The Heartbeat of Union: Who’s Here?

“Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize that teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives”

Ella’s Song, Sweet Honey in the Rock

I have a terrible “poker face”. If I’m excited or displeased, you’ll know before I open my mouth. I’m still working on that. When I first heard of the “Keeping Ferguson Alive” discussion, my face immediately told my story. I was doubtful. Apprehensive, even. Usually when well-meaning people with degrees and relative privilege have discussions about where we go from here, we miss the fact that the people who should actually be speaking aren’t even invited to the table. We should always be curious.

But then I saw the list of panel participants, and I felt much better. The panel consisted of four Union students, Khadijah Abdul-Mateen, Aimme Rogers, Kendrick Kemp, and Foster J. Pinkney, professor of philosophy Dr. Cornel West, and Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou. These are six incredible leaders of their own merit. The four students are incredibly active and engaged on campus and in their community. It absolutely makes sense that these students were sent to Ferguson this summer on behalf of Union Theological Seminary. Dr. West, framed the conversation as an extension of the “militarization of our schools”, alluding to the practices of security scanning in public high schools. Rev. Sekou provided heartfelt reflections on what it means to be a preacher in the midst of societal turmoil. For me, it made sense that these six brothers and sisters could offer harmonious reflection together. And it meant something special to me to see this conversation happen with people I trusted leading the discussion.

Still, it isn’t just about who’s on the stage. It’s about who’s there to listen.

As a teacher, I know that coordinating any kind of off-campus visit is a headache in itself. But when full time teacher and Union student Grace O’Keefe invited seven of her students to join her in this discussion, I saw love.

I happened to sit right in front of Grace and her students while I was live-tweeting the event. These students weren’t paraded around like cutesy mascots. These students were meaningfully engaged in the conversation with a beloved teacher. I listened to them snap at high points of energy, gasp at provoking statements, and ask questions like “are we getting scanning too? Don’t they see how that won’t work?” In fact, the first two questions from the audience were questions that Ms. O’Keefe’s class had written on index cards. At one point, Foster Pinkney spoke to the reality of stifling pedagogy as an obstacle to true liberation, and quickly a student from Ms. O’Keefe’s class said “well, that’s why I’m glad we have our Senior Seminar with Ms. O”.

More than once Wednesday night, panelists spoke to the courageous leadership of young people. I could easily write about what amazing things Dr. West said, but you’d expect that. I could easily talk about Rev. Sekou’s charisma or Aimme Roger’s insightful food justice question. But that’s expected, and you can still check out the video link here. I think the panelists would rather that I use this opportunity to share that students in this city, and others, are absolutely ready to participate in a revolution. I trust that all of the members of that panel would want me to take this time to remind us to listen to the children. Are we ready to take them seriously?

The thing about town hall community discussions is that it’s hard to call people to action without employing the top-down model. I was initially skeptical because I’ve seen charismatic leaders throw slogans rather than solutions. But if anything was learned from this experience, it is that teachers like Ms. O’Keefe and students like hers are seeking a community of encouragement and recognition. Do we hear them when they speak out against school closings or unfair enrollment practices? I stayed after the panel and watched Ms. O’Keefe introduce her students to the panelists. Full of energy and excitement, one thing became clear– when children move to the beat of their own drum (or Beats Headphones), the revolution begins.

I got two sermons that Wednesday night. One from the comments of dynamic panelists, and another from the reciprocated love between Ms. O’Keefe and her students. I am still processing how beautiful it was to see a teacher and her students in the loving fellowship of civic engagement. If we think this movement is happening without young people, we are seriously mistaken. And as it proved clear that night, young people all over this country are using their own language to make sense of Michael Brown’s death. It is time to listen to the youngest among us.

If you have a story you’d like us to cover here at The Heartbeat, email Candace Simpson at cs3282@utsnyc.edu . We’d love to have you.