MLK Convocation 2016: Calls to action, empathy

January 27, 2016

A stirring student speaker early in the program seemed to embody what Rosa Clemente aimed to address in her keynote speech in the Saint Michael’s College Chapel at this year’s 24th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Society Convocation January 25 – a fact not lost on the nationally noted activist-intellectual as she stepped to the podium.

“It’s really important for people to understand what just happened here,” said Clemente of the talk preceding hers by MLK Jr. Society co-president Allison Avery — a sophomore who, with uncommon courage, insight and poise, linked her life-altering experience of violent sexual assault as a white suburban teenager four years ago to her emergent understanding of “the value of empathy, of listening to, understanding and connecting with the struggles and feelings of other people…what it means to suffer and to be targeted.”

The pre-med major and Saint Michael’s rescue squad trainee challenged peers and College faculty/administrators to think more deeply about “our community’s engagement with race and racism” – even though racial justice work sometimes is uncomfortable, as in her experience. “Pushing myself out of this comfort zone is simultaneously the most fulfilling and difficult journeys I have taken,” Avery said.

“Understanding and connecting my own traumatic experience to the daily lives of people of color has fueled a sense of urgency for me to address issues of racism, because racism is traumatic at its core,” Avery said to a nearly full house in a late-afternoon speech that inspired a spontaneous standing ovation. A punctuating grace note directly after was senior vocalist Candace Washington’s spare and haunting solo a cappella rendition of the song “Change is Coming.”

While Avery squarely challenged her College and peers to do far more in residences, classrooms and administratively to promote diversity and racial understanding, she also recognized the positive role of many among Saint Michael’s community and faculty in awakening her to insights about life, privilege and responsibility – notably her MLK Society peers and mentors, but many faculty too.

Earlier speakers on the program understood that history illuminates a proper path forward, offering important context for aspiring activists: President Jack Neuhauser described pioneering civil rights work by College’s founding Edmundites, and Moise St. Louis, Multicultural Center director and associate dean, talked about the recently deceased Dorothy “Dot” Williams, whose work in the 1990s started important conversations, reflections and initiatives on race and diversity at Saint Michael’s. Williams was the College’s first Director of Minority Student Affairs while also teaching courses in African studies and history, and this year’s Convocation was dedicated to her memory.

Commitment to Dr. King’s cause and struggle is a long and intimate legacy at the College because of efforts in the American South starting in 1930s and throughout the tense 1950s and 60s up until the present by Saint Michael’s founding Edmundites, said President Jack Neuhauser in introductory remarks to the Convocation. Fr. Brian Cummings SSE of Edmundite Campus Ministry, in his opening prayer, remembered Rev. Paul McQuillen ’72, recently deceased, who worked for decades in those Southern Missions.

Neuhauser reminded the audience that the civil rights giant Dr. Bernard Lafayette spoke at last May’s Saint Michael’s Commencement, partly to repay his gratitude toward Edmundite Fr. Maurice Ouellet and others for their difference-making role in Selma’s troubled but rich civil rights history. “We are, after all, a community that has at the core of its very existence the belief that a single life rooted in love for others can make a difference for all people,” Neuhauser said. “We should not overlook that the importance of this gathering is signified for our community by the very place in which we gather, a chapel where our most fundamental traditions are celebrated.”

St. Louis said Dot Williams, who organized the first MLK Convocation at the College 24 years ago, once wrote of having struggles trying to change the culture at Saint Michael’s that were “the most difficult time of my life,” though she grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi. But, “She was a force of nature, an amazing woman who helped our institution navigate a time of transition and ensure that our students of color made a home in an environment that treated them as outsiders.”

“Now diversity is no longer a burden but a necessity for all our students,” St. Louis said, calling for more training on managing a diverse classroom for faculty and a more diverse faculty and staff, to properly prepare students for the diverse world after college. “Dr. Williams would have been proud to see the work she started long ago, the challenges she faced, we not in vain,” St. Louis said, noting the growth of the Center that he now leads as a vibrant student resource, and in other areas.

Keynote speaker Clemente, before delivering her impassioned exhortation for revolutionary thinking and action to bring urgent and fundamental changes regarding race to campuses and broader society, explained why Allison Avery’s talk was significant: “It’s exceptional that you are placing front and center the question of the moment and not shying away from it where most older people do…”  She said Avery was “in the tradition of white resistance in this country” — a tradition “of people not just being allies but accomplices to black integration … because unless white people come on board, we’re not going to have equity in this country.”

After describing her own black and Latina roots, briefly contrasting experiences growing up in both the Bronx and later in suburban Westchester County, Clemente in her address titled “What Must Be Done? Addressing the Intersection of Power, Oppression, Identity and Responsibility” reviewed important history for present young activists: The Black Power era of 1968-1974, struggles and sit-ins, demonstrations and building takeovers despite strong resistance to create Black Studies curriculum at colleges, the use of crack cocaine profits by the U.S. to fund wars in Central America, which she said precipitated much of present immigration pressures; the scourge of mass incarceration/criminalization for people of color today, and modern day “systemic targeting of black and brown bodies” from Baltimore to Ferguson, resulting in the important Black Lives Matter movement today.

“You’re around now– you have to do the work, you have to sacrifice now, put yourself in the history – there is a sacrifice required of those who have privileges like this,” she said.  “There’s a sea-change happening; if people don’t’ get on board, you better believe there will be disruptions — and not just calls for a new diversity director or a name-change of a college building” as in recent incidents on other campuses “The only way to prepare is to be part of the movement, to be an activist,” she said.

Shannon McQueen ’16, Student Government Association president, told about some of her student peers or even family members whose response to her activism has shown her that we still have a long way to go – yet her education has helped her see beyond the “white bubble” of her earlier “unrealistic understanding of the world.” Elias Dean, MLK Jr. Society co-president, introduced the program and later the main speaker; other officers/members participated too — Ronald Hernandez read the annual Pledge of Non-violence & Social Justice; Karen Penafiel offered closing remarks.

Clemente said from her perspective, “this fight we are in now is a fight for our very existence”  so that her 11-year old black/Puerto Rican child can simply go to a park in safety. St. Louis invited those present “to imagine an inclusive community with me, because our students deserve it, and the College needs it.” President Neuhauser stressed the importance to even “chip away with each small action at poverty and injustice as we each encounter these afflictions in our lives.’

A full program of events commemorating Dr. King continues this week.

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