Xavier University of Louisiana students win national prize for project countering antisemitism

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Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans is seen in this undated photo. Four Xavier University of Louisiana students won first place in a Department of Homeland Security violence prevention competition, with a project that bridges the gap in relations between Black and Jewish communities. (OSV News photo/courtesy Xavier University of Louisiana)

(OSV News) — Students at a Catholic university in New Orleans have won a national prize for working to end antisemitism — and their project has opened new windows for dialogue between Black and Jewish communities.

Four members of the honors program at Xavier University of Louisiana, the nation’s only historically Black Catholic university, took first place in the Department of Homeland Security’s Invent2Prevent competition. The contest invites participants from U.S. high schools and colleges to develop innovative strategies for preventing targeted violence and terrorism in their local communities.

The Xavier team — juniors Jamaya Davis and Anthony Jeanmarie IV and sophomores Aarinii Parms-Green and Nehemiah Strawberry — topped the 22 other entries in the university division with their project titled “Still We R.O.S.E.

According to DHS, the Xavier team’s winning project will help educate students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HBCUs, on how to prevent the spread of antisemitic rhetoric within African American communities.

Launched this spring, Still We R.O.S.E. is “a community-wide effort to educate people in our New Orleans community on the Black and Jewish history” that has occurred both locally and nationally, according to the project’s website.

Davis told OSV News she and her teammates created Still We R.O.S.E. in response to an ongoing series of very public antisemitic remarks made in October 2022 by rapper and fashion designer Ye (formerly Kanye West).

Project moderator Shearon Roberts, director of Xavier’s Exponential Honors Program and associate professor of mass communications, added the “loudness of the Kanye conversation” brought students face to face with the issue of antisemitism, which has risen sharply in recent years.

“This was a Black celebrity to whose music our community had gravitated, but he was now making these (antisemitic) comments,” said Davis. “We had to address the reality that famous people may not always have the right information, and it’s very easy to spread misinformation. Kanye didn’t speak for everyone, and we (as young Black adults) are more than capable of speaking for ourselves as a community.”

The antisemitic comments of other Black celebrities — such as TV presenter Nick Cannon and NBA player Kyrie Irving — also provided impetus for the project, she said.

Cannon’s subsequent public apology and his description of the experience as a growth moment helped to affirm the team’s efforts, said Davis.

The students began meeting with leaders in the local Jewish community, among them Aaron Bloch, director of Jewish multicultural and governmental affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said Roberts, noting that Bloch had already been striving to foster increased Black-Jewish conversations.

The title of Still We R.O.S.E, invoking a key mantra of the U.S. civil rights movement, recalls the legacy of Black-Jewish cooperation during that era, Roberts said.

Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League were active advocates of the cause, and the largest mass arrest of rabbis took place in 1964 during a Florida protest against segregation.

At the heart of the students’ project is a series of “Did You Know?” social media videos featuring the popular “tiny mic” interview format, with the project team informally quizzing fellow students about their familiarity with key Black-Jewish encounters.

In one video, the Xavier team asks classmates if they can name at which HBCU Albert Einstein guest lectured (Lincoln University in Pennsylvania); in another, jazz legend Louis Armstrong’s early career support by a Jewish family is highlighted.

The format, along with the videos’ relaxed, conversational style, was the perfect fit for broaching “a topic that was sensitive and new to us,” said Davis.

“We recognized that our generation, Gen Z, and the world as a whole are on social media,” she said. “We wanted to make sure our message was getting across on various platforms to hit both our generation and as many on the peripheries as possible.”

The “cute, quirky and quick-witted” tone of the clips makes a difficult and divisive topic “palatable and digestible” as well as informative, she said.

Through their project-related research and interactions, the students have also come to appreciate the “spectrums” and nuances in Jewish faith and identity — dimensions that dispel stereotypes, said Roberts.

The students hope that Still We R.O.S.E. will have a lasting impact, said Davis, who, along with her teammates, has just returned from a post-project trip to Israel made possible by a generous donor.

“We love what we’re doing and what we’re hoping to do,” she said. “We want to break bread and break down barriers — put ourselves out there and reach across the aisle with open hearts and minds.”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.