2016 Edward E. Carlson Student Leadership Award Speech

Power to the People

We are on stolen Coastal Salish tribal lands and that needs to be acknowledged prior to proceeding.

Receiving the Edward E. Carlson Student Leadership Award reveals to me more than meets the eye. It is not merely the case that I as an individual am being recognized here today. Rather, the values that I hold dear and the issues I have been working on with some of the most amazing and brilliant people are also being recognized as valid and recognition worthy. It tells me that not only students, who are also people of color or other people with marginalized identities believe it is time for the University of Washington to live up to and to honor its mission and values; it reveals that we have the broad support and backing of the community who also want to see equitable changes to the institution. This is precisely what I believe is necessary to achieve not only positive change, but beneficial change for us all.
As a historian and as a radical educator, as well as, a Black Lives Matter activist, it is my firm belief that we should not always accept the history as it is handed to us by the public or academia. First of all, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not merely some docile pacifist who touted nonviolence in the 50s and 60s. Second of all, the period between 1955 and 1975, when the United States experienced the second reconstruction is titled incorrectly as being the Civil Rights Era. Two other major and vital wings of the Black Liberation Era, Black Nationalism and Black Power, without which the beneficial gains that were made would have potentially been impossible, are nearly completely omitted. Third, and most important, the history that is normally conveyed to most Americans is that there were only two predominant leaders during this period, Malcom X and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  However, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott was neither planned nor organized by King, rather Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a teacher at Alabama State College, who was also the president of the Women’s Political Council had been working on segregation issues for two years prior to that and it was she who organized the boycott. Ela Baker, who was influential with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and also the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was responsible for helping to organize the students of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC was instrumental in the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, and the Voter Registration campaign in Selma, Alabama. And Bayard Rustin, a name almost unheard of in traditional education because he was an openly homosexual man. However, he had been working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation since the early 1940s, instructed King in 1955, that nonviolence was more than a strategy but also a way of life, and was instrumental in the strategizing and organization of nearly every major Civil Rights demonstration during that period including the March on Washington in 1963. This brief overview is not meant to invisibilize the efforts of people like Bob Moses, John Lewis, Assata Shakur, Fred Hampton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver, Medgar Evers, Anne Moody, or the countless teachers, lawyers, sharecroppers, carpenters, and civilians who contributed and protected each other, but I simply do not have the time to convey to you the importance of their stories and contributions.

The point is that it was not merely the efforts of a very limited few, but rather, the collective efforts of people from across the spectrum who employed and deployed a multiplicity of tactics, which was required to achieve the positive and beneficial results they did. Today is no different and neither are the struggles we are having, nor the issues we are contesting. One of our very own, Emile Pitre, in 1968, had a vital role in compelling the university to increase both its students and its faculty of color. He is still here to this day encouraging and mentoring students, and seeking to improve the demographic distribution of this very campus. And yet, not two weeks ago we were compelled to stage yet another demonstration because of the lack of faculty and students of color and in particular, people of African descent, among a host of other unjust and disparaging conditions. Not least of which is this institution’s complicity in the school-to-prison pipeline, and benefitting from the prison industrial complex.

Institutional discrimination and racism are deeply entrenched within our structures and practices and will require all of us to make sacrifices as we change the system and the manner in which it functions. For some of us that will mean merely that we are to support those who actively, and who are well within their rights to challenge systems of oppression and discrimination. For others, that may mean exerting some of your influence in situations where your influence can be felt, but otherwise, under other circumstances, you may have elected to refrain from doing so. For others, like many of the people recognized today for their work in the community, Dr. Marisa Herrera the director of the James E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, or Stephanie Gardner the director of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), which assists many minoritized students to achieve success in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematic disciplines otherwise known as STEM, should continue doing the work they are doing. The point is that it is going to require all or most of us to accomplish our goals and to help shape our world into one that is comfortable for us all to live with and in.

There are risks, of course there are risks. And while I live with the constant reminder that people of my complexion, with my ethnic composition have been assassinated by our own government for doing precisely what I am doing right now; none of that will stop me. I will not be intimidated into non-action. I will not be silenced. I will not submit to coercion. I will not be bought off. I will stand on the side of justice, equity, equality, and liberation with my fist held high! And I will trudge into the trenches with my sisters and brothers routing out evil and injustice whence it sprouts! I never thought an award like this would be presented to a person like me, from an institution such as the University of Washington because although the world seems to love the positive and beneficial changes that have resulted from people like myself and those I work with; it also seems to shun and disavow the very necessary actions we sometimes must take.

However, not all of us have merely social constraints to worry about as risks, some of us are subject to institutional power. This is true regardless of whether it is a university or a government that is the focus of protests of injustice. However, it is these threats that most concern me because it questions our ability to provide security for ourselves and our families, and that kind of power can be utilized to coercively silence people into abject conformity and adaptive preferences. This is why it is vital that we stand together applying our skills and positions multilaterally with a multiplicity of tactics to achieve both positive and beneficial change for all of our people.

So, I encourage, and I implore you all to not sit idly by while injustice occurs to anyone, anywhere. Because as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Receiving this award and what was required for that to come about shows me that a and reveals that a broad cross-section of people from across the spectrum want to both see and feel positive change and are making a declaration in support of the work we are doing.

Lastly, and I will leave you with this because it is what guides my actions and comes from a person I hold in the highest regard as a warrior and advocate for the cause of justice and equity; Assata Shakur:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

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