Founders director Jeremy Ward is revamping the University’s annual celebration
Founders Week to focus on individual and AU-wide community building
During his three years in American University’s Student Government, Jeremy Ward has been immersed in the behind-the-scenes work of the Founders Week celebration.
After his role as speaker of the Undergraduate Senate last year, Ward, now a senior in the School of Public Affairs, is now taking on Founders Week and has some big changes in the works.
Ward is the first Black student to hold the role of director. With this responsibility, he said he finds himself balancing both his identity and the controversial history of the Founders Week celebration.
“We look at things and go ‘is there a way for us to not necessarily go too far, but also not betray our identity at the same time?’ And I think with Founders, that was a hard line for me, because they're in conflict because you can't not just fully address the slave part,” Ward said.
Addressing the past, moving toward the future
In recent years, the Founders Week celebration has come under scrutiny for celebrating AU’s founder John Fletcher Hurst, who inherited one or two enslaved people from his father.
Ward’s goal for Founders Week is “to change everything else about how we view [Founders Week],” without changing the name.
Ward says Founders Week will fully address Hurst’s slave-owning past, and also wants to move past Founders centering on just the sole founder of AU. This year’s celebration instead will focus more on the people that have made AU what it is today.
“I think the intentionality of just going ahead and just calling out the elephant in the room on the slavery part is very important, especially to our Black students on campus,” Ward said.
With a historical exhibit in the library being put on by the Founders Week team and the University archivist on Feb. 21, Ward said he hopes students can understand the University’s “mixed bag” history.
In addition to addressing the University’s history, Ward also plans for Founders Week to have a unifying theme throughout events and programming, something he said that has been lacking in recent years.
Ward hopes to ensure programming for the week is intentional. The Founders Day Ball, a quintessential event that typically takes place at the end of the week, doesn’t build community, Ward said.
Although Ward did plan for a ball, it was not able to happen due to the University’s COVID-19 safety policies, he said the absence of a ball allows for people to reflect on what the event actually meant for the student body.
“No one knew more about the University when they left [Founders Day ball], and when they walked in no one had more of a sense of school pride than when they left either,” Ward said.
Without the ball, the Founders Week budget has decreased. In 2019, when the ball was held at the National Air and Space Museum, The Eagle reported the total cost to be around $140,000 with an original allocation of $125,000. This year, the allocated budget is just over $106,000.
In addition to fostering a greater sense of connection across the University as a whole, Ward is also making it a priority to include more individual communities on campus with Founders programming.
Affinity groups and different clubs have the opportunity to host events with the Founders team, such as an event hosted by the Black Student Union and Caribbean Circle called Taste of the Tropics, which centers around food from various Caribbean cultures.
Ward said clubs do not have to pay for these events from their own budgets, with funds coming solely from the Founders budget instead. He recognizes that smaller clubs, usually affinity groups, have a hard time getting money from the AU Club Council.
“I think Founders should play a big role in community because clubs are the closest to those communities. And what I'm trying to do is bring them all together because we all make up an AU community,” Ward said.
In trying to have the programming of the week reflect AU’s history, Ward is particularly looking to serve Black students on campus. He said he hopes the keynote speaker, Pulitzer-winning journalist and founder of The 1619 Project Nikole Hannah-Jones, will help paint a bigger picture of the University’s troubled past and how that affects students today.
The event will take place on Feb. 25 at 6 p.m. in the Doyle Theater in the McKinley Building. There are 130 seats available to AU students, who can sign-up through Engage.
“I don't know a better person who, I feel, could reconcile the educational and historical context of race in America,” Ward said.
Moving forward, Ward hopes the changes he has made to Founders will continue in the coming years. To ensure that, he is urging the Undergraduate Senate to pass a Founders policy book after the 2022 celebration, which will “institutionalize the restructuring” he has done.
“Overall, it’s [about] the AU community,” Ward said. “Under that, it's recognizing … our individual diversity, while also recognizing and appreciating our collective strength.”