Geneseo hosted panel discussions on Monday April 3 and Tuesday April 4, and as a result Geneseo students have varying opinions on the effects of activist events.
The discussions were a part of Geneseo’s annual tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., presenting Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists Freddie Greene Biddle and Jennifer Lawson. Jennifer Lawson serves as the Senior Vice President for Television and Digital Video Content at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Biddle works primarily to increase black voter registration.
Multiple departments sponsored the events, including the History Department, the Office of Multicultural Programs and the Sociology Department.
The first discussion, “Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement: An Intergenerational Conversation of 50+ Years of Struggle,” highlighted the backgrounds of the two speakers and of Shaketa Redden, who belongs to Buffalo’s Black Love Resists in the Rust group. The three answered such questions as why they got involved in civil rights activism and what each has done to accomplish change within their lifetime.
Effecting change is necessary, as there are psychological damages that are done to the mind and the body when undergoing these challenges, according to Biddle. Each speaker gave anecdotes as to why they joined both small and large groups of activists; Biddle spoke of how she was personally driven to activism when a bullet was shot through her family’s living room in Mississippi.
Jennifer Lawson expressed that she mobilizes around issues based on what she thinks she can achieve in her lifetime. That topic was significantly expanded upon in the panel on Tuesday April 4.
“The first discussion kind of brought a new perspective to activism—about why they were motivated to show their activism,” communication major sophomore Jamie-Lynn Irwin said. “We might not have that similar motivation, but hopefully we can be there for somebody, just like they’re being there for us.”
The second discussion, “Civil Rights Movement, Black Power and Justice Today,” again involved the biographies of Biddle and Jennifer Lawson, with a discussion focused more on the modern relevance of activism. Some audience members asked questions about how to handle the intersection of racism and sexism or how to address issues of gentrification in urban areas.
Intern for the SNCC junior Tanairi Taylor posed her own question about how to combat cultural appropriation. Jennifer Lawson responded by counseling prospective activists to maintain a list of priorities.
“I feel that time is such a limited commodity, that there is so little time,” Lawson said. “When I look at what I feel I need to work on and to do, [cultural appropriation] comes up so low on my priority list. I could care less about whether Kim Kardashian decides that she’s going to do an afro or whatever. If I can only do three things, it’s not on my list.”
Taylor didn’t fully agree with Jennifer Lawson’s dismissal of cultural appropriation as an issue.
“I just wanted to know how to make people start to care,” she said. “It just leads to a perpetuation of oppression and I don’t know whether you can just ignore it.”
SNCC intern junior Jenna Lawson, however, agreed with Jennifer Lawson that there are substantial priorities that activists need to realize and expedite when working toward constructively impacting society.
It is not that cultural appropriation does not exist; it is that activists need to reframe their priorities, according to Jenna Lawson.
“There’s a limit to what you can do on social media,” Jenna Lawson said. “I think that they reaffirmed that if you’re not doing tangible, social change, then you’re just saying empty words, essentially.”
Black Student Union president junior Zakiya Rose said that she believes that events like these have a mixed impact.
“It lets us know that the school cares, even if sometimes the students don’t care. But if I’m being honest, I’m not sure if it’s helpful for students who aren’t already into activism or equality, because those aren’t the people attending the events,” she said. “Generally, I think they’re beneficial. If they weren’t happening, I think that we’d be more worried about general support from faculty.”
Rose additionally emphasized the value of direct interaction between students.
“I’d encourage students who don’t feel comfortable going to these events just to go,” she said. “Even if you don’t want to participate, at least go and hear people’s stories. The only way things change is through direct interaction—you can’t stay in your own bubble.”
Associate news editor Malachy Dempsey contributed to writing this article.