Princeton University is recommitting itself to combating systemic injustice. Of the steps it has taken, one of the most prominent is the FOCUS Speaker Series. FOCUS has brought some of the most prominent anti-racist speakers – including, to name just a few, Tracy K. Smith, Imani Perry, and Sarah Broom – to campus.
But alongside this flagship effort to bolster Princeton’s anti-racist education are dozens of behind-the-scenes changes designed to ensure that every no aspect of University life remains untouched.
At every FOCUS event, attendees are supplied with a free copy of the headliner’s book. It occurred to Manisha Chotalia, an office assistant in the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, that the values of diversity and equity should be extended to the books offered to attendees as well as the authors who wrote them.
So she did some research on the internet and discovered, to her dismay, that there were only two Black-owned bookstores in all of New Jersey. One of them was Source of Knowledge, a bookstore and community center in Newark. “I thought this would be a great way to address our University goal of partnering through diversity and helping small businesses,” she said. “This seemed like a perfect opportunity.”
Chotalia had heard of the bookstore after reading an NPR interview with the owners of Source of Knowledge – Dexter George, Masani Barnwell George, and Patrice McKinney. Small businesses like Source of Knowledge had been struggling throughout the pandemic. Masani Barnwell George, one of the owners and operators of the store, was unequivocal: “It's hitting us hard. We started a GoFundMe page because we're flatlined, completely flatlined.” Source of Knowledge was a pillar of the Newark community, providing not only a world-class collection of literature by Black authors, but also a gym, a hair salon, and a space for people to gather and, in Barnwell George’s words, “to clear their heads.”
After Chotalia learned about Source of Knowledge, she brought it to the attention of the rest of the ODUS staff, who were immediately enamored with the bookstore as well. Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students Ian Deas saw it as a unique opportunity to extend the impact of FOCUS. “There really is a push within the University community to really consider more diverse vendors and suppliers,” said Deas. “In addition to the value of the program,” ODUS could “actually source books that we offer from a Black-owned business in New Jersey.” Source of Knowledge provided the chance to ensure that the University’s suppliers reflect its own diversity and the diversity of the state it calls home. The partnership between ODUS and Source of Knowledge ensured that the resources the University had contributed to ODUS would go toward supporting communities of color in more than one way.
ODUS embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Now, at every FOCUS event that offers books, attendees are supplied with a free copy from Source of Knowledge. Among the books purchased in support of the program are Blue Boy, and No One Can Pronounce my Name by Rakesh Satyal, Undocumented by Dan-El Padilla Peralta, The Privileged Poor by Anthony Abraham Jack, The Twisted Soul Cookbook by Deborah VanTrece, and The Yellow House by Sarah Broom.
Last summer, after several months of developing and strengthening the relationship between the University and Source of Knowledge from afar, the owners of the bookstore invited ODUS staff to come visit and see the store in person. The trip included Chotalia, Dean Deas, Judicial Coordinator Emily Mervis, and Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne. On arriving in Newark, said Chotalia, “We actually anticipated to spend no more than about two, three hours to get to know the staff members and look at their book selection. But in fact, we spent pretty much the whole day there – we didn't really want to leave.”
The store owners not only showed the ODUS staff around their business, but also took them on a tour of Black-owned stores and restaurants in the community. The visit undoubtedly made an impression. Dean Deas spoke about constantly passing through Newark as he traveled between Princeton and New York, and never getting off at the stop to explore. His experience at Source of Knowledge changed that. “I’ve in some ways become a Newark champion,” he said, before adding that he and his friends were planning to celebrate his birthday in Newark.
Chotalia, too, was impressed, and was eager to return the favor. “Hopefully in the near future, we would love to invite Source of Knowledge to Princeton and give them a tour of our university,” she said. “It'd be nice maybe to invite them to one of our FOCUS Series presentations as well.”
The ODUS staff came home from Source of Knowledge with an even stronger partnership between the bookstore and the University, and with a newfound personal connection as well. Source of Knowledge didn’t just supply the University with books – it also supplied the ODUS staff with their own reading lists. They were each gifted a copy of Standing at the Scratch Line by Guy Johnson, a novel about a Black Louisianan who fights in the First World War before coming home to the racial violence of 1920s America. Dean Deas got “several lifetimes” worth of recommendations from the Source of Knowledge staff, and Manisha Chotalia decided to buy a copy of “Black Girl Call Home”, a book of poems by Jasmine Mans about feminism, race, and identity. She thought the book would be perfect for her daughter, and thought Source of Knowledge would be the perfect place to buy it.
But Source of Knowledge did her one better. “They said, ‘You know what? We can get this book signed by Jasmine.’” So, courtesy of Source of Knowledge, what would have already been an incredible gift became one-of-a kind.
ODUS will continue to partner with Source of Knowledge as the FOCUS Speaker Series develops further. Every member of the Princeton community who attends a FOCUS event is helping support Black-owned businesses. As the University expands its anti-racist education efforts, it will rely on partnerships with diverse suppliers to ensure that in every way possible, resources are used to further the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion.