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Posted under: Education Opinion

#BlackLivesMatter and #BlackExcellence: B(l)ack to school with purpose

With the official start of another academic year here for college students, I am reminded of how the last couple of years began. I proudly serve as the director of the Black Cultural Center at a predominantly white institution, supporting student organizations and activities while also helping students navigate campus and craft individualized success plans to meet their varying aspirations.
In August of 2014, rather than the usual welcome back routine, I was working with a coalition of student leaders and facilitating a town hall on Ferguson. In 2015, we critically questioned all of the details surrounding Sandra Bland’s death while in police custody, wondering why, if she was changing lanes to get out of a police car’s way, would that officer escalate the situation, violate protocol and later lie about it. This year, we return to campus with the names Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Korryn Gaines and Paul O’Neal on our minds, haunted by deeply troubling images of injustice.
Students on my campus, like so many others across the country, have taken up this cause for numerous important reasons. Some hail from communities where the presence and practices of police are far from comforting. Some have personal stories of being detained without probable cause and being dehumanized in that process. Students fear for their safety and that of relatives and loved ones and friends who are simply trying to get to tomorrow in a world producing an ever-growing list of things you can’t do while being black.

This mirrors sentiments students often have in response to their experiences on campus. When students feel marginalized, excluded, ignored and othered, they understand that the Black Lives Matter hashtag isn't just about life and death, but every lived experience that can be reduced and devalued. This reality multiplies at the intersections; today's black LGBTQ communities, black women, black Muslims, and black undocumented populations, among others, face significant daily challenges.

The Frederick Douglas quote reminds us that without struggle there is no progress, but one has to wonder how challenging it must be to mobilize around #BlackLivesMatter when you have an exam the next day. And although some campus-based activism has been multicultural, and some students have stood up as allies and supporters, it's often the case that black students grapple with the dual dismissal of marching alone while being told from the sidelines that “all lives matter.” That’s the well-meaning feedback. Other trolling comments in campus-based online periodicals and social media sites move out of the bounds of micro-aggression and into the realm of good ol’ American racism.

So what can you do to not only get through the semester, but achieve all of the success and experiences that you imagined, while also fighting for freedom and justice? Here are five suggestions:

1. Revisit Jesse Williams every few days or so. 

I posted on Facebook after his BET Awards speech that if anyone wants to speak with me about race, they’ll have to read the transcript first. I meant this. I have it printed on the wall in my office.

jesse williams
jesse williams
Photo: BET

2. Have your graphics ready. Share them freely, because the receipts don’t lie.

Photo: Tumblr
Photo: Tumblr
Photo: Tumblr

3. Assemble your crew. 

Have people in your circle and places you can go where you don’t have to explain yourself. (If you can get Dave in your crew, you’re more than good.)

Photo: Tumblr

4. Connect to the broader coalition work. 

You and your campus are not alone in the struggle. Review, share and join efforts such as Campaign Zero and A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice.

Photo: campaignzero.com
Photo: policy.m4bl.com

5. Change the narrative.

Ask your potential allies how the #AllLivesMatter movement is working out for them, and if they really feel like they are making a difference. Challenge them to come up with a list of five things they can do to play a bigger role. (May I suggest, starting with the Jesse Williams transcript, which includes (spoiler alert!) the following: If you have a critique for the resistance—for our resistance—then you’d better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest… If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”)

Photo: Tumblr

In closing, prioritize balance, self-care and #BlackExcellence. Invest in your brilliance, using all of the resources and opportunities available to you. When possible, connect your activism to the classroom, incorporating policy analyses, transformative program proposals and other social-justice-based research. This can cover economics and business, healthcare, education, global development, politics, apps and coding, literature, history, language, genetics, philosophy, theater arts… basically any and everything in your course catalog. Own your experience, get your degree and be the change!


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