“I had certain conceptions of my identity before I came to Yale,” said Ashtan Towles ’19 in a recent Netflix video. “And I was bound for a huge growth experience.”
In the video, which is part of a series titled “Taking Up Space” on Netflix’s “Strong Black Lead” Facebook channel,” Towles describes her experience as a black woman at Yale, discussing topics such as the racially charged campusnprotests in 2015 and the supportive community she finds at the Afro-American Cultural Center. Since the video was posted last month, it has received about 2 million views and thousands of shares.
“The series is important because it demonstrates that instances of racism happen everywhere, including Ivy League schools,” Towles said. “It humanizes the people of color on campus who have experienced issues of discrimination that people see in the media surrounding racism at Ivy League institutions.”
Through a friend’s colleagues, Towles connected with the crew and director at Cycle Media — the company that Netflix hired to create the video for “Strong Black Lead” — to discuss plans for the project. The team aimed to produce a video series that would mirror “Dear White People,” a popular Netflix series that focuses on the experiences of black students at a predominantly white Ivy League college.
Towles said she believes the video series is significant because it will encourage prospective students of color to apply to Yale and envision themselves on campus. She added that the series “demonstrates that progress comes as a result of people coming together and demanding the change they seek.”
“Regardless of instances of biases that I have seen and experienced, I can still succeed at a place like Yale,” Towles said.
She described the experience of creating the video as “overwhelming,” due to the influx of feedback, both negative and positive. Towles said that, though she has encountered criticism from strangers on social media, “the amount of positive feedback that [she has] received outweighs the negative.”
Towles said that she has received messages from incoming black first-year students at Yale who found the video inspiring.
Towles acknowledges that she does not speak for all black women, but she said it has been “humbling to witness the positive impacts of representation for black people.”
John McKissack ’20, who shared Towles’ video on Facebook, said she “has been a leader in the African American community and a rock” for him during his time at Yale. McKissack added that he was excited that Towles had received recognition for her work on the video.
As Towles described in the video, a crucial part of her experience at Yale is singing in Shades, a coed a cappella group that celebrates music from the African diaspora and the African-American tradition.
Shades member Cami Arboles ’20 explained that the singing group is “more than just an a cappella group; it’s a family, and it’s a mission, and it’s a space to celebrate and share the music that we love.”
Once Towles shared her plans for the video, Arboles said, the pair began discussing ways to feature Shades. Arboles added that she was “thrilled that [Towles] got to share her story in such an impactful way.”
The series “Taking Up Space” has since released a second installment, featuring Robert Rush, a 2018 graduate of Harvard.
Julia Carabatsos | firstname.lastname@example.org