briefly about her career in the entertainment industry.
“We played Jeopardy, which was fun,” said Pharris. “I was one of several alumni who called out the questions. I was Alex Trebek.”
Pharris pointed out that Emerson’s urban setting doesn’t necessarily lead to having a common locale to congregate.
“I think the café will become that place. I would tell everybody to participate and let people know about it,” said Pharris. “Emerson is doing some wonderful things to bridge that gap between cultures and it’s definitely a place and avenue to do that.”
Taj Stansbury, who directed music videos for Rihanna, Usher, John Legend, Ludacris, and more, was the guest speaker at November’s event, where he encouraged students to just get out there and act on their dreams.
Four student attendees were inspired and took Stansbury’s advice to heart.
“By December, [the students] had create a film together. One person was the director, one was the writer, one was the DP,” said Williams, adding students told him they wouldn’t have collaborated together without meeting each other at the Creative Café. “That was the entire point of the event. That in itself is what I wanted to do as my role as special projects director – to create space to feel comfortable and create.”
Students provided anonymous feedback about the positive outcomes of the Creative Café:
“It was the first event on campus since the pandemic that [I] could be myself in public and not feel like I have to fit in.”
“This event was great. I enjoyed the conversations food and music. More events with Black alumni make me feel like there is an Emerson community. It would be interesting to have writing workshops as well.”
Williams said it is vital for students to see mentors thriving in careers they’d like to pursue.
“It’s hard to make a movie if you feel like you can’t talk to anybody. It’s hard to do a creative marketing campaign if you feel unwelcome,” said Williams. “As I’m doing this research, it’s not just about getting a degree and passing classes. It’s about what experience am I having in elevators, with faculty, with staff, in the dorms, and in classes. Those things impact what Emerson is to me.”
Williams said his job at the Social Justice Center focuses on these conversations, and says the institution needs to engage in similar conversations. He said the Social Justice Center and other departments have made many efforts to make Emerson more equitable, diverse, and accessible.
“The work of the Creative Café is to add to the continuing effort the College is pursuing and hopefully will be enough one day,” said Williams. “We understand it’s not enough right now. There are pockets of it. I’m just looking into a small window of what Black and brown students are experiencing in these creative spaces.”
There will be several more Creative Café events this semester, but no dates set as of yet due to COVID.