Students attended Longwood’s annual Social Justice in Action Leadership Summit on Saturday
The summit, centered around race and politics, hosted keynote speakers Erica Wallace of the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and Ariel Cochrane-Brown of Georgia State University. Both are pursuing doctorate degrees at UNC, and write for the blog, “All of the Seats.”
Wallace was originally a computer science major, but she made the leap to sociology after taking some classes on the subject in her freshman year.
“I would love ‘Law and Order’ and ‘CSI’ growing up, and it was really interesting to hear about sociology, it’s all about people and how people interact in society,” said Wallace. “And it’s really applicable, so it really intrigued me.”
Cochrane-Brown graduated with a journalism degree, but she became interested in education after her undergraduate studies. Specifically, she said she enjoyed encouraging students from marginalized communities to pursue higher education.
“I became really passionate about helping students really understand their full academic potential and how to reach that, and that’s how I got into education,” she said. “Working with Erica, we did a presentation at a women’s leadership conference, and it was about controlling stereotypes of black women in media and higher education. That was the first time we presented, and we got such good feedback, that we just kept going from there.”
The presentation’s attendees were separated into groups, and then listened to Wallace and Cochrane-Brown talk about the history of racialization in the United States and its connection to politics in what is perceived to be a free society. This included a demonstration in which a group of attendees were selected to represent a marginalized group, aiming to create visually exemplify the social construction of race in order to serve political ends.
The groups then split off into discussion sessions to talk about the politics of identity and what identities the participants felt impacted them the most. They discussed the roles that racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin and ethnicity, among others, play in each person. It included factors like body size, physical ability and socio-economic status. These were designed to be “safe space” discussions, where people would respect each other’s differing opinions.
Cochrane-Brown said she wasn’t afraid to “make all of you uncomfortable.”
The later discussions focused on how to organize a political movement, and how racism manifests itself in public policy. Attendees discussed the formation of political movements and their personal experiences with activism.
The student-led vigil through campus and demonstration in the Prince Edward County courthouse courtyard on Feb. 11 and 12 were discussed several times. The recent protests stood against President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
The summit also looked at the students’ unity rally, held on Nov. 10 after Trump’s election. Summit participants reviewed what went well and how they could have been better.
At the end of the summit, the groups discussed what went well in these discussions, as well as how to improve the conversation in the future.
Wallace said that this was not her first time she has spoken in front of a crowd, and also has talked about gender issues. However, this time was a little different.
“No, I’ve never spoken at an event like this before,” Wallace says. “I’ve done, like smaller conference presentations and workshops, but this is the first time I’ve been a keynote speaker for this kind of event.”
Cochrane-Brown said she had presented keynote speeches before, but never on the topic of racial politics. Wallace enjoyed seeing how diverse the conference’s attendees were.
“I loved how many different types of people were here,” she said. “There were students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, there were staff members, there were faculty, there were people from different campuses, and I think that’s super important when talking about issues of race and politics; you have to bring different types of people to get different perspectives.”
Cochrane-Brown enjoyed talking about the racialization of society during this conference. “I recently watched the documentary, ’13’,” she said. “It’s really powerful and it really shows how politics has helped evolve what slavery looks like, and mass incarceration. It was interesting to look at images from the civil rights movement and images from this past September, and how similar they were. I think that really sparked my attention on being able to take advantage of learning about the intersection of race and slavery today.”
The Social Justice in Action Leadership Summit is held annually in February. It is sponsored by Longwood University’s Office of Citizen Leadership & Service Justice Education.