Over 400 students from 53 different colleges and universities converged on Yale over the weekend for the 13th Annual Black Solidarity Conference, where participants discussed the racial dynamics of electoral politics and the importance of student activism.
Students at the conference, titled “The Ballot or the Bullet: Revitalizing the Revolution,” discussed what many described as the most charged presidential election in decades.
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“We were obligated to have the conference about the election,” conference co-moderator Kristian Henderson ’09 said. “We wanted to make sure, as a black community, we’re not voting along racial lines but rather about the issues.”
The conference drew students from all eight Ivy Leagues and schools as nearby as Albertus Magnus College and as far as Rice University. It featured talks by nearly 30 different speakers, six separate workshops about issues such as health care, the environment and the media, as well as a rally featuring David Paterson, the lieutenant governor of New York. Other prominent speakers included Tavis Smiley, a famous television and radio host, former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and several Yale professors.
During a panel on education, which drew nearly 200 students to a packed auditorium in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, speakers touched on two frequent conference themes: the plight of black males and the need for conference attendees to become leaders and create change.
Before speaking, panelist Joe Scantlebury, a senior policy officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, asked female audience members to raise their hands. The large majority of attendees lifted their arms — a reflection, Scantlebury hinted, of the significant gender disparity among black college students.
Panelist John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, said students need to identify social practices and government polices contributing to the educational gap between black students and their white peers, and to devise innovative approaches for tackling them.
“Brown v. Board of Education was not a touchdown,” he said. “It was a first down, and we have the ball now.”
Students at the conference said the different events succeeded in connecting different political issues in an engaging manner.
“All the programs seem to be building up to the theme of empowerment in the black community,” said Makkah Ali, a sophomore from Wellesley College.
While the conference drew students from institutions around the country, relatively few came from historically black colleges and universities, said Aeshaah Murphy, a junior at historically black Spelman College in Atlanta.
Also, Murphy said the costs of attending and traveling to the program could be prohibitive to many.
The conference was the culmination of Yale’s celebration of Black History Month, which has featured 20 different events, Director of the Afro-American Cultural Center Pamela George said. Other major events held during Black History Month have included the screening of the film “Afropunk” with its director, James Spooner and an event annual dinner with guest speaker Alexa Canady, the first African American female neurosurgeon in the United States.
Students interviewed said they appreciated the conference for bringing black peers from around the country together.
“Being a student at a predominantly white college is difficult,” said Rachel Winston, a sophomore at Davidson College. “Being able to meet others who understand your struggles and relate to you is both very empowering and very exciting.”
Meredith Wilson, a sophomore at Amherst College, said she was glad her college had chosen to send students to the conference for the first time in recent memory.
Students spent 16 months planning this year’s Black Solidarity Conference, said Alex Blissett ’10, the program’s co-speakers chair said.