AU Excellence: Student Government President Devontae Torriente

BY: DEVONTAE TORRIENTE

In the weeks since our launch, I have learned a lot about what it means to be a person of color in a position of power. You have to make the tough decisions, with everyone anticipating what you’ll do next. We are fortunate to have many student leaders who are people of color at American. We at The Blackprint wanted to reach out to them all. What better way to start our series of profiles than with our Student Government President Devontae Torriente? 

We reached out to Torriente with very low expectations – he’s a busy guy who definitely wouldn’t have time for a small publication like us. You can imagine my surprise when he agreed to chat with us.  The Blackprint sat down with the head of SG to talk about microaggressions, rape culture, and who would show up at the dinner party of his dreams. 

TD: Tell me about your freshmen experience at AU. What were your expectations like versus reality? 

DT: When I first got to AU, I was very excited to be here. The way I perceived it, it was very diverse and accepting and all that. When I got to AU, my first semester was fine, relatively speaking. Taking classes and adjusting. It wasn’t really until the end of my first semester and beginning of my second semester when a lot of issues of racism and identity came up. It was a bit of an eye opener for me. I was like, “Woah, I’m in college on my own.”  I got very involved with activism at the beginning of my first year. That helped define my experience. 

TD: Trigger warnings are a big topic across college campuses, particularly AU. Can you elaborate on the goals of AUSG’s Let Us Learn campaign? 

DT: The conversation on trigger warnings, at least from an academic perspective, has largely been about academic freedom, which I do think is important. Within that conversation, we often forget to center student trauma. The students that enter these academic spaces bring their own experiences, ones they’re still healing from. To make these spaces accessible to them, when we discuss potentially stressful situations, students should be able to prepare themselves to engage in these topics. We need to be facilitating student dialogue in these spaces. Academic freedom includes making sure that students can participate in the exchange of ideas in the classroom, which isn’t able to happen when students don’t mentally prepare themselves for these topics that they’ve been affected by. It ultimately comes down to students and faculty being on a different page about trigger warnings. I’m trying my best to bridge that gap and see where that takes us. 

TD: Switching gears – you wrote an open letter to men and boys everywhere for The Huffington Post. What made you decide to share your voice like that and how was it received?

DT: At the time, there was a lot of talk about the Brock Turner situation. I saw a lot of people talking about what he did and how it should’ve been handled. For me, ultimately what it came down to was insuring that we don’t facilitate that type of behavior from the bottom up. I think a lot of men are raised in a way that’s very toxic and feel like they’re entitled to women and other people’s bodies, which was the central theme to the piece I wrote. Toxic masculinity should be eradicated at its core. I understand that there are a lot of men who don’t see rape culture as a thing. And it’s using this platform you have, the male privilege that I have, to communicate these messages to other men out there. It’s about meeting people where they’re at, showing them why these things are wrong and why they need to be eradicated. 

TD: Obviously you’re a student first, so can you tell me about an experience in the classroom fueled by either inherent or explicit racism here at AU?

DT: I’m a Justice and Law major, so we talk about systems, why people are arrested and why people commit crimes. I’ve been in classrooms where there were comments made that were laced with a lot of implicit racism, and I don’t think people understood that. A professor would say the N-word in class because they thought it was a teaching moment – yes, but it’s a word that’s not yours. We’ll talk about immigration, and they’ll use a lot of derogatory terms about people who migrate from their country to this one. I try to keep in mind there’s a lot of people who don’t understand why people take issue with those things. I try to use those moments as teaching moments rather than saying, “You’re racist,” and so on. Not to say that when people do that it’s an invalid response, but it’s just not how I choose to operate. It’s very important that you realize you have to meet people where they’re at.  It’s really important to seize those moments in the classroom. To show how things are nuanced, how they intersect, and how they relate. 

TD: Now I have some fun questions for you – ones I ask everyone we talk to. Who’s the wokest person you know?

DT: I would say my grandma. Especially before coming to college, I had a lot of conversations with her about race, about systems of oppression – specifically about Obama and how he’s been perceived by a lot of people. At the time that didn’t really resonate with me, but now that I reflect on that, I’m like wow. She told me this before anyone else did...she’s taught me a lot. 

TD: Classic question, but still one of my faves. If you could invite anyone to a dinner, dead or alive, who would make the guest list? 

DT: Shonda Rhimes. I love Shonda Rhimes. She’s written a lot of tv shows where she tackles a lot of social issues. I really want to dive into why and how’s she’s been able to do that so successfully, and also how she would continue to improve those tv shows to convey those messages. I think she’s a really pivotal figure right now in pop culture. Hmm, who else would I invite? I would also invite Abraham Lincoln...that’s really an AU-ish kind of answer. I really would like to have a conversation about the Emancipation Proclamation, especially since he didn’t exactly favor full social and political equality for blacks...Ooh, Whitney Houston...I just love her. And I would say, Laverne Cox. She brings a perspective to the table that isn’t traditionally represented, especially about intersectionality and how it relates to race and trans women. The conversation around equality has often excluded trans people of color who have a significant stake in many of our social movements. Also I want to know how she continues to slay on a daily basis. 

TD: And now, I just have one more question. What do you want your legacy to be?

DT: At the core of everything I do, I want people to know that I care genuinely about people and about their experiences. A lot of the time, that’s lost in the work that people do. You forget you’re dealing with people. People have feelings, thoughts, emotions, and experience different things. And so fundamentally at the core of everything you do, you have to care about that. Everything I do I do out of love, consideration and I do it intentionally and thoughtfully. 

Photo by Emily Hall.