Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities Appoints First Black, Queer, Male Director
Keywuan Caulk talks about today’s social justice movements and opportunities they create to build more inclusive communities at Rutgers
As the first Black, queer, male director of Rutgers’ Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities (SJE) in its 28-year history, Keywuan Caulk is working to address the issues of the moment.
He is focused on connecting his work with students at Rutgers to the Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and LGBTQIA+ movements that are gaining momentum around the country.
“It’s a horrible, tragic time because lives are being lost,” said Caulk. “But at the same time, there’s lots of learning happening. Lots of people are having their coming-to moment and their eyes are opening.”
Caulk, who previously worked as the center’s assistant director of education, recently replaced outgoing director and friend Zaneta Rago-Craft. It was Rago-Craft who highly encouraged Caulk in 2015 to transition from New Student Orientation and Family Programs and the Office of Residence Life to SJE, where he quickly learned his event planning and relationship building skills would serve him well.
“At first I thought, ‘How do I do a job that I have not worked in before?’” said Caulk, who started his career in student affairs at Montclair State University, has a bachelor’s in psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University and a master’s of education in counseling with a dual focus in student affairs and elementary education from Bloomsburg University. “But I was newly out when I got to Rutgers. So, I took a leap of faith that I could learn about me, the LGBTQIA+ community and education and training all at the same time.”
Growing up in the Black, Pentecostal church, Caulk said faith very much informed his early ideas of sexuality and gender roles. And there were few Black queer role models in his Penns Grove community. So, while many of his LGBTQIA+ peers were already out or coming out as they began college, Caulk said he spent his undergraduate years closeted and graduate years conflicted about coming out – even to himself.
“Coming out was hard because I had to grapple with my spirituality and sexuality and whether the two could coexist. I spent a lot of time in college trying to suppress my sexuality and pray it away rather than embracing it,” said Caulk, who came out in 2012 at 26. “I’ve since learned my relationship with God is personal and can exist in a different way than religious doctrine says it can. My faith drives my life, my service work and my servant-leadership style.”
Shortly after arriving at Rutgers, he attended a fall reception SJE hosted. It was both his first experience with the center and his first time mingling with the LGBTQIA+ community as a newly out queer man.
“I was amazed to see a room full of diverse people dancing and happy and celebrating their sexuality and gender,” he said. “That was new for me. That was a moment!”
Not being too far removed from his coming out experience makes it easier for Caulk to connect with the students he serves and offer relevant advice. There are moments since taking the reins at the center when he is overwhelmed thinking about how far he’s come – from denying his true identity to honoring it and, now, helping others do likewise.
“Quite often I sit and say this is a complete 180. I’m a different person,” he said. “I’m amazed and super happy to be an example to others of just one way to live openly and freely.”
Caulk embraces President Jonathan Holloway’s challenge to “find excellence everywhere” and supports his efforts to build on the university's diversity, equity and inclusion practices. “Every part of the institution needs to step back and look at who is included and who is missing – even the Center for Social Justice Education and LBGT Communities.”
“Who exactly are we forgetting about within our own LGBTQIA+ population?” he said.
To that end, this year, the center plans to host Q-shops; workshops to address less-discussed topics in the LGBTQIA+ community. “For example, asexuality is not something we are talking about quite often, so we need to address that. There is no one way to be queer. There is no one way to do gender. We have to remember the community is big and there are many parts we have yet to explore.”
Though working remotely, Caulk and his staff are fully operational and charging ahead virtually with their regular slate of fall events including Q-mmunity orientations and drop-ins, an involvement fair, LGBTQIA+ graduate student social, and faculty coffee hour.
“We are physically distant but we are not socially absent,” he said. “We still have means to connect and engage, we just need to shift how we have been accustomed to doing it.”
In his new role, Caulk draws on three lessons learned from his predecessor to guide him and the center – especially during these uncertain times: stay student-focused, be true to yourself and remember justice is for everyone.
“It’s a very interesting time, but I don’t think it’s unfamiliar to many folks who live on the margin. I think folks see it more boldly and blatantly and vibrantly,” he said. “People are calling on us more to hold processing space, to talk through what we are feeling and how we are seeing and experiencing what’s happening in the world.”
“This shift creates more opportunities to fulfill the center’s mission to educate LGBTQIA+ advocates and allies,” said Caulk. He and his staff are responding to increased requests from student groups and staff for customizable trainings, including “Language Matters” on microaggressions; “Building Inclusive Communities” on diversity, inclusion and equity; “SafeR Space” on LGBTQIA+ terminology, transgender and nonbinary identities.
“We usually don’t have lots of requests during the summer, so that was new. August was a big time, of course, because of the climate in our country and world,” he said. “It could be seen as more work for us. But it’s definitely a positive to be engaged with what’s happening. People want to work, learn and be better.”