“How do we move from #Ferguson to actual tangible freedom?”
Nineteen-year-old Atlanta resident and social activist Elle Lucier asked a room of 45 students that question in the Mathematics and Science Center on Saturday, Feb. 21 during Emory’s first Black Student Conference, “Black at Emory: Activism in a ‘Post-Racial’ Society.”
Allowing the question to hang in the air, Lucier pressed play on a YouTube video where she stood behind a podium, addressing hundreds inside Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“We want human rights for black, brown, undocumented — get a pen and write it down if you can’t remember — transgender people!,” she shouted as the crowd roared. In the video, Lucier, who founded the social-media driven civil rights coalition #ItsBiggerThanYou, listed demands put together by community organizers and leaders all over the country in response to the 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri, speaking at the invitation of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on a national NBC broadcast.
Lucier’s lecture, titled “From Slacktivism to Activism: Is Social Media Effective?” was one of four workshops featured at the conference, which was primarily organized by College junior Casidy Campbell. Approximately 70 people attended the conference, which aimed to discuss effective activism as well affirm the identities of black students occupying white spaces, according to Campbell.
Campbell began thinking of holding such a conference after she was accepted into the Vision in Action (VIA) program, part of the Office of Student Leadership and Service (OSLS), during her sophomore year. The VIA program allows four to seven students with visions for social change to put those ideas into action each year.
Other VIA students include College junior Lukas Olson, who in 2014 envisioned a world where education was accessible to everyone, and OSLS provided up to $750 of funding to bring that vision to action.
OSLS paired Campbell with a faculty mentor, Professor of African American Studies Nagueyalti Warren. From there, Campbell began a year-long independent study with Warren to flesh out the details of the conference she wanted to put together.
OSLS along with Emory’s Black Student Alliance provided her with the $2,000 needed for the conference.
“The conference came out of me wanting to reach out to groups of students, [to] make ideas that I’m aware of available,” Campbell said. “Because I’ve taken certain classes, and because I’m an activist and I always share these different kinds of conversations, … I wanted to make them accessible to people who may not know about these types of discussions or want to talk about these different types of things. I’m all about making academia accessible.”
The conference evolved from the Black at Emory movement, which began last year as a means for black students to talk about their racialized experiences at Emory, Campbell said, adding that she saw the conference as a continuation of that movement.
“This [conference] is a safe place for [black students] to say, ‘Hey this is what I’m going through at Emory’ and then find the words, the language [they] can use, to sort of articulate that experience that [they’re] going through,” Campbell said. “Now how can I say, ‘Hey administration, … this is what I’m going through, and I need you to create [and] change the culture here at Emory to recognize that.’”
One of the conference’s workshops dealt with that issue directly. “Activism on Campus: Working with Administration” led by Gen Y Project Founder Chijioke Ebbis, focused on the kinds of arguments students and race-related language students could use to effectively discuss race issues when addressing Emory administration members. Gen Y is a program to empower and educate black youth in their communities.
“This workshop showed us how we can challenge racism in a non-hostile way,” College junior and Conference Planning Committee Member NaVosha Copeland said. “It armed participants with the tools to address administration.”
Workshops also showcased leaders presenting their relevant academic research. Workshop leader and Emory Sociology Graduate Student Marisela Martinez-Cola presented research on the formation of identity in “Race and Identity: Formation in the University” and then engaged students in discussion on the subject.
College senior Jordie Davies also presented her research on online and offline activism during the “Slacktivism to Activism: Is Social Media Effective?” workshop.
The conference wrapped up with a keynote panel session that featured Assistant Director for the Center for Women Chanel Craft Tanner and journalist Nsenga Burton, founder and editor-in-chief of TheBurtonWire.com, an online news site that covers news of the African diaspora.
Burton is also the chair and associate professor of Communications and Media Studies at Goucher College in Maryland and frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Ebony magazine.
After each speaker described their backgrounds and activism, Craft-Tanner and Burton took questions from student moderators Campbell, College senior Shana McFadden and later from the audience.
Questions ranged from examples of challenges the speakers have faced in their activism to how they have handled the events in Ferguson, where white police officer Darren Wilson shot dead 18-year-old black man Michael Brown in August.
“I haven’t written a word about Ferguson,” Burton responded. “I have nothing to say. I have nothing productive to say. What’s in [your heart], it’s going to come out no matter what you’re writing, and I can’t afford any more death threats.”
Burton explained that she constantly receives hate mail for the controversial pieces she has written challenging racism in the United States and internationally.
Though the conference began at 8:30 a.m., students remained active and engaged in their workshops and discussions until the end of the conference at 6 p.m.
The speakers’ moving statements often inspired snapping and clapping, as well as dozens of students furiously scribbling into a notebook as if a recommendation had just been given.
“The conference was really well planned, and the speakers were all phenomenal,” College freshman Nathyia Watson said. “The discussion was also very thought provoking.”
Campbell explained the importance of allies, or non-black students and students who had not been in that space before, in discussions, but also their general presence at the conference.
“I think allies here have been very fruitful with their ideas and also in their ally-ship,” Campbell said. “When you’re an ally, you’re purposely putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation. It’s supposed to make you uneasy, make you think about certain privileges. When you’re a minority student at Emory, you’re uncomfortable everyday. In a simple conversation, you can experience aggression. I don’t call them microaggressions because they’re just aggressions to me. So it’s important for allies to understand that this is not a safe space for them — they’re supposed to feel uncomfortable.”
Emory students were not the only attendees. A handful of students from Agnes Scott College and Georgia State University (GSU), as well as a couple of non-students, attended the conference.
“It’s a great time to be in Atlanta for social change,” GSU doctoral candidate George Greenidge, Jr. said. “The Atlanta universities are coming together to figure out how to get the change we want. But Emory has really taken the ball and rolled with it.”
— By Sarah Husain, Staff Writer