Nearly 300 Penn State students, faculty and staff from the University’s campuses across the commonwealth attended the event hosted by the Penn State Consortium for Social Movements and Education and the Africana Research Center and co-sponsored by an additional 16 colleges, centers, programs and networks at Penn State in response to a national call for universities to commit resources to combat institutionalized racism on campuses. Speakers included organizers from across the country, including Minneapolis, Philadelphia and State College.
Jeremy Adams, doctoral candidate in philosophy and African American and diaspora studies at Penn State, said the virtual symposium was an imperative for the current moment and opened discussion about institutional racism amongst students and across the University.
“People’s lives are at stake. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have had to sit idle and digest the news of multiple killings of Black people — whether they be men, women, trans or non-binary folks. This virtual symposium offered space for people to ‘do the work’ to address these acts of violence by furthering their understanding of the issues and gaining skills to transform our society,” Adams said. “One of the main focuses for the symposium was to provide a structural analysis that can help Black students in the Penn State community make sense of their experiences so that they can begin to counteract these symptoms. and as a result begin to counteract the systems, whether through political advocacy, organizing, promoting anti-racism and diversity initiatives or merely processing the revolutionary politics and impact the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.”
“This virtual symposium offered space for people to ‘do the work’ to address these acts of violence by furthering their understanding of the issues and gaining skills to transform our society.”
— Jeremy Adams, doctoral candidate in philosophy and African American and diaspora studies
Guest speakers for the symposium included Valentina McKenzie, frontline grassroots organizer of a worker’s center and the Black Visions Collective in Minneapolis, who discussed her involvement with protests after the killing of George Floyd.
“In Minneapolis, we have faced year after year of Black people being killed by police who have then faced little or no charges or convictions — with the families of the victims getting little to nothing in exchange for a family member being taken from them forever,” McKenzie said. “We know what losing feels like, we have been losing people for over 400 years, but baby I’m trying to know what winning feels like. I want to know what liberation feels like and I know I will never get to know that feeling without fighting for it. We always have to demand any change and fight for change.”
Chenjerai Kumanyika, assistant professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University and organizer with 215 People’s Alliance and the Debt Collective talked about the pitfalls of institutional racism that are often overlooked when addressing the issue.
“I certainly recognize the importance of dialogue for anti-racist work and other dimensions of social justice. I learned many of my own dialogue facilitation skills in the context of Penn State’s important ‘World in Conversation’ project,” Kumanyika said. “However, when faced with serious demands that require universities to take risks on behalf of vulnerable folks, redistribute resources, and challenge their own alumni, universities often deploy the racial dialogues as a way to avoid those demands. In other words, they actually deploy racial dialogue against meaningful structural change for Black people. Another problem with dialogue is that they often set up people who are extremely informed about race, power, and experiences of oppression against folks who have barely thought about or study these issues. This sets everyone up for failure. Study groups that allow people to start from the same pool of historical and empirical realities can be a useful alternative to dialogues which reduce real oppression to matters of opinion.”
Koby Murphy, youth organizer with the Philadelphia Student Union, spoke out about continued segregation — even within the public education context — and the issues it creates for students. For instance, while students in one school are thinking about their future after graduation, students in other schools are worried about if they have clean drinking water.
“The daily education experience can really differ between magnet, charter, and traditional public schools,” Murphy said. “While some students deal with toxic conditions like mold, asbestos, overcrowded classrooms and lots of school police — other students at select magnet, charter, and traditional public schools don’t — so they focus more on their classes or extracurriculars and they get more out their education.”
Other speakers included Nanre Naziger and Tierra Williams, organizers with 3/20 Coalition in State College, who talked about their involvement in the Justice for Osaze movement.
“I think more than anything it shows how people are craving space to reflect on these issues and think collectively about how to address structural racism in our institution and society.”
—Shivaani Selvaraj, director, Penn State Center Philadelphia
The symposium featured 23 online breakout sessions where participants could discuss action steps including letter writing as political advocacy; youth organizing for racial justice; seeing through the anti-black diversity playbook; how to be an effective scholar-activist; promoting anti-racism and diversity initiatives; organizing to defund the police and alternative solutions; the labor movement and BLM and processing the response to the BLM movement.
Shivaani Selvaraj, director for the Penn State Center Philadelphia — a Penn State Outreach service — and one of the organizers of the symposium, said the breakout sessions helped attendees reflect on and apply concepts introduced during the presentations.
“The breakout sessions were short, but were long enough to plant seeds,” Selvaraj said. “I think more than anything it shows how people are craving space to reflect on these issues and think collectively about how to address structural racism in our institution and society.”