Workplace Social Justice Protest and University Class on Racism Inspire Widener Senior to Be a ‘Changemaker’

Hilary Bentman, Assistant Director of Communications
Student wearing a mask stands on campus
Paralegal studies major Elisha Abney '21 says a workplace social justice protest, coupled with her Widener education, has inspired her to effect real change.

Last summer, Widener student Elisha Abney ’21 found herself in the midst of a social justice protest at her workplace that left an indelible mark on her life. When she returned to Widener for the fall semester, her courses included the anthropology elective Race and Racism, taught by Associate Professor Brett Alvaré

Abney – a paralegal studies major who takes classes at both Widener Delaware Law School and Main Campus – credits Alvaré’s class with helping her make sense of the traumatic workplace events. She says it also reinforced her desire to enact real change and advocate for others, including through her future career in the legal field.

Alvaré’s course is one of many at Widener that offers students the transformational opportunity to put their life experiences into perspective.

In Abney’s case, the experience was a profound one. She worked for five years at a fast-food restaurant franchise where she says she and her fellow Black co-workers endured racist and sexist comments, jokes, and insults from senior management, and were often passed over for promotion. Following an incident in June 2020 – just days after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota – employees decided it was time to speak out. 

Read more about the workers’ protest from WHYY’s Keystone Crossroads

Abney recently discussed the Race and Racism class and how it helped frame her workplace experience, which she also wrote about for a final reflection paper for the course.

Why was it important for you to speak out about your experience?
I realized that I had been silent and compliant for too long. Many of my co-workers and I had been intimidated into keeping our mouths shut. Often, when an employee would report mistreatment, they would be simply labelled as a “complainer” by higher management, and their hours were threatened to be cut. It was important to make it known that we could no longer be discriminated against, harassed, or mistreated. It was important to be an impact on the next wave of employees, and to confront these issues so that they might have a better experience than we did.  

The precipitating incident occurred shortly after the killing of George Floyd and the rise in Black Lives Matter protests. How did that timing impact your decision to speak out?
The timing of the incident was probably one of the most hurtful aspects of it all. Honestly, we were used to these particular managers spewing out misogynistic and derogatory comments. It was quite frankly, normalized. However, after watching George Floyd die senselessly on camera and seeing the world go into an uproar, I guess we expected the workplace’s culture to shift. We thought that maybe, as Black employees, we would feel even more supported than ever. To see that instead, our supervisors were making a mockery of our pain, we knew that it was time to speak out. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Why did you decide to take Dr. Alvaré’s anthropology course on Race and Racism?
Truthfully, when something concerns “race” and/or “racism,” it doesn’t take much after that to intrigue me. As a young Black woman, I know the intensity of systemic racism and white supremacy firsthand. Because knowledge is power, it’s important for me to understand the history behind these systems of oppression. The more I educate myself, the more I am able to pass along some consciousness to someone else.

How do you think taking this class just a few months after your work experience helped frame it for you? Did it make you think about what happened in a new or different way?
The grievances I’ve had are essentially my first and only experiences being discriminated against and harassed by any employer. And so, when I started this class immediately after this occurred, I now had personal experiences to mirror what I was learning. It’s one thing to read about racial injustices in a textbook; it’s another to actually encounter it for yourself. Sometimes we may think, ‘Oh, that couldn’t happen to me,’ and the things we’re reading in that textbook seem distant. But Dr. Alvaré’s class reminded me that it’s all very real and has been occurring for centuries. 

After studying the history of racism in America during class, where do you see your workplace experience falling on that continuum? How is your experience part of the larger story?
I think that because white supremacy is so deeply rooted in America, and thus the workforce, solutions will be at the hands of those who continue to speak out – in whatever the problem is. Whether we’re talking about maternal health, student loan debt, the justice system, or wealth, there are immense disparities in each of these areas. We, as Black people (and our allies), should continue telling our stories and begin the healing process from the trauma we have endured. 

Did your Widener experience prepare you to stand up against injustice? If so, how?
Because I have been a commuter student throughout my entire college career, it has constantly pushed me to find alternative ways to be a positive impact on my peers. In June 2020, I helped create a program called Black Youth 4 Justice through HERO – a youth organization based in Philadelphia. Our goal is to be an anchor for young people who are pursuing their goals and pursuing justice. 

What is the lasting impact of this experience for you?
Any time you experience something traumatic or scarring, it hurts, to say the least. For a while, you’re sad or angry, or feeling haunted by your experiences. I’ve felt each of these emotions in the past year. But I know I have a purpose for my life, and despite the “setbacks,” I have to keep moving toward that. In 2021, I’m learning how to rejuvenate myself and my mental well-being so that I can continue serving. I want to be an encouragement to someone else and remind them that they can do the same. 

You are majoring in paralegal studies. What are your career aspirations? And how do you think this experience, and Dr. Alvaré’s class, have helped prepare you or influence what comes next?
I graduate in May of this year, and I’m truly excited to jump into the field! After gaining some work experience, I aim to attend law school and obtain my Juris Doctor degree. I hope to one day be an attorney general or a judge because in short, I want to be a changemaker. I want to serve my community and truly be an influence. In order to confront the systemic racism that pervades America’s systems, we have to start at the local levels. Whether it be with the criminal law division or the public protection division, I could be a sounding board for citizens who may not feel heard. I want to be a part of reversing stereotypes, and further integrating a field where Black people are the minority. Even if I don’t see these changes in my lifetime, I’m hoping to set a precedent and leave a legacy for my children and my grandchildren.

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