On the weekend of Sat., Feb. 21, students from all over the country converged in New Haven, Conn. to attend the 20th Annual Black Solidarity Conference at Yale University. Sarah Lawrence students were also in attendance, in a group organized by Najah Diop (’17), Ayanna Harrison (’170, and faculty advisor Natalie Gross from the Office of Diversity and Campus Engagement. 14 SLC students convened at Westlands Gate on the morning of Feb. 19 to start their journey off to Connecticut.
The conference lasted two days. The first day started off strong with a commencement speech in the morning. The song “On and On” by Erykah Badu filled the air in Sheffield Hall as students were welcomed in by alumni speaker Al Lucas. He told stories about what it was like being at Yale in the late 80’s protesting apartheid. “Me and the brothers set up huts outside of the presidents house and lived in them. We wanted to show people what kind of living conditions blacks were forced into during apartheid.”
Suddenly, he asked all conference attendees move into different groups based off of their birth year. Strangers squeezed into uncomfortable spaces together awkwardly. “This is how it was, when they took us from our home, put us on a boat and brought us here. We have to think about what solidarity really means!” He encouraged attendees to branch out and network with people, reminding them to find common ground and to stay “solid” in the cause they had all come together to support. He ended by reminding students, “We are unique in our blackness and one in our struggle!”
Following this speech was a panel discussion featuring Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. As a graduate of Yale and U.S. Representative of Texas’s 18th congressional district, she offered perspective pertaining to the recent climate of police shootings and race relations. She repeatedly stated that young people needed to start utilizing social media more to speak out about what they want. “We’re over there in Washington and Twitter is silent! We need to hear more from all of you so that we can approve changes! That’s how you make things happen.” One student, Delaysha Lockharte from Wells College, appreciated where Congresswoman Lee was coming from, saying, “She was clearly a part of the system, but fighting against it from within.” Following this panel there were two others. One panel led by Dr. David Riviera was geared to educate students about microaggressions within the context of mental health. Chris Rabb, the final panelist of the day, spoke about the ways that privilege plays into entrepreneurism and innovation.
On the second day of the conference, students started their mornings off with an intense discussion about the U.S. prison system. The panel featured four speakers: George Chochos, Barbara Fair, Hon. Sylvia Hinds-Radix, and Rakim Brooks. Chochos is an ex-convict who spent 11 years in prison while completing a master’s degree. Fair is an opponent of the war on drugs, calling it “Jim Crow by another name.” Radix oversees the New York State Supreme Court and New York City Civil Court. Brooks is an alumnus of Yale who served as a policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Treasury.
Chochos gave reason as to why there may be so many conflicts between police and communities, saying, “Community policing should not be done by officers that have no connection to the communities they police.” Fair offered the opinion that “the criminal justice system is rigged to charge blacks with crime… many people plea bargain when they’re innocent because they don’t trust the justice system.” Brooks solidified these sentiments with his thought-provoking question: “I have to take an oath in this system… how do I take an oath in a system that I don’t believe in?” Judge Radix took a somewhat different stance, saying, “I believe we have one of the best legal systems in the world…we have potential and you have to educate yourselves to help change what is wrong.” Caleb Palmer from Howard University offered her opinion of Judge Radix’s statement saying, “The judge was clearly assimilated into the system, pushing back against people.”
Every day at lunchtime, students were all split into what were called “Ujima groups,” where they shared and discussed race-related issues at their own schools. Delaysha Lockharte spoke about how, at Wells, they helped educate people and raise awareness about the recent police shootings. “At our school we showed students a compilation of news clips, the Colbert show and Jon Stewart in order to raise awareness of the protests and their purpose.” Carolyn Martinez-Class (’17) chimed in with criticism of how SLC has handled diversity issues in the past, stating, “The Dean of Multicultural Affairs left the school and then, they just made the only black guy in administration in charge of those affairs even though he has all of these other responsibilities, like being the Dean of Studies.”
Later that evening, the keynote reception was held at a nearby hotel. Students adorned in all black filled the venue and enjoyed a three-course meal. Former president of the NAACP Benjamin Jealous spoke about his early experiences with activism, trying to keep a historically black college from being turned into a prison. “We wanted to show that turning a college into a prison was not just anti-civil rights, but anti-American,” he said. At the end of his speech, Jealous challenged everyone find a cause to fight for in their lives.
Following the reception, Troi Valles (‘17) offered her opinion of the conference: “I see the conference as a way to empower and motivate black youth from across the country to be better activists, challenging us to be more radical. The facilitators encouraged us to network; they wanted us to succeed and take our black brothers and sisters with us.”
by Anthony Magana ‘17