The temperature was below freezing this weekend, but the wind chill did not dampen the enthusiasm of participants attending the 21st annual Black Solidarity Conference, the largest conference held at Yale each year. More than 750 students from over 50 universities across the country registered, conference planners told the News, and the weekend-long series was sold out even before the start of the new year.
Named “The Miseducation: Changing History as We Know It,” this year’s Black Solidarity Conference sought to address historical fallacies concerning African-Americans in the United States and the complexities of Black history. The conference has always focused on promoting solidarity, but each year explores a different theme. Through lectures, workshops, discussions and career talks, as well as a keynote address by African American Studies and English professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84, who will leave Yale to join the faculty at Columbia University this year, the conference pushed participants to reflect on the history of the African diaspora and to consider ways of creating a better future. In particular, a heavily sponsored career fair — with representatives from companies such as Google and Goldman Sachs — provided conference participants with a chance to explore tools to empower themselves and their communities. In the wake of tumultuous weeks of student demonstrations about race at Yale last semester, the Black Solidarity Conference also played an important role in providing a safe space for attendees to discuss the events that took place on various university campuses.
“The Black Solidarity Conference is really about providing the opportunity for all students to come together, engage each other, empower each other and take away something powerful that they can bring back to their own community,” said Alexandra Williams ’17, vice president of the board of 21 people who planned the conference.
According to conference president Chad Small ’16, this year the conference sold out faster than ever before. Last year’s conference was fully booked by the beginning of January, while this year’s sold out in December.
Centered around the theme of miseducation, Williams added, the conference was able to explore the historical aspect of the African diaspora, especially how many narratives have been misconstrued, manipulated or simply untold. Participants were given a chance to “rectify” Black history throughout the four days of the conference, she said.
Small said that while last year’s theme focused on the struggles that come out of institutional racism, this year the program was centered around Black people who have been successful in spite of continued adversity. The event was divided into two parts, Small said, with the panels and workshops on Friday centered around rectifying historical misconceptions and Saturday’s events concentrating on the achievements of Black community members. The hope was to inspire people to pursue their dreams as well as show them viable methods for achieving those goals, Small said.
“What the conference boiled down to is Black solidarity, which is strength within each other, and people come out to see people who look like them,” Small said. “It’s great to see the features that are built in a conference like this, where you see Black students doing well in their communities and connecting with people who come from different places.”
The keynote dinner on Saturday evening at the Omni Hotel, featuring Alexander as the speaker, was a highlight of the conference. Conference organizer Brinton Williams ’16 told the News that Alexander was chosen as the keynote speaker this year because the planning committee believed that she could address the core theme of miseducation through her artistic medium of poetry, in order to make sure participants can understand the true story of Black Americans in the United States. Alexander recited a poem at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.
Organizers also emphasized the special role that the conference is playing after last semester’s weeks of student activism on campuses across the United States, and especially at Yale.
“This conference brings a platform for participants to engage in discussions about what happened on different people’s campuses and provides a supportive healing space,” Alexandra Williams said. “For a lot of people of color, this past semester has been really hard. To be here where you are surrounded by people who look like you, care about you and understand you makes a big difference and is rejuvenating for conference participants.”
Shane Lloyd, assistant director for first-year and sophomore programs at Brown University’s Center for Students of Color who hosted a workshop titled “How Class Matters in Black Lives” during the conference, said over 60 students came to Yale from Brown. Taking into account all of the campus activism by Black students, Lloyd said, the conference was incredibly important because it was a significant site for students to process those experiences and share common strategies for enacting change. He added that the gathering provided a venue for students to better coordinate joint-campus efforts as well as to develop a broader network of friends facing the same issues.
“I think what the students most appreciate is being in a community of students facing similar challenges as them and thinking about how they can resist those challenges and make positive changes on their institutions,” Lloyd said. “Moving forward, I think the students are both refreshed given the exhaustion they experienced last semester, but also energized to take on some important projects during the spring.”
Attendees hailed from institutions as close as Williams College and as far as the University of San Diego.