This Sunday afternoon, MSU’s 60/50 project sponsored a Black Lives Matter (BLM) event at the East Lansing Public Library. The program included a two-hour community conversation about both the BLM movement itself and the ideals of its participants: racial equity and respect.
Held in the meeting space in the back of ELPL, the four organizers (two professors and two community members) welcomed about 25 participants over the course of the afternoon. Participants ranged in age from high schoolers to senior citizens but were mainly adult white women. When, at one point in the program, participants were asked why they were there, many expressed similar goals of learning new ways to discuss and confront racial inequality.
One community member, a mother of two high school students, explained that she hoped to find tools to talk to her children about racism they might see, or even unintentionally perpetuate, in their daily lives. Four members of ELPS’s Board of Education participated, and the organizers seemed pleased that they had come out to what they saw as an educationally important conversation.
The event started with organizers Donna Kaplowitz, Heidi Phillips, Tamara Butler, and Liesel Carlson giving an overview of their work and what they hoped to achieve with the workshop. Kaplowitz summed much of this up when she said, “We’re not here because we have the answers. We’re here because we believe in the conversation.”
After the introductions, those of us in attendance were asked why we had decided to attend the event, and what #BlackLivesMatter means to us now. In a particularly emotional moment, one participant recounted a story of her 20-year-old black son being stopped and assaulted by police here in East Lansing. “Shouldn’t his life matter?” she asked, on the verge of tears.
Next, we outlined group norms and expectations, and then watched a brief video on the history of black oppression in the U.S., from slavery to mass incarceration. Finally, we dove into the #BlackLivesMatter movement itself, discussing its beginnings with queer women of color, and viewing various art pieces inspired by the movement.
After this large group discussion, we split in thirds and rotated through three stations. At each station we had a different conversation. In one, we spoke with Ph.D. student Tiffany Caesar about a children’s book she had written that dealt with the death of an innocent black teen. In another, we discussed associations we had with race and racism. Finally, we viewed a video about how children viewed racism, and discussed the role of youth in oppression.
The participants seemed to have a positive reaction to the conversation. Though many had questions, many of those questions came from misunderstanding, not dissent with the perspectives of the organizers. Most, if not all, of the displeasure displayed was simply at the rather significant time limitations in each station, signifying a desire for more engagement of this type.
At the end of the event, participants were asked to write down suggestions for the future and to stick them to a large poster on their way out. These responses were overwhelmingly positive, urging the furthering of dialogue. They asked, for example, for “more dialogue,” “more forums and partnerships with the city!” and to “bring this dialogue to the schools.”
Disclosure: The author is related to one of the organizers of this event.