Growing up queer and biracial, Ashlee Bonsi has had her share of uncomfortable, and sometimes downright painful, interactions with educators and peers who would make jokes that were thinly veiled with casual, harmful racism.
“My high school experiences were often very tainted and colored by racism—rarely explicit, but most often implicit and weaponized with micro aggressions,” said Bonsi, who was raised in Sayreville. “It would happen most commonly with people whom I considered friends and acquaintances, who would casually say slurs and engage in 'dark humor.'
Today, the Rutgers junior draws on those experiences and finds strength in her identity as a Diversity Peer Educator (DPE) with The Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities. Now in its third year, the program trains Rutgers University-New Brunswick students to educate their peers on topics of diversity, inclusion and social justice through workshops with the goal of building inclusive communities across campus.
Bonsi said her two years with the program has been validating and enlightening.
“By having conversations on social justice activism, and by having the willingness to educate and be educated, I’ve been able to own my individuality and speak my truth with a confidence I haven’t ever had before,” said the English major. “Being a DPE has brought much-needed healing into my life and has given me the opportunity to spread that positivity to the rest of the Rutgers community.”
In 2019, the program was launched in Rutgers-New Brunswick Student Affairs with a partnership between SJE and Residence Life co-led by Darnell Thompson, now assistant director of education at SJE, Keywuan Caulk, director of SJE, and alum IC Ulep, RU GSE '19. In his role at SJE since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January 2021, Thompson currently coordinates the program.
DPE-led workshops are available to Rutgers community members (students, faculty, staff) who can select from several sessions by submitting a program request form. During the hourlong workshop, DPEs facilitate hard conversations — including those on identity development, race, class, gender, sexuality and abilities — to help participants learn how to identify and confront incidents of bias and prejudice.
“It builds student leadership by bridging that passion around social justice and advocacy work and allows student leaders to have autonomy,” said Thompson in describing the program’s success. “The student who sits through an education session is going to receive and digest the message better when it’s coming from a peer rather than an administrator on campus because it is more authentic.”
Thompson’s journey into student affairs began as an undergrad RA at Alfred University in western New York. He worked as a hall director at SUNY Oneonta, followed by SUNY Ithaca. There he honed his diversity training and facilitation skills working in partnership with the Title IX and Multicultural Affairs offices and built a diversity curriculum while studying for his Master’s degree in communications. He brought that curriculum to Rutgers when he was hired by Residence Life as diversity education outreach coordinator, which still uses it to train resident assistants.
The beauty of the DPE program, he said, is the diversity of the peer educators and the different lived experiences they bring to the role. That includes Britt Burke, a junior majoring in biology and psychology at Rutgers-New Brunswick School of Arts and Sciences. As a white woman in a male-dominated field, Burke said she feels a responsibility to share with her peers her experiences with imposter syndrome — when you may feel like a fraud and doubt your abilities — and privilege.
“My privilege has allowed me to enroll at Rutgers and engage in pioneering research, gain clinical experience and work in a professional laboratory. All of this has come with the extra burden of needing to exceed expectations because of others’ doubts due to my gender identity,” said Burke. “This is why I am so passionate about my role as a DPE. The inequality I have felt is minuscule compared with the experiences of others. I am able to use my opportunities as a white woman to give information to others on stereotypes and oppression creating unequal advantages while advocating for those not granted the same freedoms.”
The DPE program began with 11 student facilitators, increased to 14 in its second year, and after a recruiting hiatus during remote learning, Thompson trained two students this fall who learned about the program through word of mouth, bringing this year's total to eight. During those biweekly trainings, the group focused on identity development and facilitation techniques. Thompson also guides DPEs as they reshape the curriculum each year to reflect their campus experiences and the requests they receive for trainings. This year, the group is on track to facilitate 40 sessions with the most requested workshops including: Race in America, Power and Privilege, Gender in Society: Trans Identity, and Gender in Society: Feminism.
“For me, there’s a passion to do this work. It comes from wanting to leave spaces better than I found them,” he said. “I work with students who are way farther along developmentally than I was at that age. I know there is a passion that students have and they don’t always have an opportunity to showcase that passion. This program provides that.”