Nahje Royster: On Finding Her Voice in a Whitewashed World

Nahje Royster, a student at West Chester University, was born and raised in a diverse neighborhood in northern Philadelphia. “There were a lot of different communities within in my neighborhood,” she says, including lots of people from Latinx, Hispanic, and Black backgrounds. “I grew up with a lot of people with a similar story to me—lots of people from working class communities, or single parent homes.”

She experienced culture shock, then, when she first enrolled at West Chester University. She was excited to be enrolled in an institute of higher learning—her parents, she explained, weren’t college educated. “But this was also the first time I had ever been around predominately white spaces,” she said. It was a change that, while abrupt, also helped crystalize some of her ideas around race and racism. Philadelphia may be predominately black, she said, but “you soon start to realize that most of your teachers are white, your doctor is white,” she said. “Basically anyone with authority.”

Nahje also began to recognize some of the implicit biases in much of her previous education, particularly around the history of her hometown. “We maybe learned that, oh yeah, we have the Liberty Bell here and Benjamin Franklin lived here,” she said. “But the history is all pretty whitewashed.” She remembers being particularly struck, while in 6th grade, by the intense disappointment expressed by one of her teachers after Barack Obama was elected President for the first time in 2008. “At the time, I didn’t know enough about politics, but as I got older, I began to realize there were probably a lot of unsaid reasons he was upset that [Senator John] McCain didn’t win.”

Her experiences with education began to improve, she said, once she met Doctor Hannah Ashley, who encouraged her to enroll in West Chester’s Youth Empowerment and Urban Studies (YES) Program, an 18-credit interdisciplinary social change minor. Her coursework within the program, Nahje says, dove deeper into her city’s vast and rich social movement history. “We focused on a lot of the civil rights and other activists that worked right here in Philly, many of them led by black people and black women in particular.” It wasn’t until she joined the YES program, she said further, that she felt like she was part of a community that was actively learning to speak a common language around issues related to social justice. “When I use words like ‘supremacy,’ or say I want to smash the patriarchy, people aren’t confused or question it,” she says. “It’s like, yes, that’s actually exactly what where here for; that’s what we’re doing.”

One of the biggest leadership skills Nahje says she’s acquired, as part of the YES program, is the ability to recognize there are many different ways to mobilize people. “One of the biggest methods I’ve learned is to just listen,” she said. “Rather than automatically judge someone, it’s important to hear what people are actually saying—I now realize I need to understand someone’s motivations, and meet them where they’re at, rather than getting angry because they don’t understand something like racism or classism.”

As part of the fieldwork required of the YES program, Nahje worked with a group called Youth United for Change, made up primarily of working class youth of color, who are working to improve the experiences of public school students in Philadelphia. “I wish I’d known about this group in high school,” she said. “It’s very radical to it’s core.” She was impressed by the group’s focus and recognition of intersectional identities at such a young age. Group discussions often revolved around the work of queer and trans leaders, she said, and women of color. “Lots of revolutionary movements are led by black queer people, or feminine people in general,” she said. “They are learning how to be leaders and activists, which aren’t lessons you always get as a minority child.”

Nahje says she’s still figure out what, exactly, is next for her after she graduates from West Chester University, but says that law school or a doctorate program are both possibilities. She’s particularly interested in working at the crossroads of criminal justice, race, and gender and sexuality. “Whatever I do,” she added, “I want it to be radical and revolutionary.”