When Mohamed Nur ’19 started envisioning what No Hate November would look like at Bowdoin this year, he decided to throw as wide a net as possible. Nur is a vice president for the Bowdoin Student Government, which each year organizes a month of programming aimed at ending bias and reinforcing diversity, inclusivity, and equity.
“After a divisive presidential election, and a divisive presidency that is persecuting many different identities, I wanted to address in the programming as many identities as possible,” Nur said. “I wanted to have different mediums to bring people in.”
So over the past four-plus weeks of events, students and guests addressed, among other issues, Islamaphobia, socioeconomic divisions, and the intersections of sexuality, gender, and culture.
For the keynote address, on Dec. 5, civil rights activist and Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay Mckesson ’07 spoke about activists’ work going forward.
Before he began his talk, Mckesson reflected on Bowdoin. “I think about Bowdoin as a place where I fell in love with my mind,” he told the students who had packed Morrell Lounge to hear him. “[It was] a place where I learned what it meant to dream and believe and imagine, and those in so many ways are the key skills to what it means to organize.”
Having Mckesson on campus as a finale to No Hate November reflected students’ desire for action, according to Nur. “I think people, especially in the political culture now, want a way to do something,” he said.
Part of McKesson’s busy two days on campus included a workshop on activism. Before he spoke to the students who had gathered for this session, Mckesson asked each of them to express an idea they had been grappling with recently.
After listening to all of the students, Mckesson noted that he had done “what all good organizers do” — that is, he had given a voice to everyone in the group. “Organizers are relationship builders,” he said. If a leader begins a meeting by eliciting comments from every attendee, “they are more likely to talk later because the power has been shared.”
In the discussion that followed, Mckesson spoke about a number of ideas, including the insidious nature of pessimism and the need to prevent a sense of defeatism from undermining the fight for change. “The system may be working just as it was designed,” he said. “But because people made it, it can be made again.”
He pointed specifically at racism. “Why do we give racism this godly power?” he asked. “Because people created racism, we can change it.” He added, “If you think racism is part of human nature, then you’ve already lost.”
Pessimism can also be reinforced by the barrage of narratives we encounter in our media. “We cede storytelling to academics and journalists,” Mckesson said. Meanwhile, narratives of resistance, of hope and positivity, are not as commonly reported on.
And these positive narratives might include, perhaps, Mckesson’s vision of developing “new ways of being with each other.” He said, “We have to create a new way of being peers and equals.”
A few quotes from DeRay Mckesson’s Dec. 5 talk on activism
“There are a lot of people who say things like, ‘The country was founded on racism and it’s baked into the fabric of society, that the society is operating just like it was built and designed.’ Those things are like the path to hopelessness. I am reminded that people made this system, and because people made it, we can make it differently.”
“Part of this is understanding the ways systems and structures actually bear on people’s lives…The more we understand the system, the more it helps us think about how we can dismantle a system we know is hurting people.”
“Responsible optimism…has to be rooted in reality, it has to be rooted in a deep understanding in how systems and structures work today. But we are optimists because we know there is something better. Harriet Tubman was not a fool for believing in her vision. Rosa Parks was not a fool for believing in the work she did.”
“Oppression traps us in the present. People are trapped in the present because the trauma is so real every moment that they can’t imagine anything more. Part of this work is about naming [what] is happening to people, and helping them get out of that trap, helping people think about a world that is bigger than the trauma that they’re in.”
“What [poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde] was saying is the ideology of oppression will never be the ideology that ends oppression. That we will have to make something new, a deeper way of thinking about this space. And that has to be part of the way we think about freedom….If we think about freedom, it’s not only the absence of oppression but the presence of justice and joy.”
“Social media has allowed us to push back on these ideas of erasure, and erasure often manifests in two ways: one is that either the story is never told or it’s told by everybody but us. But in this moment [specifically during the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in St. Louis, Missouri] we became the un-erased, we became the ones who told our stories.”
“We often think about this idea that language is the first act. The first way power is distributed and redistributed is through our words. So it matters when Dylann Roof is not called a terrorist even though he was caught with white supremacist writings — that matters. And that matters because it is saying white people can’t be terrorists in this country, that that type of evil isn’t white.”
“In this moment, the role of storytellers is never more important. What Trump does incredibly well is he tells stories. Mind you, they’re rooted in lies and they have no relationship to the truth, but he is a masterful storyteller. He never gives super declarative statements, he’s always threading a narrative, and he’s telling stories because he knows ideas travel through stories.”
“The best organizers are storytellers. The best activists understand how to take stories and tease out ideas for a larger purpose, so we can build coalitions.”
“Too often we’re not dreaming big enough. If your dream will only change you, than you haven’t dreamt big enough. If you get anything out of this, you’ll take away this idea that you have to dream in a way that if you got everything you dreamed for, it would change the world. Your responsibility to the common good and to each other and to this world is to dream a dream big enough that is rooted in equity and justice, one that makes all of us brothers and sisters and siblings who can do this work well, and one that eventually gets us free.”