By Abby Weingarten
Peace Corps volunteer Donovan Brown ’13 stood on the coast of Sierra Leone in West Africa last year, watching the sunset and reflecting on his family’s lineage. It was an awakening moment for the New College alum and activist, who has spent years advocating for black rights and systemic justice.
“I can’t even put into words how I felt as a black American looking out at the sunset across the Atlantic that day,” Brown said. “It was transformative.”
When Brown returned home after the experience, he was further moved to serve the black population in his hometown, which he continues to do as a community organizer in Jacksonville. And he has written a poem that encapsulates his feelings about being black in the United States—a timely message as the country engages in mid-pandemic protests about civil rights:
To be Black in America is to live
with the uncertainty of death. It is an inviolable
truth that is known to every black child before
they are born.
You may die
before your birth.
You may die within
your house. You may die outside your house.
You may die drinking water.
You may die
from the food you eat.
You may die walking, jogging, or running.
You may die playing.
You may die at worship.
You may die at work, because of work,
due to work.
You may die in a cage.
You may die voiceless,
unseen and alone.
And your death, my death, and the death of those whom come before and after us will be another
ritualistic killing placed at the altar of American Greatness.
This uncertainty of death is as real to a Black Person in America as the very air that gives us life to
And it is that, continuing that makes us so despised, so
hated but We persist, we create art and song and story.
Our culture is one of life and joy, an indomitable spirit that will never succumb.
So we are hated more because those who wish to make us chattel and have failed incessantly can do
nothing more than look upon us with awe. What rage you must feel as the only thing you cannot tame,
beguile, or destroy, is the very thing that continues to influence your very actions. As your children fawn
to become the very thing you wish to rid the world of.
How your culture becomes less reminiscent of what you so painstakingly killed and deceived for, how
shrinks with every passing generation.
I would pity you but I may die doing so.
Brown shared this piece in a June 6 WSLR radio interview conducted by Daje Austrie ’15, a fellow New College alum. Brown talked about the spectrum of emotions he has felt and struggles he has endured as a black man, both at home and abroad.
He has seen racist behavior everywhere—from America to Africa—but, from those experiences, Brown has also seen opportunity. He has taken it upon himself to be a facilitator for open dialogue, and he works toward creating a more diverse, inclusive culture wherever he goes. Even his email signature states, “Without understanding, there can be no peace.”
Cultivating understanding was one of Brown’s aims as a student before he graduated from New College in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in humanities.
“I chose New College because my high school counselor told me I wasn’t smart enough to get into New College, so I just wanted to prove her wrong,” Brown said. “When I got there, I tried to put on events to bring people together, especially people of color.”
Brown was a co-founder (along with Nasib McIntosh ’12) of the Black History Month (BHM) committee in 2015. He was also the College’s chaplain liaison, organizing campus events for discussing beliefs and ideologies, and holding meetings with students to strategize ways of increasing inclusivity on campus.
“Black History Month brought forth more organized cultural events that spanned the entire month. We did things like BHM for ourselves and now they’re growing larger, but I’m glad we really helped to start that change,” Brown said. “After that, there was an expansion of people doing different events, and I was very happy to see people repping their culture and their heritage.”
Post-New College, from 2017 to 2019, Brown was sent to Baoma Station in Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps. There, he taught 400 middle and high school students English as a second language, and spearheaded sustained dialogue facilitations as the chairperson of the diversity committee.
“In the Peace Corps, we ran into some of the same problems we face throughout the world, like blatant racism and disregard for human decency. Even the volunteer training was very much catered to white Americans,” Brown said. “It’s a very privileged thing to be an American and have a blue passport that says U.S. on it. When you go to the Peace Corps, you need to be aware that you are different. On top of that, to be a white American is even more of a power dynamic that is abused easily. There’s a certain awareness we all need to take, and that’s what I talked about with volunteers there.”
Brown learned that bias exists everywhere, and breaking it down is essential to progress.
“I learned that blackness is not a monolith; there’s no one cookie-cutter idea of being black. But black oppression very much is a monolith,” Brown said. “And that is worldwide because western capitalism is something that binds us all as a global economy.”
Now Brown is tackling this issue as the associate organizer for the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment (ICARE) in Jacksonville. He has built relationships with members from 38 diverse area congregations in order to help hold public officials accountable. He has coordinated events with hundreds of volunteers from varied racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. And he is working on an initiative in Duval County that is centered around law enforcement officers and how they respond to people experiencing mental health crises.
After his term with ICARE ends on July 31, Brown plans to prepare for law school and focus on entrepreneurship ventures. He is inspired by the current Black Lives Matter movements gaining ground countrywide, and is continuing to write, engage and bring people together (as he always has).
“I’m very proud to see the protests and civil unrest because it’s what our country was founded on. We need to start coming together and having conversations and putting the biases and the prejudices on the table,” Brown said. “And we need public policy, because it requires structural work and overall behavioral changes for anything to truly change.”
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.