Photo Courtesy of Tatyana Brown

Beneath the Recent Headlines: Tatyana Brown on Caring for her Community

Truman Scholar and Class of 2022, Brown’s time in college has been driven by care for Black non-men. She spoke candidly about the emotional exhaustion of unsupported DEI work at NYUAD, mutual aid, abolition and centering art in her life.

In a socially distant ceremony with speakers dramatically removing their masks once arriving at the podium, the annual Campus Life Leadership Awards was once again streamed to NYU Abu Dhabi students from the comfort of their dorm rooms.
One of the awardees of the evening was Tatyana Brown, Class of 2022, who won the Anti-Racism Advocacy and Activism award.
She expressed a complicated feeling of immense gratitude that co-exists with the fact that she and fellow organizers face constant pushback to their work from the university. “I sometimes worry about awards blurring or co-opting the realities that much of this work happens against the institution.”
The anti-racism advocacy that was recognized at Wednesday evening’s ceremony is a result of years of Brown’s dedication and a more recent reckoning on an institutional level of how racism manifests itself at NYUAD. “It’s a painful reality to accept for those who aren't particularly under the thumb of it, but it's an even more painful reality to live,” Brown expressed. “And it seems like the people who are living it are also the ones who are doing the work to change it.”
“And that's where there's a lot of disparity and pain; that's also where there's a lot of exhaustion,” she added. “That's why I'm tired. That's why a lot of other students are tired.”
Most recently, Brown’s name has been plastered over NYUAD’s social media and public affairs pages for receiving the prestigious and highly competitive Truman Scholarship, the leading graduate scholarship in the United States for students dedicated to public service. The year long process ultimately selected 62 students to receive 30,000 U.S. Dollars towards their graduate study and formation towards becoming future leaders. Brown would love to see the attention also reflect how she was never alone in these efforts; she noted how there is a list of people, from peers and other student activists, who should be uplifted as well.
But Brown wants to take a few years off before pursuing future studies. “I want to take a break from being [in] an institution … [I want to] get deep into a community and just do some solid community work for a while,” she explained.
However, during her break from academic life, Brown recognizes the importance of support. “I need to be supported so I can have the energy to try to keep moving,” she shared. “Especially because a lot of the work that I will have done during college was done without mentorship. I’m thankful to several staff and faculty who have supported me emotionally, but that's hard. I didn't realize how much of a toll that took.”
The support — both financial and in terms of mentorship — is a welcome relief to Brown. She hopes to eventually pursue a master's in Black or gender studies or social work, and maybe even a second master's to nourish her creative side, in art or writing.
The Connecting Thread was Always Community Organizing and Care
While Brown recognizes the importance of the outcomes of this scholarship, she is equally grateful for the process: a stressful, imposter-syndrome-filled year of applications, interviews and more than anything, self-reflection and interrogation on her values and goals for the future. “It was painstaking, it made me ask questions of myself that I was hoping to delay,” she chuckled, thinking back to her sophomore year self.
“It happened in a time where Black Lives Matter brought incredible clarity to me about what needs to happen to the world,” Brown added, referencing a key period of emotional strife that coincided with the application process. She saw the need for large scale transformation in society but recognized the methods through which she would continue to — and actually always has — strove for that change: community organizing.
As a high schooler in Dallas, she delivered fresh food to neighbors in need, a form of food justice and mutual aid she did not have the language to label at the time. She led youth empowerment programs through the National Hispanic Institute. She saw the power of people and always believed in it; she is just now connecting all the threads.
It ties all the way back to being raised in the American south as an African American and Afro-Latina, where Brown was conscious of herself and her race from a young age. Visiting family in Texas, Louisiana and Puerto Rico and growing up in the Black church, she was always surrounded by principles of care. “I find that there's a sense of community that's really deep, even if it's people that you don't know,” she said. “I think, naturally, I've always been attached to that.”
Photo Courtesy of Tatyana Brown
AZIZA and Beyond: Working Inside, Outside and Against the Institution
“While Brown grew up within a strong network, she and many of her peers were surprised to find a lack of that community spirit when they first arrived at NYUAD in fall 2018. She recalled forming wonderful relationships with numerous Black women across campus, often from countries and contexts new to Brown, but there was still a noticeable gap in terms of a dedicated space for Black women to gather.
The inspiration to create such a space struck after a dinner organized by Alta Mauro, former Director of the Office of Spiritual Life and Intercultural Education, where Black women — students, staff and faculty from NYUAD and Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi — gathered on the Torch Club terrace for a shared meal. “Everybody was so excited to just be in a room full of Black women, because we didn't have to pretend or perform,” Brown recalled fondly.
Alongside Waad Abrahim, Class of 2022, and under the support of SLICE, Brown co-founded AZIZA, an intentional, unifying space for Black non-men both in NYU and among the larger Abu Dhabi community. The word “aziza” translates to “beloved” in Arabic, also the title of Toni Morrison’s well known novel, and carries multiple meanings for Black communities across the world.
As opposed to many environments they encounter over a lifetime and in predominantly white institutions, AZIZA welcomes Black non-men into a space where they will be fully valued and prioritized. “Beyond the boundaries of the institution, beyond the boundaries of nationality, beyond the boundaries of class … [we] center care and not harm in the space,” Brown said.
With AZIZA largely separate from the institution, Brown has also taken on anti-racism advocacy that directly engages with the university. She, alongside a few other students, are actively working to bring a Black feminist curriculum to NYUAD.
Brown recognized that even though the university has began to hire Black women faculty — a glaring gap in the first 10 years of its existence — it does not mean that those faculty can or should be expected to teach on topics solely related to their identity. In conversation with the Social Science department at NYUAD, the Office of Global Inclusion and Black feminist scholars in New York, the students are pushing for inclusion of this curriculum within the Core. “The Black feminist politic understands class, race, gender, colonialism, ability and all of these other big factors,” Brown explained, emphasizing how Black feminist thought provides a key framework to understand intersectionality.
“[This work] was born out of this desperate plea from the school for resources,” Brown shared, highlighting the irony of a well-financed institution relying on the emotional labor of their students for their work in Inclusion, Diversity, Belonging and Equity. In resistance to change, NYUAD often falls back on the fact that it is a young institution still getting its footing and that its student body is unprecedentedly diverse.
“Our diversity is real. It's a real thing. And I'm not trying to diminish it, it's an impressive feat,” Brown stressed. “The thing is, though, it feels to me wasteful to have such a diverse body of people and not acknowledge anything beyond nation-state.”
Press releases proudly boast the over 115 countries that students hail from, an increasing number each year and, no doubt, a success in itself. However, Brown thinks that if the university began to capture data that moves beyond country of origin, the ways we conceptualize diversity will account for the more complex power dynamics at play in the world and on our small island campus. After working with Fatiah Touray, Senior Director of Inclusion and Equity, and the institutional data team to add new categories to this year’s campus survey, she is excited about a moment for the institution where these identities are at least documented.
“The nation-state as the ultimate entity of diversity completely disregards identities that existed before the nation-state, or in spite of it,” Brown explained. “It's a comfortable entity to discuss human life that does not think about the complexity of human life.”
Mutual Aid, Abolition and Rethinking Community Care
On campus environment and beyond, Brown sees the necessity of re-envisioning how communities care for one another. “I think mutual aid is the most beautiful thing,” Brown emphasized, in her calm and insightful way of speaking.
Mutual aid is a form of community organizing that does not rely on the government or other institutions. As opposed to charity, it is a symbiotic relationship where communities take on the responsibility of collective wellbeing. “You give on the premise that there's a larger crisis happening, so you give to people, no questions asked.”
The concept of mutual aid has been around for years, but proliferated in the U.S. during the Covid-19 crisis and the financial, housing and food safety instability that ensued for many.
“I think there's a level of political consciousness and a level of interpersonal care, which, when enacted enough, is enough to make a society,” Brown said. “Mutual aid is really asking for the world to be rebuilt and redesigned.”
Brown’s introduction to mutual aid came through the abolition movement, a belief system that takes a critical look at the racist origins of policing and prisons, which criminalize poverty, homelessness and mental illness. “Basically, mutual aid comes in and says, how do we create the conditions for us to not require any of this and that we don't require it now?” she explained. “How do we make the conditions for people to realize that there's so much more than punishment as a means of regulating society?”
What’s next?
Brown plans to continue her involvement in systems of mutual aid, but recently, she has also recognized the creativity in the movement. She noticed how precious art can be in both her professional work and personal life. “I want to honor that more. I think my creative side is not something I've noticed enough,” she expressed. “It's something I've always loved, and found to be a comfortable space, but not necessarily nourished.”
She has found sources of joy within her own individual endeavors; recently, she has been practicing her guitar to relax in spare moments of free time. And — the newest craft for Brown — is making pottery.
Brown also cites poetry as a transformative medium: Finna, a collection of poems by Nate Marshall, opened her world to the raw nature of poetry. “I've just been falling deeper into that as a way of feeling understood,” she shared.
Photo Courtesy of Tatyana Brown
“I think that poetry can feel trivial if your interaction with it is within classrooms that systematically erase Black poets from their syllabi,” explained Yasmeen Tajiddin, Class of 2022 and Brown’s friend who introduced her to Marshall’s work. “[Finna] is brimming with a love for Black American people and their language. I remember seeing [Marshall] discuss the collection and he said that he set out to write, 'to use the pen to invest in the Black smile'.”
Tajiddin concluded: “I think that very much describes the way Tatyana functions — always from a place of love and joy for Black people, especially non-men.”
Caroline Sullivan is Senior Features Editor. Email her at
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