Discussions of racism, discrimination, and injustice are rarely comfortable, but the faculty, staff, and students of Florida State University know that in order to break down societal barriers that hold us back we must engage in these conversations to educate ourselves and others.
Three weeks ago, FSU took another concrete step in the University’s ongoing efforts focusing on social justice by hosting the Activism in the Academy Social Justice Symposium. This was a two-day event which hosted keynote speaker W. Kamau Bell to kick off the weekend on Friday, followed by 5 expert panel sessions on Saturday. The weekend was intended to spark conversation, encourage networking, and, most of all, inspire attendees to find and use their voice to fight injustice.
To be direct, my perspective is one of a white, female, 22-year-old college student living in Tallahassee. If you did not attend the symposium, I am here to share my experience there through my perspective. If you did attend, let this article allow you to reflect on your own experience to bring back any inspiration and take-aways you gained there.
Friday night, W. Kamau Bell delivered his sociopolitical comedy routine “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.” Taking a direct and honest but still humorous angle, there were as many laughs as there were moments of uncertain tension from the audience. Bell opened by reassuring the crowd that, “I know you all are going to change the world tomorrow, but while we must fight, we also must laugh.” With a focus on racism, Bell managed to keep the mood light but challenging while hitting serious topics like racism within science, the intertwined relationship of racism, sports and politics, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the crux, Bell made it clear that no matter who you are, racism and injustice is your responsibility. We all have a duty to use our unique voices and strengths to create a world that provides equal opportunity to every person. Using the imagery of someone who wins a race after starting on the 90-yard line, Bell described the inequalities that are “baked into the cake of America.” Perhaps a first step in deconstructing these inherent head starts is for those who are ahead to notice and acknowledge their privilege, and not feel that they somehow are more deserving or harder working than those who did not start at the same place as they did.
While FSU is an overall progressive institution, a sociopolitical comedian can not come to our University and ignore the fact that our campus culture and Seminole Indian logo is not innocent in the fight against cultural appropriation. Bell pointed out that it did not take him long to see the irony of his participation at an Activism Symposium at a University which uses a controversial Indian mascot. When it comes to issues like this, there is not a quick fix, but that does not mean that nothing should change. Bell suggested that regardless of any agreements FSU has made with the Seminole Tribe, the Seminole Indian logo is read by the public as like all others. Any relationship FSU has with the Seminole Tribe of Florida is unknown to the general public. This perpetuates constant miscommunication from our institution to everyone about who we are and what we represent.
The second day of the Symposium, Saturday, was a day of collaboration, introspection, and self-improvement. I had the opportunity to attend two of the day’s sessions including Activism in the Age of Trump and Self-Care as Political Warfare. While these sessions had drastically different emphases, they both shared a theme of fighting against the “machine” and having your voice heard. Activism in the Age of Trump was an expert panel session with five prominent men sharing a round table discussion regarding political activism. Topics ranged from protests to Twitter to allyship to political party lines. Words like fear, outrage, responsibility, and distraction were used to describe our current collective problems.
It was interesting how the professions of the experts influenced the conversation. Darryl Parks and Benjamin Crump, two prominent National Trial Lawyers, sat beside Juan Escalante, the Digital Campaigns Manager for America’s Voice, Philip Agnew, co-founder of the Dream Defenders, and Dr. Kaveh Akbar, a poet and educator at Purdue University. These various fields led the conversation from issues in the courtroom to how people organize in the age of social media, to how art and revolution go hand-in-hand. There were few stones unturned as the experts shared their personal experiences from the front lines in their fight for social justice.
During the session, attention was called to the fact that all five of the panelists were men. As a young woman in the audience, it was interesting to notice this and recognize that even in a smaller setting, it is difficult to have each and every affected voice heard on an issue. While I would have appreciated to hear the perspective of a female activist in the age of Trump, I see that it is always valuable to learn others’ perspectives when I have the opportunity to. This panel allowed me to gain exposure to the perspectives of minority, male, experienced professionals in different fields than my own. Darryl Parks and Benjamin Crump were able to shed light on what the fight for activism looks like from inside the courtroom while Juan Escalante illustrated what a life of fighting for documentation as the child of an immigrant family was like.
Self-care as Political Warfare was the second session I attended. This session was led by Dr. Laura Osteen and Kehinde Ishangi and based on the Audre Lorde quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This session centered around helping yourself before you can help others. The first half of the session consisted of mental reflection and introspection activities prompted by other Audre Lorde excerpts. Dr. Osteen says when it comes to self-care we have to find ways to invest in our humanity without investing in capitalist society. In our culture that values people primarily on their appearance and material wealth, we have to work to build and appreciate our inner worth.
The second half of the session, led by Kehinde Ishangi, focused on physical well-being. Kehinde is a professor of dance at FSU and recognizes that we must be in touch with our physical selves in order to achieve all encompassing well-being. To begin the activity, everyone in the room stood up and made a large circle around the room’s perimeter. What followed was a series of stretching and movements with the goal of checking in with ourselves and noticing how we felt physically and emotionally in the space. At the end, everyone in the room held hands with one another. We swung our linked arms back and forth in sync, creating a pulse in the room that created a powerful visual and emotional sensation. Both Osteen and Ishangi reminded us throughout the activities that while these were individual acts of self-care, they always relate back to how we fit into the whole.
My biggest takeaways from the weekend are that social injustice is everyone’s problem and everyone’s responsibility, allyship is not enough to end racism and discrimination- you must take concrete steps, and that it is crucial to care for yourself so that you can do your most effective work in the fight for change.
The Activism in the Academy Social Justice Symposium was an important event for FSU and our community. Regardless of how many people attended or what they gained from it, simply having an event like this one opens the floor for future communication about racism, political issues, activism, and privilege. It is clear that FSU is serious about creating change, social justice, and continuing to grow and improve in everything we do.
– Alison Amann