Black History Month panel discusses becoming an advocate, ally and activist

Shawna Patterson-Stephens, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer, introduces herself to CMU students Monday, Feb. 6 in the Sarah and Daniel Opperman Auditorium.

“You can be a changemaker no matter your age, your major, your passion, or position,” Ku’Juana Quinn said.

Quinn, a Central Michigan University junior, held the event “If Not You, Then Who,” a panel of Black faculty members and community leaders, to help students unlock their potential to be allies, advocates and activists.

The panel was held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 6 in the Sarah R. Opperman Auditorium in Park Library. It was the third of over a dozen Black History Month events.

The event, open to students, faculty and staff, created a space for attendees to ask questions about their experiences with the three A’s: allyship, advocacy and activism.

“I wanted to hold this event because in college life, we don’t talk about the three A’s (allyship, advocacy and activism). We assume we have to be older to start talking about them and putting them into practice when we can start now,” Quinn said.  

The panel consisted of four CMU faculty members: Assistant Director of Mentoring Initiative in the Multicultural Academic Student Services (MASS) Jewel Larkins; Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions Wade Tomson; Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Stan Shingles; and Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Shawna Patterson-Stevens.

The following questions were asked of the panelists. The answers are edited for content length and clarity.

When did you first experience or witness any of these terms (allyship, advocacy and activism) growing up?

Larkins: I would say my first experience with advocacy was when I was in elementary school. I grew up in a home that experienced quite a bit of domestic violence and to see not only myself, my siblings, my mother, but … those who rallied around her because they were passionate about us getting out of the situation. That was the first time I experienced it. Today, I would definitely say I use that feeling of apathy that I received. I use that in my daily interactions, in my daily work, because I’m not necessarily the one that’s leading the marches or leading the sit-ins or leading the town hall, but I want to be the one that’s facilitating and projecting the voices and promoting those around me.

Shingles: As I look back as a young person growing up in this neighborhood that had a lot of violence, a lot of poverty, not a lot of two-parent households, a lot of illiteracy, none of those things, none of those categories, I felt that. As a young person, I would say to my mother, ‘Why doesn’t John,’ who was my best friend growing up and is like a brother to me, ‘Why doesn’t he have the same clothes that I have? Why doesn’t he have three meals a day?’ You don’t understand advocacy of allyship, because we think about some of the identities like racial identity, sexual orientation. Oftentimes allyship comes in embracing others who have less than you have and you get the opportunity to be their champion. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I think it’s always been an innate part of me.

Tomson: It wasn’t until I got into the MASS office in 2016 that I really started thinking about how that term could be given to the community of color. I remember actually thinking, ‘How do we turn that around and make other things start learning and start being trained to be allies more than just that one community?’ I feel like I give my allyship to those communities by lifting up their voices and finding the voices and the conversation that need to be had.

How do you think you are still embarking on your journey towards allyship, activism and advocacy?

Tomson: For me, I’m continuing to try to surround myself with people who have different perspectives than me and allow them to help form the next steps. What you see is what you get and we have a long way to go for new students who are coming in to truly see what our campus has to offer. We still have folks who come to campus and they don’t see communities of color, or they don’t see that until they come for a special visit, or they actually get to spend a significant amount of time on campus. We have more work to do to show them that there is a life, community and support and that students like you all here are making that happen.

Patterson-Stevens: I try to surround myself with people that see the world differently, it keeps me sharp. Plus if I surround myself with more of the same, then I’m not upholding what I say when it comes to inclusion and diversity, right? I surround myself with a diverse group of people. We don’t have to see eye-to-eye, but we still respect and care for one another. I’m also working really hard to lean into the idea of cultural humility. There is something called cultural competency, and in my line of work you have to hit certain types of competencies to at least be hireable, let alone maintain your job. What I believe is that, it’s always going to be a journey. The world is always shifting, and cultural humility asks us to think about learning as a process. It’s always ongoing and always aims for more of it. I understand that it’s never going to stand still and I work really hard to make sure that I’m not just on the edge but I’m ahead of the curve.

What would you say to a student who is trying to figure out ways to be less performative and more active within their community?

Patterson-Stevens: I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of performative activism because I know what it means: I don’t feel comfortable with us and the idea that especially for those that are actually trying to best their ability, policing the actions of others who are trying to align themselves with the movement, with the cause, with an idea, and sometimes you don’t have the energy. Maybe you don’t know where to start. I think it’s actually dangerous that we put ourselves in a situation where we might be policing how people do activism instead of really putting attention into why we have to put a black square on our Facebook profile in the first place. I think it’s a distraction. It makes us turn on one another instead of turning towards the issue. I think the thing that could be used or the conversation that could be had with that individual is, you’re trying today, that was the best you could do. Give yourself some credit for that because some people aren’t even thinking about that.

To learn more about Black History Month on campus, visit MASS on Instagram.

To find more resources, contact the MASS Office.