Yesterday I went to perhaps one of the most important and enriching events of my entire academic career, of course discounting actually getting into University. This was the ‘Black Leadership Institute’ a one-day leadership seminar hosted by Multicultural Affairs (the department I volunteer for) which was open to all students whether or not they identified as black or African American, although those in attendance were predominantly African American.
The day consisted of a keynote address by Orlando Bishop of Align Performance who gave an immensely powerful talk on the importance of aligning who you are, where you are, and where you want to be. His central message concerning thinking about the future but focusing on the now and remembering the importance of having a reason or a ‘why’ behind everything you do really resonated with me. I’ve always been focused on five years from now and never really concerned myself with now, and that’s something I must get better at. I left the institute more determined and focused to move forward in my career and my personal development than I think I have ever been before and I have since found a job I want to apply for when I leave University that I think is perfect for my skills and interests.
The rest of the conference consisted of break-out sessions, some of which I got to pick and others which were compulsory. I attended workshops on the leadership lessons of Toussaint Loverture, an instrumental figure in the Haitian Revolution, on how to use digital humanities to place modern African American popular culture within the broader history of black expression, and female empowerment. I learnt a lot from all of these workshops, in particular the differences between slavery and the construction of race in Haiti and the United States and the importance of the autobiographical narrative in African American culture in everything from Frederick Douglass to Jay Z.
However perhaps the most important thing I learnt from the day was to listen. I learnt more about the African American experience in the United States than I have in two and a half years of academic study of American history. I was able to discuss with Orlando Bishop what it was like being African American at Yale, talk to the group around my table about the feelings of fear they experience when walking down a street and seeing a police officer even though they’re doing nothing wrong, and even listened to a discussion on the divisions between the African American community from a girl who spent her high school life being accused of ‘acting white’ and ‘not being black enough’. Though it may seem ironic that I’m writing this as a blog post, I think the most important thing that was reinforced to me and that I learnt was to listen to the voices of the marginalized and to not try and pontificate or claim knowledge where I can have none. I’ve studied slavery and segregation and follow every new #BlackLivesMatter protest but as a white Brit I cannot possibly speak to the experiences of African Americans, and I won’t try. I learnt at the institute that it’s important to try and become a little more empathetic every day, and that’s a powerful lesson I’m going to take into next week and the rest of my time here at UT Arlington and hopefully beyond.