Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better, episode 37

Rushane Dunn

Episode 37 features Rushane Dunn, the first alum to be profiled from the class of 2019! Always the high-achiever, he is finishing his senior year at the prestigious Brown University and we talked about his status of being at the precipice of his adulthood.

I remember Rushane as a wonderful blend of brains, talent and genuine goodness whose optimism was both infectious and healing. Even on his not-so-good days, he brought a bright light to the spaces in which he occupied. He embodied all of the qualities that make working with students fun and exciting: curiosity, a deep love of learning, and an endlessly creative spirit. He saw beauty and wonder in the arts and immersed himself in everything the studio had to offer.

As a high school dance and theater director, it is often a challenge to inspire young men to even enter the studio, much less be vulnerable enough to tap into their creative selves. However, once you get them there, all it takes is one good experience onstage to get them hooked. Rushane came to Thespians’ crew as a freshman, auditioned as a sophomore and he never left. The dance studio was like home between dance classes, Dance Club and Thespians, where he discovered his passion for the performing arts. Every year, he would develop new abilities and by his senior year, he was performing with fluidity, excitement, and sometimes, abandon. As his teacher, he was the ideal: he came to me raw and undeveloped, and years later, he was taking full ownership of his work.

At Brown, Rushane is finishing his studies in Cell & Molecular Biology and Africana Studies with an emphasis on Black Music history. As he did at Spring Valley High School, he has immersed himself in a variety of activities that feed his interests and has an impressive resumé from his time at Brown: he is the Board Chair of Brown Concert Agency who puts on the largest scholastic music festival there, the Co-President of the Caribbean Students Association, a research assistant in the Wessel Lab, a Teacher’s Assistant for various Biology classes and captain of the Oja! Modern African Dance Company. He takes the term “multi-faceted” to new levels, embracing all the parts of him where his passions ignite.

Someday, this stellar young man will make his mark as a creator and a healer of the world. For now, we are taking a look at where he is now, at the tail end of his college journey.

Looking back to high school

Before enrolling in Brown, Rushane took full advantage of the opportunities Spring Valley offered.

In addition to the honor societies for his academic achievements, honor societies and Key Club, he also enjoyed participating in Thespians and dance activities. After seeing the magic of Brianna Knight and the cast of Aida from backstage, Rushane experienced an awakening to the beauty of performance.

The process of putting together a show—the rigor, hard work, dedication, and the team mentality that goes into putting on a good production—I fell in love with it.

That often happens: some students take a year to get their feet wet in Thespians by joining the crew. They meet people, get their hands dirty, and see from a safe place what goes into the creation of a show. Then, if they are so inclined, they’ll take a leap and audition in a subsequent year. Once Rushane took that leap, he was hooked and never looked back.

Learning to make the most of challenges

Sometimes, life sends obstacles our way. While rehearsals were going on for his first musical, he had slipped in gym class and tore the meniscus in his knee. It was a terrible injury for him; as he was getting diagnostic tests and seeing doctors, he kept thinking, how was I going to be in the show? How was I going to not be on stage while being on stage? He had finally arrived, only to be held back by a knee injury. I remember that news: I was devastated, both for him and for me. He was actually one of my better male dancers and he was out for the count!

What is always more important to me is giving kids opportunities to perform, even if it is not as originally designed. There was a slim chance that he might be able to dance, but in the event that didn’t happen, I had to create a space for him to be in the musical number, seated, and performing as though it was meant to be that way. It wasn’t what any of us wanted, but that opportunity meant a lot to Rushane:

[Everyone] really wanted me to feel like I belonged, even though I couldn’t be my full self. Just being there as Rushane and having the ability to sit on the stage and be a part of that scene, it made me know that my presence in that organization, my ability to exist in that space was important enough and was what everyone around me cared about. That showed me the type of organizations I should be a part of.

As it turned out, Rushane’s knee did heal quickly and he was able to perform most of the energetic swing dances with the high kicks for the show. Patience has its virtues, I suppose.

Growing a leader

As important as Thespians was to Rushane, he was just as important to the organization. I had appointed him to Caps and Bells, the apprentice board, for his sophomore and junior years to give him some leadership experience under the executive board. He was then elected Vice President to the executive board for his senior year.

I learned what it means to work and run an organization and be expected to answer questions for people even when you still have the real adults to be our backup; people trusting you to represent your organization.

Getting his feet wet as a leader of Thespians has translated directly to his experience at Brown, and he has taken on much more leadership responsibility in the process.

Now, running the concert agency, where we put on the largest scholastic music festival, a lot of people expect me to answer the questions. When you’re in college, you are what’s going on. It’s not enough to just know your budget for something is $500,000: you have to answer for that.

In college, the stakes are much higher. He has taken on the role of executive producer for this organization; for everything that is needed for the festival, he is expected to be on top of it. With a budget of half a million dollars, allocations must be precisely accounted for, down to the penny, and justified to many levels of authority. He must put in the extra hours for planning all aspects of the festival, including negotiating high-priced performance contracts with the talent. It’s a lot on his shoulders, along with all of his other responsibilities.

How has he changed since high school?

While his core values have remained constant, the intensity of how he carries out those values has increased. He’s developed the courage to think bigger, and take bolder action to improve the systems within the organizations he has worked.

[In] the Meicklejohn program, though we had over 300 peer advisors, it was not a paid program. So, it was not the most equitable program in terms of representation for our peer advisors. When I joined, I wanted to increase what the diversity of the program looked like and make sure that people like me had the option of having an advisor that looked like them.

He also begged the question, how can a program claim to want to be equitable and not pay their people who are doing the labor for them? He was on a mission with other program leaders to get the program paid. Looking at the budget, he managed first to negotiate a small yearly stipend, and eventually a larger one per semester of work. That brought a budget increase to the program ten times the original amount.

There’s a lot of money in these places and I’ve learned to not take ‘no.’ If one person says no, you go above their head.

Sometimes, you have to go up the chain of command to appeal to someone with the authority to release more funding. With a school with $6.5 billion, it’s just about finding the right person, and getting to “yes.”

Facing the transition into adulthood

A lot of my thinking this year has been around who I am currently, who I was and who I want to become.

As Rushane looked back to his adolescent self, he recognized that fundamentally, he hasn’t changed much. At his core, he described himself as hard-working, driven, goal-oriented, very optimistic, and curious.

Of all of those qualities, Rushane felt that his optimism is at the forefront of his drive. Through that lens, he sees himself and others, and has faith in the capability of humans to function in harmony. He acknowledged that there are people who seem to be pushing us towards a society of doom and gloom, but that there are more of us who are actually trying to work towards a stronger sense of humanity. It seems his mission is to make strong, positive connections with as many of those people as he can.

The need for vigilant optimism

While in many ways, Rushane has had an incredibly positive, flourishing experience at Brown, he has also had significantly difficult experiences that have challenged his bright sense of optimism. In that light, he has learned to have a healthy dose of vigilance.

Though I want to believe that every person I come across is a person who has good intentions, that is sadly not the case.

He recalled his experience as a leader of the Meiklejohn program at Brown, the largest student-run organization on campus that provided peer and faculty advisement to every incoming freshmen.

Sadly, I was left with a lot of racialized trauma; when you work with a lot of people who are used to being rich, white and wealthy, [who don’t] view people who are not rich, white and wealthy as deserving of being in spaces with them, you come away with a lot of trauma and you are expected at times to be the voice of people who are not the rich, white and wealthy. That is a big expectation of someone.

I have heard this so many times. My students go out into the world, many of whom are high-achievers, and take on positions of leadership and responsibility, only to be saddled with the expectation (and hassle) of trying to educate people about their cultural biases while doing so. It is so stressful, and a burden that most students of color have to bear.

Even at Brown, one of the top educational institutions in the world, where admissions requirements are rigorous and classes are even more rigorous, you can’t escape the clutches of racial bias. While these students are the academic elite, the highest of achievers, some have an terribly underdeveloped (or nonexistent) cultural education. Rushane has had direct experience with people who do not believe he deserved to be there, just because he didn’t look like them or come from a similar background.

What amplifies his vigilance, is that he knows that those highly educated, high achieving individuals carry those biases and go on to lead in spaces with more highly educated people and have the platforms to spread those biases around. That is something that has challenged Rushane’s sense of optimism: the nature of systemic racial bias in higher-level environments. When CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, politicians and world leaders hold those biases, they make decisions for and hold influence over a greater mass of people. The uphill battle is still very real.

Being Black at Brown

Brown University’s Black student population is less than 10% of the student body. While the diversity numbers seem to be climbing slowly, being Black and from a lower socioeconomic level than the majority of students there has often added an extra level of stress.

Part of the challenge as a young man with a Jamaican cultural background in a predominantly white institution, is that he finds himself having to alter some of the way he normally expresses himself in exchange for a more “professional” veneer. During interviews, he finds himself replacing the Patois or French Creole phrases that he might comfortably use in his regular vernacular with language that might be considered “more acceptable” to those he is interviewing for.

In doing so, here you are in these interviews getting nice internships and positions, offered different roles. At the same time, I felt like I was leaving behind my Jamaican and Spring Valley cultural heritage.

During a recent visit to Jamaica for the funeral of a beloved aunt, he spent a lot of time with his extended family came to an important realization:

I don’t have to drown myself to make myself feel accepted in spaces. If the way I say a word simply or the way my sentence structure uses a verb; if you have a problem with that, and it’s reason why you wouldn’t want to talk to me, or why you wouldn’t give me a role, it probably is not something that is meant for me. I will find those places and people who will love every part of Rushane. I am on the journey towards being my whole self at all times.

Promoting diversity and inclusion

Rushane’s struggle of having to dampen part of his cultural expression in deference to the established norms is not something new. In order to diversify, people of color have to get their foot in the door of the spaces of leadership. They have to be in the room and create relationships at the higher levels of business in order to filter down and normalize the cultural characteristics that are different from what has been deemed “acceptable.”

Americans, white Americans who have held those positions of power, have had some significant growing pains in opening their hearts to that kind of cultural change. I like to think we have made some progress in that evolution, but that progress is so painfully slow, and young Black people like Rushane are still struggling to feel like an insider in the spaces that are starting to open the doors to them.

There is a need for some discernment, knowing how to tailor your presentation to fit your audience. In the light of being a part of effective change, it is a delicate balancing act between being your authentic self and understanding what parts of your authentic self to present to different audiences. There’s a risk/benefit measurement involved. I do it myself; there are different facets to my “authentic self.” My students in class see one part of that, my colleagues see another, my family sees another. Perhaps the difference is, I never feel as though I have to hide my sense of cultural expression.

With that knowledge, what I hope to teach my students to embrace who they are, where they came from and to carry that into each new space they inhabit. While they must discern which parts of themselves to highlight to get in the door, they can still be effective, make relationships that matter, and continue to push the cultural diversity needle forward by staying true to all parts of their authentic selves.

What does Rushane grapple with now?

Choosing his path

As a dual major, Rushane has had to learn how to balance his workload in two very different concentrations: STEM and humanities. His love of biology is leading him in the direction of a career in medicine, but his love of music production and the arts often pulls him in a different direction.

I want to help people like myself, from areas like Spring Valley, who are usually undocumented and don’t have access to the healthcare system that the United States citizens who are more privileged have access to.

What would he tell his high school self?

I always ask the question, what would your adult self tell your high school self to help ease the way? I’m curious to know what they think they would have needed to hear when they were going through the chaos of adolescence. I absolutely loved Rushane’s answer:

First of all, my 21-year-old self would give my high school self a big hug and let him know that it’s gonna be okay. I think young me felt so much pressure coming from a family where I was the oldest of five kids. It was very stressful and I didn’t now what life would look like or college would be like. I’d tell him to be a little less hard on himself, but keep doing what you’re doing. What you’re doing, it’s not going unnoticed.

Like most kids after their parents drop them off for the very first time, the reality set in that he was on his own, and it was scary.

At the end of his answer, he acknowledged that he wouldn’t want to tell his young self too much, because young Rushane would overthink it all.

Sage advice from Rushane

The world is a lot bigger than you think. Do not think Spring Valley is the only resort for you. Have forward thinking and think about things outside of who you think you are right now, what you think you can achieve, and extend that.

Rushane’s self-care strategies

  • Deep breathing. He learned some of those techniques in the studio and carried them with him after he graduated. I had stopped it for a little bit when I was a freshman and actually developed a great amount of anxiety from academic and social stress. After speaking to an academic dean at college, she suggested he bring that practice back. He has, and it has helped keep his natural anxieties at bay.
  • Music. Music allows you to connect stories of people to yourself. Sometimes you can find a song that says every single thing you want to say, but don’t know how to say it. His taste is wide and eclectic, and he particularly appreciates songs where the song is built around the lyrics.
  • Sleep. This is an active effort on his part. After his family trip to Jamaica, he started having trouble sleeping and had bizarre and unsettling dreams, like falling and never landing. I went to the doctor and was told it’s because when you fall asleep, you’re crashing into sleep because you’re overly exhausted. Now, he tries to devote seven hours to sleep every night. It has helped his overall health, which was suffering when he wasn’t getting enough rest. I was still getting everything I needed to get done, but it felt like so much more work to get there.

I am so looking forward to seeing what path Rushane chooses next. No doubt, he will find a way to incorporate all of his passions into the man he will become. Enjoy our full interview below. Like, subscribe, comment, and spread the love!

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