Olivia Gaston ’20 Earns Princeton Prize in Race Relations

picture of olivia gaston, oak knoll seniorOak Knoll senior Olivia Gaston ’20, of Morristown, recently earned a Certificate of Achievement by the Northern New Jersey Committee of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations for her efforts to advance racial equity.

One of seven recipients in the state to earn the certificate, Ms. Gaston was chosen from a competitive pool of applicants who are all working to promote racial equity in their schools and communities.

The Princeton Prize in Race Relations was established by Princeton University in order to promote harmony, respect and understanding among people of different races by identifying and recognizing high school age students whose efforts have had a significant, positive effect on race relations in their schools or communities.

Ms. Gaston was specifically recognized for creating the mentorship program for students of color at Oak Knoll’s all-girls’ Upper School called Sister for Sister.

The program, created to allow a place to bond with people who look like each other and share the same experiences, meets once a cycle, usually once or two times a month. Members meet to discuss anything that is on their minds ranging from their favorite movies, recipes or to more serious social issues that they are faced with as a person of color.

“I wanted to create a space where the students of color at Oak Knoll can feel heard, respected and safe,” said Ms. Gaston. “Being a student of color at Oak Knoll can be difficult and isolating at times as you don’t see a lot of people that look like you,” she said.

“Sister to Sister is meant to increase bonding between people that have shared experiences due to their race/ethnicity,” said Ms. Gaston, who also serves as the president of the Oak Knoll SHADES club – the school’s Multiculturalism Association and was also co-president of the Society of Black Scholars.

Trish Perlmutter, co-chair of the Northern NJ Princeton Prize in Race Relations Committee, said that they were also impressed by Ms. Gaston’s efforts to “promote sensitive and understanding through her diversity and inclusion presentations to the broader Oak Knoll Community.”

Jennifer Wilson, Associate Director of College Counseling and Diversity Coordinator at Oak Knoll, nominated Ms. Gaston for the Princeton Prize in Race Relations. Ms. Wilson worked closely with Gaston on presentation preparations for the Oak Knoll community after Ms. Gaston attended the National Association of Independent Schools’ Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC).

Student attendees to SDLC were chosen through a rigorous application process and were expected to do a lot of work leading up to and after the conference. After attending the SDLC conference, Ms. Gaston and her cohort prepared and delivered a powerful post-conference presentation about Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and the effects of it in her own life to the Oak Knoll community.

“Being recognized by the Princeton Prize in Race Relations is an affirmation on just how truly big Olivia’s impact has been,” said Ms. Wilson. “I also hope it will mean Olivia’s peers will see the totality of what she has been doing mostly behind the scenes all these years and that her example will be an inspiration for younger students to continue the work.”

After graduation, Ms. Gaston hopes to pursue a double major of Neuroscience and Philosophy with a concentration in African Studies. She specifically aspires to study the effects of institutional racism among students specifically in school systems.

“The work I have done with Sister for Sister at Oak Knoll makes an impact to a larger community and I am working to combat racial issues bigger than just those in my small community,” said Ms. Gaston. “This recognition is so important to me because it means that my work is greater than Oak Knoll or myself.”

a picture of Oak Knoll students during the Covenant House Sleep Out