'Orange Is the New Black' star encourages students

Students listen to speeches at the Schools United for Respect and Equality summit.
Students listen to speeches at the Schools United for Respect and Equality summit. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 22, 2014

GLASSBORO As a high school student, Madeline Brewer was a bit of an outsider, shy and subject to criticism over her hopes of going into acting.

As an actress known for her role as the cornrowed, tattooed, and drug-addicted Tricia on Orange Is the New Black, Brewer finds many of those insecurities remain despite her success.

"Everybody struggles with things, and although you can think someone is the most put-together person, everybody struggles. There's always something to overcome," Brewer said, noting the entertainment industry can be "very unforgiving to women. Everybody wants the coveted thigh gap, whatever that means, and the flawless skin. It causes some serious self-doubt."

Brewer, 22, Miss Pitman 2010 and a former member of the Gloucester County Children's Choir, returned home to speak at the second annual Schools United for Respect and Equality Summit, held at Rowan University.

The SURE program, put on by the county in conjunction with the Prosecutor's Office, brought together about 350 students from local high schools for workshops, presentations, and performances on the themes of human rights, antibullying, self-esteem, and peer support.

Brewer's longtime friend and former fellow choirmember Kaylin Young, 16, invited her to the summit. The two have known each other since elementary school singing in the choir, Brewer as a soprano, Young an alto.

"I thought of her immediately because she grew up in a small town but she had big dreams," said Young, who aspires to be a fashion designer.

Gloucester County Freeholder Adam Taliaferro, 32, spoke to students about his experience as a Pennsylvania State University football player whose career was ended by a spinal injury he suffered tackling an opponent in his freshman year.

Taliaferro was paralyzed from the neck down, but in seven months, he learned how to walk and went on to graduate from Penn State and the Rutgers School of Law and eventually became a freeholder.

"I spent a month crying every night, but it came to a point where I said, 'I can't change what happened to me; all I can do is change my future,' " Taliaferro said. "And I started by trying to move one finger."

After the speeches, students broke into group workshops. Topics ranged from recognizing signs of human trafficking to dating violence and mental-health awareness and suicide.

Clearview High School's social drama class presented stories and poetry about personal struggles, each member wearing a black T-shirt with an adjective written across the chest.

Alex Ross, 17, of Mullica Hill, wore a shirt that said unappreciated, and dedicated his words to "anyone who's ever felt they weren't beautiful."

"The sun rises and sets every day without ever knowing the true light it brings to the world, and falling stars exist for a moment, bringing such magnificence into the universe and then vanishing away," he read.

Raniah Kea-Beatty, 15, presented a poem based on her experiences with bullying. "It tells the story of my life and being the lonely girl in the hallway," she said. The poems, often very emotional, dealt with death, suicide, and abuse and aimed to connect students from different backgrounds and high schools.

Brewer, who graduated from Pitman High about four years ago, appearing nervous at times, encouraged students to meet different people and leave their comfort zones. Her path took her to New York for school and her role in Orange and then on to Toronto, where she just completed filming the second season of another Netflix series, Hemlock Grove.

Her mother, Laurie, who attended the event, said Brewer's journey hadn't been without challenges. Her first night of filming Orange, Brewer was robbed at knifepoint while walking home to her apartment in Queens.

"She's in her Tricia braids, with her neck tattoo, as badass-looking as she's ever been in her life, and she gets mugged," Laurie Brewer said. "She was really afraid after that, but, you know, she got back on the horse. She had a job to do. And she took more cabs."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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