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Conn’s inaugural social justice conference shines light on the silenced.
By Edward Weinman
oet Kate Rushin has “had enough.”
Reading from her work “The Bridge Poem” during the opening assembly at Elevate: The Inaugural Social Justice Conference at Connecticut College, Rushin recited:
I’ve had enough I’m sick of seeing and touching Both sides of things Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody
Nobody Can talk to anybody Without me Right?
Presented by The Agnes Gund ’60 Dialogue Project, the Elevate conference brought together Connecticut College students, staff, faculty and alumni, along with residents of the New London region, to celebrate cultural diversity. More than 550 participants attended the conference, which was designed to shed light on those who have been marginalized, erased or silenced because of their social identities or personal backgrounds.
To lift up the marginalized, communication must take place across the social lines fragmenting our society, otherwise the speaker in Rushin’s poem will continue having to explain herself so that white people have insight into Black lives. She writes: “I do more translating / Than the Gawdamn U.N.”
President Katherine Bergeron, who spoke at Elevate’s opening assembly, explained that the mission of the College is to “create productive citizens prepared to put their education into action in support of global democracy.”
Social justice conferences like Elevate can spark the much-needed dialogue to fulfill this mission.
“That means working to elevate our discourse, our practices and our forms of self-governance to create the kind of environment where all people, no matter their identity or background, have the opportunity to thrive, to reach their potential, to contribute meaningfully to their community and the world.
“That ideal, which we call full participation, lies at the heart of who we are and what we do.”
Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion John McKnight, who directs the Gund Dialogue Project and organized the conference, said that we all need to learn to better communicate with one another to achieve “deeper levels of compassion, empathy and human connection.”
“Elevate was built on the principle of full participation,” said McKnight, who delivered Conn’s land acknowledgment at the opening assembly.
“But in order for everyone to thrive, we acknowledge that we must continually work to create the conditions for all members of our community to feel respected, connected and empowered.”
The conference, scheduled to be an annual event at Conn, featured author, educator and interfaith leader Eboo Patel; author and community organizer Charlene Carruthers; filmmaker Shalini Kantayya; and writer and activist Jonathan Mooney.
For more than 15 years, Patel has worked with governments, social sector organizations, and colleges and universities to help make interfaith cooperation a social norm. He delivered Conn’s “Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Lecture” on the subject of spirituality and social movements, saying that power can be generous and this generosity can result in social change.
He challenged us to imagine a level of generosity that could surprise even ourselves, a kind of generosity that can “change everything for the better,” and he related stories about King, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Ella Baker, Diane Nash and Jane Addams to illustrate his point.
Patel asked: “Can we create spaces … where it is easier for people to be good; where it is easier for people to cooperate?”
He informed the audience, made up of students, faculty, staff and New London residents, that “One of the wonderful things about being at a place like Connecticut College or in a city like New London is that all around you there are people waiting to help you create those spaces, waiting to help you create campus community programs, waiting to help you create new types of interfaith activities.
“Now is the time to expand the circle of the beloved community,” he said.
To build the open spaces where Patel envisions people can create change, social justice activists must not only voice what they are against but also advocate for what they believe in. While introducing Carruthers as the keynote speaker of the conference, Naomi Miller ’22 pointed out that Carruthers wants to know “what we are for.”
“What world do we truly envision? When will we get there? How will we actually practice our collective liberation?” Miller asked.
Carruthers started her keynote address by reading from her book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, and posed five central questions that disruptors must answer in order to build coalitions and start movements: “Who am I? Who are my people? What do we want? What are we building? Are we ready to win?”
However, these questions cannot be answered, Carruthers said, until Americans tell the whole story of our collective past.
“When we tell more-complete stories about what has happened to us, to our people, to our ancestors, we are in a better position to craft more-complete solutions,” Carruthers said.
“Incomplete stories lead to incomplete solutions. And we have to do the business of telling more-complete stories about the history and the current conditions within this nation, which continues to be a project of settler colonialism, which continues to be a project of capitalism, of anti-Blackness, of white supremacy and patriarchy.”
She talked about how voting is only one part of a broader effort to achieve equality and liberation, and about how we all have a role to play in achieving dignity for everybody.
Carruthers called for a world where conflict, harm and violence are handled without “policing, without prisons, without punishment, without surveillance.”
The conference, which had more than 40 speakers, included research presentations, performances, and interactive workshops and roundtable discussions, such as “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Professionals,” hosted by Jonathan McBride ’92, a member of Conn’s Board of Trustees.
McBride served as a managing director and the global head of inclusion and diversity at BlackRock. He also held numerous positions in the Obama administration, including as a director of the presidential personnel office in the White House and as a special assistant to the president. Speaking at the roundtable, he told the audience that work centered around equity and inclusion is about empowerment, which leads to progress by constructing an avenue for future leaders to follow.
“We had an expression that we used … that became a rallying cry for everybody who worked in President Obama’s personnel office: ‘People are policy.’ The policy change you want starts with picking the right person, getting that person in the seat and making that person successful.”
Activist Jonathan Mooney embodies the idea that people are more important than policy. Mooney is a writer who grew up with ADHD and dyslexia, learning disabilities that manifested as behavioral issues, leading teachers and family members to tell him he’d most likely end up in prison.
Yet, he graduated from Brown University.
“Opposed to being a high school dropout, I became a college graduate,” Mooney said. “Opposed to being unemployed, I ended up writing books. And, opposed to being an inmate, I became an advocate—somebody who has dedicated his entire professional life to fighting for folks who learn differently.”
In his first book, The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal, Mooney traveled around the country and wrote about people like him who are “forced to create new ways of living in order to survive.” In his latest book, Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines, Mooney offers the radical message that we should stop trying to fix people and start empowering them to succeed.
“Traditionally, a ‘normal’ person has been seen as a white, affluent, able-bodied man. That definition of normality has marginalized so many and created a cultural narrative that we value normal over different. It sends a message to human beings who are different that they are deficient or that they are a problem.
“It is imperative that we challenge that model. For folks with different brains and bodies, the problem isn’t in them. The problem is in the environment around them.”
Elevate also showcased film screenings, including Virtually Free, by André Robert Lee ’93, a documentary about incarcerated youth in Richmond, Virginia, who seek redemption through art, and Shalini Kantayya’s film Coded Bias, which screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Coded Bias explores the fallout from MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini’s startling discovery that facial recognition technology does not see dark-skinned faces accurately. The film argues that the biases of those creating the artificial intelligence that powers technology are encoded into our machines, which mechanizes racism. Coded Bias argues that machines are not neutral.
Kantayya, the film’s director, pointed out that this current epoch in our history is providing us with a moonshot moment to alter our future by pushing for ethics in our technology.
“Our greatest enemy is not actually tech companies. The tech companies can partner in this work. I think the greatest enemy is our own apathy. But we have amazing power to make changes right now.”