Shaniah Ritzie ‘21 is a biology major, activist, and president of HNU’s Black Student Union. She is working to help Holy Names’ students embrace their story and their power.
Ritzie grew up in New York State, but her family moved so frequently that she doesn’t feel like she’s “from” any particular town. She was raised by a single mother who spoke openly about racism, history, and politics. She worked by day as an accountant, but moonlit as a writer and poet. James Baldwin was mandatory reading in the house.
“I’m Afro-Caribbean, Latino, Native American, Black, German, and the list goes on,” Ritzie explains. “I was always pushed by my Mom to be conscious of my history. There’s an African word that encapsulates this: Ubuntu, or ‘I am because we are.’ It is important to tap into your roots.”
In contrast to what Ritzie was reading at home, she found that school textbooks didn’t separate Black history from slavery. Most of the grade schools Ritzie attended were primarily white. She didn’t just look different from other students; she was also culturally different—she ate different food and listened to different music. She stood out. In the classroom, she was frequently asked by teachers and peers to speak for Black people about the Black experience.
“There’s a trauma that comes from being seen as a token. Having to prove yourself more. If I scored highly on a test people questioned it,” recalls Ritzie.
A good student, Ritzie frequently scored highly on tests. After elementary school, she won a full scholarship to the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany, New York. And while she only went there for two years, it left a lasting impression. The Sisters embodied such strong values that they brought a deep humanity and humility into the classroom. She remembers being noticed and comforted by the Sisters regularly.
When it was time to start applying for college, a university in Oakland with “Holy Names” in the title stood out. Ritzie was accepted into every college she applied to, but her history with the Holy Names Sisters, the promise of a diverse student body, and a substantial scholarship award made HNU her first and final choice. She started at HNU in 2017.
Ritzie’s student activism came as a surprise to her. She wasn’t expecting to focus on anything other than her studies at college. But as a firstyear student she was shocked to discover that the University’s core curriculum was focused on Eurocentric texts. She joined with fellow student Monica Garcia ‘20 and started a movement to Decolonize ISAAC (HNU’s foundational classes).
“When you are at a diverse school and the students don’t look like any of the heroes in the course materials, you are doing them a disservice,” says Ritzie. “I’m not trying to erase prejudice. But there’s a history that needs to be discussed, and if not in academia then where?”
The Decolonize ISAAC movement gained traction and wide support across the campus. HNU’s new Academic Strategic Plan is, in part, a direct response to Ritzie’s activism.
“Being [at HNU], amongst the values of the SNJM Sisters, you’re forced to expand your outlook on the world. The Sisters have it figured out: Believe in others and the importance of community,” she explains.
After Ritzie graduates in May, 2021, she hopes to leave students with one primary message, “Your lived experience is enough. Our stories are enough.”
This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of HNU Today