For Tyler Cook ’21, growing up in West Philadelphia meant constant exposure to the realities of discrimination and structural violence.
“I was forced to learn at any early age the way that people like myself have to navigate through different types of oppression,” Cook explained.
These experiences meant that Cook was always learning and absorbing information about activist movements like the Black Lives Matter and Black Power movements. When he arrived at Lafayette, he was able to take this knowledge and apply it to engagement with activist causes.
During his junior year, Cook became president of the Association of Black Collegians (ABC). According to their mission statement, ABC aims to “further the development of a community that is interested in the development, advancement and culture of Black people as well as their experiences,” and to create “an atmosphere which promotes the cultural, intellectual, and social growth of the Black community at Lafayette.”
“After a few years being on campus, I really felt empowered to actually be a part of creating change and building this community within the Black community,” Cook said.
As president, Cook was tasked with getting a struggling organization off the ground.
“When I came in as president, the organization needed a lot of work,” Cook explained. “It really wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was just that throughout the years, the organization didn’t have the resources and funding it needed.”
With the budget already set by the previous board, Cook focused his efforts on publicizing the legacy of ABC and attempting to give the organization a prominent presence on campus.
Cook said he is proud of many things accomplished by ABC during his time as president, but one moment in particular sticks out as his greatest achievement: winning Lafayette’s “Program of the Year” Award for presenting their trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.. This award recognizes a student organization or group of students who planned and implemented a program that positively impacted the campus culture.
Another of Cook’s favorite moments comes from their Hollywood formal last school year, during which ABC invited students from schools across the Lehigh Valley to participate.
“It was a ball. We had fashion shows, different Greek life organizations came and so many members of the community showed up and just had a really good time,” Cook said. “It was hands down my favorite moment.”
After stepping down from his role as president of ABC after his junior year, Cook was looking forward to a relaxed senior year. However, when faced with a pandemic that disproportionately affected people of color, an influx of police killings of Black citizens and a looming presidential election, Cook knew it was time to step into a new leadership role with Dear Lafayette College.
Dear Lafayette is a student organization founded in July 2020 with the mission of changing the environment for Black students on campus. These efforts were spearheaded by Savanna Touré ‘21. The organization has released a list of demands to faculty and administration ranging from the hiring of diverse faculty to a change in policing on campus.
“It was no longer an option for me to not do anything,” Cook explained. “So when Savanna reached out to me, I didn’t hesitate at all to jump on board with it, and we’ve seen it grow from there.”
Cook serves as one of Dear Lafayette’s many guides and works on the Logistics and Event Planning Committee.
“Whatever we organize, I’m involved in making sure everything is logistically set in place,” Cook said.
Recently, Cook worked on organizing a protest of the Berks County Immigrant Detention Center. The center recently came under fire for incarcerating immigrant children for long periods of time, which activists say violates federal law under the Flores Agreement. Dear Lafayette was joined in their protesting efforts by Pards Against Sexual Assault, as accusations of sexual and physical violence have also been leveled against staff at the detention center, according to reports in the Morning Call.
Cook sees many similarities between the work of ABC and Dear Lafayette, but he also believes ABC faces some barriers that Dear Lafayette is able to overcome by nature of not being affiliated with the college.
This separation from the college has given Dear Lafayette access to different resources and allowed for different techniques than the ones used by Lafayette organizations.
“We’ve seen the advantages of creating a Black-led coalition, and one that doesn’t have to deal with codes and organizational guidelines,” Cook said. “We didn’t really want to stir up trouble or anything like that, but we really wanted to be able to have the capacity to raise awareness and work towards transparency on campus.”
Cook’s time at Lafayette has provided him with the language to express his experiences more clearly than ever before.
“I now have the type of education where I’m aware of the challenges that I had to go through being black and queer, and I’m able to explain it more in terms of what my identity means and how to navigate that in the larger context of society,” he explained.
Cook hopes that, in the future, Dear Lafayette can continue to build a transparent and supportive community for all students.
“We want to support Black and brown students, but we also want to pay attention to the ways that we can spread this discourse, and we want to build a community for all members of Lafayette College,” he said.
Additionally, Cook said he hopes Dear Lafayette and ABC can take a more hands-on approach to helping the community through volunteer work. He encouraged students looking to get involved in activist causes on campus to speak up and avoid sitting on the sidelines.
“I think I spent my freshman and sophomore year just being someone that was observing, and paying attention to what was going on around me, and I think I wasted so much time staying silent,” he said.
Overall, however, Cook said he is grateful for the activist community at Lafayette.
“I’ve been surrounded by a bunch of amazing students that are passionate and that are skilled and experienced in so many different things. It’s such an amazing and fulfilling feeling to be around people that feel good, and enjoy what they’re doing, even when they don’t get any profit from it,” he said.
After graduation, Cook plans to take a year off from school and work at a youth juvenile detention center. He then plans to pursue a Ph.D. in African studies, and hopes to study at the University of Miami or Rutgers University.