Drawing connections across Rutgers generations
For Donna Auston, the moment was both poignant and painful.
Auston, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), was attending an academic conference when she received a text from her daughter, Taqwa Brookins, an SAS undergraduate, saying she had joined with other Rutgers students in a demonstration against police brutality.
It was December 2014, shortly after a grand jury declined to indict a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being placed in a chokehold by police.
Brookins, then a first-year student, had joined with about 200 people in a march through the College Avenue and George Street area.
My mom influenced me. Everything she did had social justice at its core
“I felt so proud of my daughter,’’ Auston says.
But Auston, an anthropologist who studies race, religion and other issues, has also found herself reflecting back on her own days as a young African American undergraduate at Rutgers College. In the early 1990s, she joined a rally after a jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
“The deja vu makes it bittersweet,” says Auston. “I’m pleased people are speaking up. But it’s overwhelming on some levels to be confronting these issues again.”
Those feelings of frustration became more intense with the subsequent deaths of Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, and then the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where the pastor and eight churchgoers were killed by a white man.
The 2016 presidential campaign has also brought its share of distressing moments, with Republican candidate Donald Trump vowing to build a wall across the southern border of the United States and to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country.
Despite her anguish, Auston, as a scholar, is fascinated by the sudden and intense focus on racism in America and is determined to research and chronicle the complex and rapidly unfolding events that she sees as history in the making.
“There is a conversation about race going on that hasn’t happened at this level of intensity in my lifetime,” she says. “I have been at a number of protests both as a participant as an observer. I am interested in documenting this moment and trying to figure out what it means and where it may be going.”
Since returning to Rutgers as a graduate student, Auston has been immersed in a constellation of issues around race, religion, and gender and has written extensively about African American Muslims, including participant observation of Muslim women working as professional undertakers in Newark.
“Cultural anthropology at Rutgers is where I wanted to be,” she said. “It gives me the background and tools to study the disparate issues that fascinate me.”
Going back to her undergraduate days in the 1990s, Auston says the liberal arts and sciences tradition at Rutgers has provided a foundation for her intellectual growth.
Back then, she double majored in linguistics and Africana studies, and made connections with Rutgers’ diverse communities of color. I felt so proud of my daughter
Now she watches as her daughter is forges her own identity at the university.
In her first year, Brookins took the Byrne Seminar “Paul Robeson as a Global Citizen,” taught by Department of Africana Studies Chair Edward Ramsamy, who was also a mentor to Auston. This year, Brookins was among a group of millenial Muslims interviewed by CBS News about the backlash after the San Bernadino attacks.
“I like the community of Rutgers,” Brookins says. “I visited a couple of other colleges, but there’s nothing quite like Rutgers. I like how it is in the middle of a city, and that there are so many different types of people that come here.”
Brookins had been considering a pre-med track, aiming to work in international humanitarian settings. But now she is leaning toward social work as the field in which she can have the greatest impact on people.
“I can definitely say that my mom influenced me,” she says. “Growing up, she was always involved in issues. Everything she did had social justice at its core.”