This past weekend, over 700 college students of color from around the nation gathered at Yale for the Black Solidarity Conference, the nation’s largest student-run undergraduate conference that examines issues pertinent to the African Diaspora.
Beginning on Thursday with an event featuring Jay Ellis of HBO’s “Insecure,” the conference included workshops, lectures and discussion focusing on activism and black representation in leadership roles and the media. The conference, whose theme this year was “A New Dawn, A New Day: Promoting and Protecting Blackness in the Digital Age,” also included guest lecturers, networking events and social activities. With talks about topics ranging from Afrofuturism and black science fiction to black representation in the tech industry and the new presidential administration, the event aimed to educate and advocate a larger black presence in media and literature, as well as in government and social activism groups.
“We can’t be bystanders,” said Opal Tometi, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and executive director at Black Alliance for Just Immigration in her keynote address. “We have to make interventions … both in real life and in online spaces. We are part of a global tradition of resistance.”
To that end, the conference also held a career fair featuring representatives from various companies, organizations and graduate programs. With big-name companies like Google and Goldman Sachs present, students were able to engage with recruiters, network with like-minded peers and craft their resumes.
The theme, however, pushed for a brighter future through representation not only within, but also outside of traditional roles of power and influence. Resistance, in all its different forms, was a key theme in many of the activities throughout the conference.
This idea was highlighted by a political activism discussion on Saturday featuring local New Haven leaders and approximately 15 student participants. Moderated by Jaster Francis ’20, a member of the conference’s board, the discussion focused on the current state of Black America and its relationship to political and social reform.
At one event over the weekend, students seized the opportunity to talk about the most effective ways change could be catalyzed by speaking with Orisha Ala Ochumare, an organizer for Black Lives Matter New Haven. The main question was whether it was best to work inside the system as part of a legislative or executive authority or outside the system and “on the ground” as a part of an entity independent of the government. Though answers ranged, Ochumare was insistent that both were essential elements of effective activism.
“You have to get in and all throughout the system,” Ochumare said during the discussion. “We need to chip away at the foundation from outside and internally … We can’t just say that if [someone] is a political figure, they’re no longer for the black community. We call them to accountability.”
Students in attendance also discussed being leaders for black activism at their own schools. Acknowledging both their origins as children of immigrants or low-income families and their elevated positions at top-tier schools, students spoke about navigating the two worlds they were a part of without neglecting either.
In the discussion, Gloria Semenitari, a student at Pennsylvania State University, stressed the importance of humility, finding common ground and reaching a level of understanding with the community with which one engages. Originally from Nigeria, Semenitari is the president of the African Student Association at Penn State. Recalling a time she went to a halfway house to volunteer, she talked about how the group she went with restructured how they volunteered and organized a cooking class to better connect with residents.
“We actually looked up recipes for soul food to look up the kind of mac and cheese and fried chicken they might like,” Semenitari said. “We had a cooking class with them and it was like [they were able to say] ‘Look what we can do too.’ We provided the food and everything else for them, but they didn’t have the time to think that this was a handout because they were cooking with us.”
The Black Solidarity Conference ended on Sunday.