Every four years since 2006, the University of Puget Sound and the Race and Pedagogy Institute have held a national conference that invites thousands of local, national, and international participants to engage in conversations about race.
Director of the Race and Pedagogy Institute Dexter Gordon is also the director of the African American Studies program at the University of Puget Sound, which in May saw its first cohort of graduates with the major. In the early 2000s, Dr. Gordon saw the need for a wide-reaching discussion about race and eradication of ignorance after two black-face incidences occurred at the majority white school. He wrote an open letter to campus, organized brown-bag discussions to ask faculty to critically consider the role of race in their curriculum, and, in 2004, he and his supporters proposed to host a conference.
Two years later, the first Race and Pedagogy National Conference was held, and it had over 2,000 participants. Every four years since, Dr. Gordon and a team of dedicated organizers have worked tirelessly to create a conference that both challenges and inspires students, community members, faculty, and staff as they immerse themselves in discussions about race.
From Sept. 27 to 29, this year’s conference took place on the college campus, which was continually recognized throughout the weekend as land belonging to the Puyallup tribe. Keynote speakers included two of the three founders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors; author and journalist Jeff Chang; Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians; and Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
These impressive speakers were complemented throughout the weekend by 12 spotlight sessions, 120 presentations, many artistic performances, and the presence of more than 2,000 participants. More than 600 volunteers worked throughout the weekend to ensure that the conference ran smoothly.
Titled Radically Re-imaging the Project of Justice: Narratives of Rupture, Resilience, and Liberation, the fourth quadrennial Race and Pedagogy National Conference dove into a wide host of difficult and critical conversations with joy, fervor, and grit.
If you were unable to make it to the conference, we’ve recapped the intersectional and wide-reaching topics covered by the five keynote speakers, all of whom incisively and powerfully re-imagined new frameworks for the project of justice.
Brian Cladoosby is one of the most senior tribal leaders in the Pacific Northwest. He serves as the chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal community, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, and the president of the Association of Washington Tribes.
Despite these many titles, Cladoosby’s comportment in his keynote speech was casual and friendly — he joked about his favorite bumper stickers — while also being convicted and proud. He spoke to the importance of recognizing historical trauma as something that affects generations of people; for Cladoosby, these traumas are entwined with Native American identity.
“Historical trauma response is exhibited in a variety of ways, most predominantly, though, substance abuse, which is used as a vehicle for attempting to numb the pain associated with trauma,” he said. “Within Native American communities, high rates of alcoholism and suicides have direct correlation to the violence, mistreatment, and abuses experienced at Indian boarding schools, and the loss of cultural heritage and identity these institutions facilitated.”
In the face of this long and seemingly inescapable cycle, Cladoosby swore that his goal is to eliminate historical trauma one generation at a time, and that he is proud to bear witness to that healthy destruction within his own family.
“They say it takes two generations to break a cycle. My great grandfather, my grandfather, my father, were all alcoholics. My first encounter with alcohol was at eight years old, and it started a 20-year downward slide,” Cladoosby said. “But my greatest joy in life is being able to stand before you and share with you how my family is destroying historical trauma. I have two grandkids, one is 11 this year, the other is six, and for the first time in our family in 100 years, we have kids being raised in a home that is 100 percent drug and alcohol free.”
The destruction of deep-seated historical trauma can also come about through education, Cladoosby said, which is why the Swinomish tribe funds all higher education for every young member who graduates high school or earns a GED.
In this same vein, Cladoosby also turned to the broader educational system in the United States to deplore schools for “white-washing” historical realities when teaching children, making horrible events more palatable and therefore erasing truths and propagating ignorance.
“I wish we could start a movement where we have the true history of our country taught to our children,” said Cladoosby, who, many times during his speech, read from journal entries of Christopher Columbus or from old newspaper entries that detailed — shockingly and graphically — the genocide of indigenous people. “We need to advocate for the presence of this very real history in our schools. Perhaps people would have a different perspective about Christopher Columbus and the way this country came to be if they knew what really happened.”
Previously the executive director of The Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, Jeff Chang is now the first vice president of narrative, arts, and culture at Race Forward, an organization that helps people take effective and innovative action toward achieving racial equity.
Chang is also a journalist and author who has written extensively about culture, politics, the arts, and music in his three published books and articles for The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, Slate, and more.
Chang’s speech explored the troubling nature of the re-segregation of the United States in the last half century — issues around which his 2016 book, We Gon’ Be Alright, centers.
“We have dismantled the structures put up during the civil rights revolution to move us all toward equity and justice,” said Chang. “That’s brought us into this very fraught historical moment.”
Chang went on to define this moment as one engulfed by culture wars: competing narratives polarize us, one side longing for an America of the past, the other fighting for an America that has yet to be born.
“Like climate change, it seems that the cultural wars have become a permanent feature of our daily lives. They literally blind us to each other. And it’s in these massive blind spots that economic and racial inequality grow like poison.”
Generation after generation has been drawn back into the crisis of racial injustice, said Chang, and 1965 was the last great national consensus for racial justice and cultural equity. Since then, we have been in a state of constant culture wars, even as we race toward 2042, the year that America will be majority minority.
“If we are all minorities, how do we begin to imagine a new majority?” Chang asked. “What values will we move forward upon? What choices will we make? How will we be able to all get free, to rupture the crisis cycle? These questions cut to the core of who we are as educators, as mentors, as students, as activists, as artists, as people trying to live in community with one another.”
Chang’s solution to the ever-deepening divide in the U.S. was not one that had to do with politics at all. In fact, he maintained that politics is not the answer, because “we live in a moment when politics does not provide justice.” Rather, he said, it is “art and culture (that) allows us to close the distance between the self and the other.”
“Racism is supported by a specific kind of refusal. It’s a denial of empathy. But art and culture allows us to see again, to experience empathy, and empathy, of course, is the first necessary step to equity. Equity means representation, inclusion, and access, and it comes down to forming relationships between ourselves and others that . . . are not based in the values of exclusion, exploitation, extraction . . . but that are rooted in the values of exchange, trust, and mutuality.”
Empathy without action, Chang warned, is empty: Seeing one another, closing the gaps between us, is only the first step. There must be action attached. But if there is, he said, perhaps we can begin to imagine and build more equal and open and just communities.
“(We should know) what it means to dream again,” said Chang. “To imagine a world in which segregation and violence and war are not the answer — they’re the questions to be solved.”
Of all of President Barack Obama’s senior advisors, Valerie B. Jarrett served the longest — from January 2009 to January 2017. During her time in this role, Jarrett oversaw the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls. Her advocacy work included campaigns to reform our criminal justice system, end sexual assault, and reduce gun violence.
Jarrett’s keynote took a different form than the others: She sat onstage with University of Puget Sound professors Renee Simms and Alisa Kessel as they each asked her questions they had prepared, as well as questions they had received in advance from students.
In response to how she would characterize the current political moment in the U.S., Jarrett said that she believes we are in a time of transition.
“Some of it is good, most of it is hard,” she said. “But change has always been hard in our country. Democracies are big and messy and as they evolve, as the character and goals of our country grow, you have this inevitable tension. I think right now we are feeling that tension.”
Much of her answers turned back to this idea: that democracies are difficult and imperfect, and that ours is changing, and that we as citizens have a responsibility to be involved and vocal about the issues that concern us — if we are not, she said, it is impossible for our country to move in a positive direction.
“It’s a time where we all have a responsibility as citizens. There is no office more important than the office of citizen. (Voting) is a basic responsibility, and your vote makes a difference. We are in the middle of something big, and I think we have choices to make, and if you care about the future of our country, you have to get involved and participate.”
Jarrett voiced concern that there are states that make it more difficult for people to vote. She also expressed frustration at the current state of the country: The ongoing crisis following the zero-tolerance policy at the U.S.-Mexico border; the unjust nature of a justice system that has resulted in 2.2 million prisoners — 25 percent of the world’s population of prisoners — in the U.S.; the trend of schools suspending and expelling students of color at a disproportionately high rate; and the often broken relationships between police departments and the communities they are meant to protect.
“These problems are tough,” she said. “We didn’t get into them overnight. We’re not going to get out of them overnight. But the perfection of democracy takes time, and it takes citizens who are willing to get in there and push, and when you can’t get what you want at one level you have to figure out another way to go and do it.”
In this light, Jarrett urged audience members not to feel discouraged in the face of actions of the federal government: It’s not the only tool we have, she said, and there are a lot of important movements and reforms that can happen at the state level.
Of the many questions she answered, she always came back to this call that everyone should participate, everyone should vote, and everyone should be required to have a basic knowledge of how the government works so that he or she knows how, where, and why to get involved in an effective manner.
“A healthy democracy requires the participation of normal citizens,” Jarrett said. “Your vote gives you voice and your voice gives you power. Get educated, and show up.”
Co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network and founder of grassroots organization Dignity and Power Now, Patrisse Cullors is an artist, author, organizer, and educator. Her memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, was published in 2016 and instantly became a New York Times bestseller.
Cullors took her place in the center of the stage to a standing ovation and a rush of intense applause — the audience was undeniably excited about her presence. She accepted the excitement graciously, then launched into a speech that demystified the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement, explaining the impulse behind it and the long history of violence against black people that made it necessary.
“I’m pretty sure most of us remember where we were when George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013,” she said. Her memory of that Saturday is vivid: She was in a small town visiting a mentee who had just received a 10-year sentence for a non-violent crime. She asked him how he thought the trial would turn out, and he said, “I don’t know, but whatever happens, they don’t care about us.”
Back in her motel room, Cullors waited on Facebook for the verdict, which gradually trickled in: Not guilty on all counts.
“I remember searching the internet, not knowing what to do, and I found Alicia’s post. We had known each other at that point for about a decade. (At the end of the post) she wrote a love note, and that love note was closed off with ‘black lives matter.’ And I saw those three words, and I was like, that’s it. That’s it. I could not have George Zimmerman be the end to the story. So, I put a hashtag on black lives matter. A couple days later I put up a post that said that Alicia and I were starting this thing called Black Lives Matter, and I hope it gets bigger that we can ever imagine.”
Cullors clarified that the hashtag didn’t make the movement: Movements take years of constant and intentional organizing, work that is not easy and that is often thankless. She also clarified that Black Lives Matter didn’t come out of nowhere: It came out of a legacy of the Black Power movement and of the civil rights movement. Black Lives Matter is not only built on these legacies, however; it also challenges them.
“We were really clear when we started Black Lives Matter that we weren’t just talking about cis, heterosexual black men and the fight for them,” Cullors said. “We’re talking about the fight for black women, black trans women, queer black people, black people with disabilities. Black Lives Matter is about all black lives.”
At the five-year anniversary of the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement, Cullors said she was proud to say that the organization has extended far beyond the reaches of the internet, and has grown from 18 to 40 chapters across the globe. The far-reaching nature of the movement is important, Cullors said, because anti-black racism is a global phenomenon — it’s not a civil rights movement, but a human rights movement. And because of that, Black Lives Matter needs the organizing and involvement of all people.
“I spent the last couple years reminding myself that organizing works. That what we do right now can change America tomorrow, can change it two weeks from now, a month from now, 150 years from now,” Cullors said. “And it can’t just be a few of us. It has to be every single one of us.”
Internationally recognized organizer, writer, and public speaker, Alicia Garza is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network and is currently the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which advocates for dignity for millions of domestic workers in the United States. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, TIME, The Guardian, and more.
Following the incisive speech by Cullors, Garza was welcomed with the same enthusiasm by audience members. She thanked Cullors for telling the story of how Black Lives Matter came to be, which clarifies that “hashtags do not create movements, people do.” And she started by emphasizing that the stories we tell are important, because they are always connected to power.
“When we tell stories like anybody who feels a way about a thing can jump on Facebook and organize a movement, that is a story that serves people in power,” Garza said. “You know why? Because it takes out the crucial component of what it takes to build movements, which is organizing. Which is strategy. Which is clarity, of what it is that we’re trying to achieve, who it is that needs to come with us, and what are the barriers that we need to overcome among us so that we can move together across differences, in harmony, moving toward the same goal, even if we have different ways of getting there.”
Garza defined power, which she said has nothing to do with empowerment, a word that describes self-esteem, not systems. “When we talk about power, we’re talking about the ability to make decisions over your own life and the lives of other people. We’re talking about the ability to shape narratives, shaping the story of who we are, who we can be. When we talk about power, we’re talking about who decides where resources go, and where they don’t go, who gets resources and who don’t get resources. And when we talk about power, we’re talking about the ability for there to be consequences when someone disappoints you, and the ability for there to be rewards when people do what you need them to do.”
This is power that black people do not hold, Garza said, and that means that they don’t yet have the ability to control their story. As a result, the impetus behind the movement — how it came to be, and the purpose for its being — is often misunderstood. Garza, like Cullors, argued back against narratives that Black Lives Matter is only about saving the lives of black men, or only about riots and protests.
“Black lives matter is fundamentally a project to make black people powerful in every aspect of our lives. It is fundamentally about interrupting the institutions and the systems that feed off of black lives. Black lives cannot matter when you have 2.2 million people in jails and prisons and one million of those people are black. Black lives cannot matter when you have black women who form 30 percent of the caregiving industry but cannot afford childcare and cannot afford health care.”
Garza’s speech was a rallying cry for people to join the movement of fighting back against these stark inequalities. Black Lives Matter, she said cannot just be a symbol, something that people want to be close to.
“We don’t just want to be close to you, we want you to engage with us, and critically,” Garza said. “The only thing that I am interested in is figuring out how we cross these weird barriers that were put between us that we didn’t create and that we certainly don’t benefit from. How it is that we bring together unlikely groupings of people to get stuff done.
“So, my plea to you is that you join us for real, to contribute substance to the vision of what it takes to make Black Lives Matter — so that all lives can actually matter.”