Inspired by the possibility of Richard Spencer coming to speak on campus, the School of Social Work Student Union hosted an event Saturday titled “Building Power: Organizing Effectively Against White Supremacy.” Social work student Kristina Agbebiyi, one of the organizers of the event, said she hoped it would provide an opportunity for people interested in creating change to come together.
“(I hope people gain) tangible skills for organizing and also more confidence to join organizing (groups) and realizing that there are people here that are already doing the work and are looking for other people to join them, and so this conference could be a way for them to connect with each other,” Agbebiyi said.
Information graduate student Vidhya Aravind opened the event with a keynote speech, which included an overview of how she got involved with activism, as well as tips on how to organize effectively.
She emphasized the importance of seeing organizers and activists as real people rather than putting them on pedestals. Aravind also talked about her fear that people will remain inactive in their communities because they think they can’t make the same contribution as prominent activists.
“What if instead of a powerful pile of people who care, we’re left with five burnt-out organizers trying to do all the work because everyone else doesn’t think that they can do it?” Aravind said.
She also discussed the importance of having empathy when others make mistakes, as well as understanding the impact of one’s own mistakes.
“No part of the understanding of harm as a normal human experience requires that we ignore it or requires that we don’t put effort into healing it,” she said.
After the opening speech, the session broke into groups that focused on topics such as community organization and individual leadership. After the sessions, there was a closing keynote speech.
Michigan Mellon Fellow Austin McCoy spoke in the closing speech. He began by giving an overview of the history of state and vigilante violence against people of color, citing the 1979 shooting of Eula Love and the 2018 shooting of Stephon Clark, among others.
“Violence is a tradition in the United States. It sits at the heart of American exceptionalism,” McCoy said.
Social Work student Armaity Minwalla said she attended the event because she wants to become more involved with organizing in the Social Work School.
“We sort of have a philosophy that we are here to empower marginalized communities and I don’t know that we always practice what we preach,” Minwalla said.
As McCoy put it in his closing remarks, “It’s about just showing up for each other.”