Lawrence University’s student body is characterized by a passion for activism and standing up for one another. One such example of this attitude can be seen in alumna Brienne Colston ’15. Colston describes herself as a “fat, black, poor, queer femme” and explains how experiences relating to this identity during her time at Lawrence lead to her current position as founder and director of Brown Girl Recovery LLC and community activist in the Bronx, NY.
Having received the Posse Foundation scholarship, a full-tuition, four-year scholarship offered to high school seniors who were community leaders, Colston came to Lawrence and graduated as a gender studies major. Colston had several factors which drove her interest in gender studies.
“Because I was super involved in a young women’s leadership program that infused identity with social justice programming, I was naturally interested in learning about gender and sexuality. I had also recently come out as queer to my mom in the first term of my freshman year and was seriously seeking other LBGTQIA community members. Being supported by Helen Boyd Kramer was integral to my early years as an out, queer, black femme,” Colston noted.
While Lawrence offered many opportunities for Colston to explore her identity and her passion for social justice, Colston also encountered negative experiences on and off campus due to her identity.
“Though I recognize that my identities have worked intersectionally in order to shape my time at Lawrence, I felt most isolated and targeted for being a black person in a very white space. During my freshman year, I experienced very blatant racism in the city of Appleton as well as on campus. From having to protest an anti-black fraternity party to being spat on while walking to Walgreens, I, along with my black friends and sorority members, were reminded that our blackness was juxtaposed with inferiority every day,” said Colston.
A driven activist already, Colston fought against discrimination and for her community as founder and president of All Is One (AIO): Empowering Young Women of Color, chapter president of the Beta Psi Nu sorority, chair of the Committee on Diversity Affairs (CODA), student representative of the President’s Committee on Diversity Affairs (PCDA), CORE leader and treasurer of the Black Student Union, as well as a board member on the Fox Cities Celebrate Diversity Board.
Colston said it was “because of the large amount of pain I experienced in such a short period of time that I was able to find my love and passion for social justice organizing.”
Colston’s experiences with these organizations lead to the foundation of the LLC Colston currently directs, Brown Girl Recovery (BGR), in 2014 during her senior year.
Colston said that its original mission as an on-campus group was “to be a peer-to-peer counseling collective for women of color at Lawrence in light of a beloved counselor of color – the only counselor of color – no longer working at Lawrence.”
After graduating in 2015, Colston worked as a youth program coordinator at the Sadie Nash Leadership Project and as the Director of Youth Programming at the Governors Committee for Scholastic Achievement. In 2017, however, Colston re-visited Brown Girl Recovery. “After deciding to register BGR as an official LLC…I took a step back from youth work and into a higher-level position as a school programs coordinator with the Dreamyard Project in the Bronx. I now both executively direct BGR and our team of over 20 folks, as well as coordinate with Dreamyard,” Colston said.
Brown Girl Recovery’s new mission as it relocated to the Bronx was to provide healing and support services to femmes and women of color ages 18-35 in uptown New York City areas.
Colston went on to explain that the Bronx houses the poorest congressional district in the United States, the 15th Congressional District, where median household income was under $40,000 in 2018. “Bronx residents, particularly women and mothers of color, struggle to find resources in the community to fit basic family needs,” Colston stated.
After conducting interviews throughout the community, she and other youth workers tried to understand what was causing these problems. “Understanding why meant breaking down issues like gentrification and seeing how unwanted evictions due to rising rent were displacing families and taking youth out of school. The reentry process for youth returning to school proved to be difficult, often filled with visits by social workers. This trend has continued in places like Washington Heights, Harlem and the South Bronx, where developers are taking over beloved community spaces and transforming these neighborhoods. These are only a small piece of a larger system that continues to fail black and brown people collectively, and systematically discriminate against black and brown femmes and women,” said Colston.
Seeing the struggles of communities oppressed by the continued presence of systemic racism, Colston concluded that “BGR aims to create avenues of support…through innovative and social justice-based programming, workshops and events. We envision a strategic and united network of black and brown women committed to creating community, love and healing in their local neighborhoods. We envision the Bronx and northern Manhattan as sites of intentional love and healing for its community members.”