Speakers at Amherst College outline the fight toward equality

By Jackson Cote

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)
(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Social-justice activists spoke at Amherst College Saturday, strategizing ways to “navigate identity and privilege,” in order to continue Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work toward “collective liberation.”

Four activists spoke from the second-floor stage of Amherst College’s historic Johnson Chapel to a crowd of an estimated 70 college students, professors, staff and members of the community, who were seated on the chapel’s wooden benches.

The event, organized by Amherst College’s Multicultural Resource Center, was titled “The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Symposium: Moving Toward Collective Liberation.”

Before the start of the event, organizers from the Multicultural Resource Center played clips from Dr. King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. “Let freedom ring,” in the voice of Dr. King, was heard as the panelists took to the stage and sat in their seats.

The panelists were introduced by Bulaong Ramiz-Hall, the director of the Multicultural Resource Center.

“We are in the midst of another justice movement,” Ramiz-Hall said, citing the organization ‘Black Lives Matter’ and recent pro-feminist events, such as the ‘Women’s March on DC.’

The panelists included co-founder of ‘Black Lives Matter,’ in Lawrence, Kansas, Caleb Stephens, Associate College Chaplain at Trinity College and Bishop at the United Church of Christ John L. Selders, Jr., social justice activist and writer Chris Crass, as well as Dylan Marron, a video maker at Seriously.TV and creator of “Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in [film title].”

“I saw that it was an all-men-of-color panel and as a man of color, I was interested to see what they were saying,” Amal Buford, a sophomore film major at Amherst, who also works at the Multicultural Resource Center, said after the event. “I’m definitely thinking a lot about the role emotions have in social justice work, the role humanity has, recognizing our own humanity and the humanity others have in social justice work, besides just caring about people.”

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Marisa Parham, the director of the Five College Digital Humanities Project, Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Officer and English professor at Amherst College.

Most of the discussion that Dr. Parham initiated was centered around the question of how to continue the fight toward equality, as well as past strategies used in the fight and the different contributions people of varying colors, genders and sexual orientations can make to the collective effort.

“Listening is a revolutionary act,” Crass said in discussing white people’s role in the movement.

Crass was the only white panelist and gave his perspective and outlined his work in, “[moving] other white people into the movement for collective liberation,” while ensuring they do not overpower the voices of people of color.

In conjunction with Crass’s statement, Stephens mentioned that both men, white and of color, may have good intentions in their efforts to promote social justice; however, “impact versus intention,” can diverge in many instances.

Marron expressed his opinions and knowledge, as not only a queer person of color, but a comedian. He briefly summarized the ways in which comedy can either hurt or help social justice activism.

“Comedy can illuminate reality,” Marron said. “But it can also be used as a weapon against minority communities.”

Both Stephens and Bishop Selders, while relating their experiences as straight men of color, also discussed broader societal problems, such as misogyny and police brutality.

“We live in a society where Black lives are deemed disposable, especially Black male bodies,” Selders said, after elaborating on how the controversial death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, affected him and was “important to [his] personal narrative.”

Adding to the conversation, Stephens stated firmly, “2017 has to be the year of checking whiteness, or we are going to die.”

However, despite the difficult subject matters, the paneled discussion was intermixed with moments of humor and optimism—concluding on a hopeful note, as one elderly audience member got the majority of the attendees to sing, in remembrance of civil rights activist Ella Baker.

Speaking to the audience, Selders concluded, “You have work to do. Your place and space has to be made bettered.”

Jackson Cote can be reached at [email protected]