Unity & Advocacy: Lawrenceville’s Black Alumnae Reflect

Ivy Alphonse-Crean ’10: When she wasn’t indulging in the Miss Lydia pizza at Fedora’s, you could always find Ivy Alphonse-Crean ’10 in the Kirby Arts Center (KAC), taking dance classes with Director of Dance Derrick Wilder or rehearsing on stage for a Periwig production.

Ivy Alphonse-Crean ’10: When she wasn’t indulging in the Miss Lydia pizza at Fedora’s, you could always find Ivy Alphonse-Crean ’10 in the Kirby Arts Center (KAC), taking dance classes with Director of Dance Derrick Wilder or rehearsing on stage for a Periwig production. Alphonse-Crean came to Lawrenceville as a II Former, after which she was a member of the McClellan House and a prefect in Girls’ Lower. In addition to dance and Periwig, Alphonse-Crean was a member of The Lawrentians and the Religious Life Council, among other activities.

As a Black, female student coming from a middle-class family, Alphonse-Crean faced the nuances of an “unspoken cultural difference” when she arrived at Lawrenceville, where groups of people dressed and acted in accordance with a Northeastern, prep-school culture. Navigating these unfamiliar social cues, Alphonse-Crean often wondered how she could fit in, whether that be buying a pair of Lululemon leggings or constantly straightening her hair.

“I think I spent a lot of high school being afraid. I made a lot of choices out of fear of losing friendships, fear of looking weird or different, and a fear of speaking up,” she said. This fear also stemmed from “instances of outright racism, such as boys declaring that they do not like Black women,” she added. After experiencing these challenges with her racial identity, Alphonse-Crean decided to pursue public policy, education, and literature through the lens of Africana studies at Brown University, which helped inform her perspective on society and Black culture.

As Alphonse-Crean was considering her career path, she initially intended to serve students of color in public schools. However, she realized that as someone who attended private schools throughout her life, she would better relate to and could advocate for students of color at independent schools, especially being a Black educator. She currently teaches English and serves as the Grade 6 Dean at the Collegiate School, a private school in New York City where she also facilitates student discussions regarding identity and race.

Drawing from her experiences in the education world, Alphonse-Crean has advice for Black students at Lawrenceville: “Be unapologetically who [you] are and try not to live in a fearful space, which is radical since we do so much code switching and censorship on a daily basis. Lawrenceville has consistently made an effort to affirm students of color, but there is still a long way to go.”

Ryann Galloway Tacha '03: Ryann Galloway Tacha ’03, nicknamed “The Way” by Dean of Academics David Laws P’21 ’23 after she made a legendary ultimate disc catch, came to Lawrenceville as a new III Former. She was a member of the Stephens House and later served as a prefect in Girls’ Lower. She was the president of the Harlem Renaissance club for two years, led the Christian Fellowship in her V Form year, and was involved in the Alliance of Black Cultures (ABC). Galloway Tacha enjoyed English and poetry, especially valuing the mentorship and expertise of former English Teacher Sandra Rabin and English Teacher Wilburn Williams H’02’06.

Like many students, she experienced the challenges of adjusting to Lawrenceville’s fast-paced environment, noting that “it was like a pressure cooker all the time.” As one of only six Black female students in her class, Galloway Tacha also grappled with the difficulties that came with her racial identity. While she didn’t experience outright racism, the stratified social atmosphere and beauty standards at Lawrenceville greatly impacted her.

“I did not feel beautiful at Lawrenceville for a very long time,” she said, “I lived between two worlds; I lived [in] this very white world at Lawrenceville, and then I would go to the mall or I would get my hair done and see people who looked like me. It was very hard to reconcile the two all the time.”

After feeling this way at Lawrenceville, Galloway Tacha was ready to “jump in with both feet” when she moved on to Wheaton College, where she created the Renaissance House—a house for women of color in leadership positions. “A group of us realized that we were all struggling separately. We were all leading different initiatives around campus, but together, we were stronger,” she said.

After college, she worked at Lawrenceville in the Alumni Relations and Annual Fund Office, gaining valuable career experience under the tutelage of Director of Alumni Relations John Gore Jr. H’61 ’64 ’65. Now Director of Advancement at The Barstow School in Kansas City, Missouri, Galloway Tacha encourages diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in this independent school environment through fundraising for student scholarships and serving on the school’s DEI committee.

Regarding DEI initiatives at Lawrenceville, Galloway Tacha pointed out that the School “was established for white men by white men,” meaning that “[racism is] in its DNA.” That being said, she applauds the faculty, alumni, and students who are working to dismantle this inherent aspect of Lawrenceville’s culture and create a more inclusive atmosphere for all community members.

Bianca Okolie ’10: As the self-proclaimed “Oprah of campus,” Bianca Okolie ’10 was a social butterfly at Lawrenceville and an involved member of the community. From joining the Alliance of Black Cultures (ABC) to being a tour guide, Okolie pushed herself to “take up space,” establishing her voice and presence in various parts of student life.

After serving as president of Perry Ross, Okolie lived in Kirby House for two years and spent her V Form year in Reynolds House. Okolie recalled being part of a unique class of diverse friend groups and interracial dating during her time at Lawrenceville; however, the racial undertones in one of her forming relationships strongly impacted how she approached dating in the future.

Additionally, when she first arrived on campus, Okolie purposely toned down her Black identity to facilitate white comfort. “I feel guilty about my experience because I didn’t do enough to shift the dynamic for Black women at Lawrenceville. Instead of putting a stake on the ground, I just chose to code switch to get by,” she said.

Now as president of the Lawrenceville Black Alumni Association, Okolie dedicates herself to making Lawrenceville a “safe space for all students”—especially Black Lawrentians—by identifying areas for growth and developing new initiatives for the School. When she isn’t dedicating her time to Lawrenceville, Okolie works at J.P. Morgan as the Chief of Staff for the Wholesale Payments Middle Office Transformation Team.

Facing immense pressure early in her career to perform well, Okolie noted that “you always have to be on your best behavior when you are Black.” When interviewing for jobs, she adjusted the inflection of her voice so that she did not appear “too confident” or “aggressive.” Even now, she is very mindful of her hair, making sure that it looks “professional” enough, as she remarked, “I could get fired for having locs—in America, in 2020.” Despite these limitations, Okolie learned how to succeed in her profession, lifting up others in need of support along the way.

While she personally struggled to fully represent herself as a Black, biracial woman, Okolie was not initially aware of the true extent of racism Black students have faced at Lawrenceville.“I didn’t fully understand the range of Black experiences at Lawrenceville until I heard the stories of other students through the @BlackatLawrenceville Instagram, which pains me.”

As a final message to Black students at the School, Okolie said, “I want you to be okay with being yourself and taking up space. Do the thing that I wasn’t able to do, in a place that is the best place to do it.”

Donna Rizzo ’04: During the hours between dinner and check-in, Donna Rizzo ’04 and members of the Alliance of Black Cultures (ABC) often gathered in the McClellan Room of Irwin Dining Hall, watching 106 & Park on TV and enjoying warm cookies.

“That room stuck with me throughout my Lawrenceville experience because we all connected so much there,” Rizzo said. This tight-knit group, along with Kirby House, where Rizzo served as a prefect, became defining support systems for her as she navigated life at Lawrenceville. An involved member of the school community, Rizzo was the founder of the step dance team, a tour guide, member of the volleyball and softball teams, and secretary of ABC.

Through these commitments, Rizzo found her voice and never shied away from exercising it, especially when confronted with instances of racism. Whether it be a classmate using the N-word or a college counselor only suggesting safety schools for a Black student, Rizzo realized that displaying “unity and advocating for her Black peers” was necessary in bringing these issues to light.

After graduation, Rizzo faced a “huge culture shock” at Vanderbilt University, where she pursued communications and marketing, in addition to women and gender studies. She recalled that people often stereotyped Black students, assuming that they were athletes or admitted through Affirmative Action, and even wore confederate shirts with pride. Her experience at Vanderbilt “put America in perspective” for her, as she was exposed to a more explicit form of racism and stereotyping, which she did not encounter at Lawrenceville.

Later, Rizzo began her professional career interning at Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) before working at Madison Square Garden for eight years. As she pursued these employment opportunities, she witnessed the harsh realities of corporate America. Since there are so few Black professionals, Rizzo said, “The Black community sometimes becomes ‘crabs in a barrel’ because we’re trying to climb above for ourselves, instead of helping each other out.”

Now, she works at SiriusXM + Pandora, where she is a Senior Manager in Customer Retention Marketing. She is also involved in the African Ancestry Affinity Group at SiriusXM and helps organize cultural events, such as celebrations for Black History Month.

Reflecting on her own experiences, Rizzo encourages students to reach out to resources on campus and Lawrenceville alumni for support. “Do not go through this alone, because the last thing I want to see is another @BlackatLawrenceville page again in a few years because we haven’t done our job as a community to amplify Black voices,” she said.

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