Friends inundated my Facebook feed with news of Ariyana Smith’s protest at a Knox College basketball game on Nov. 29, 2014. Since then, news of the college’s reaction to her protest have made their way into my email inbox. You may not remember this particular early protest because better known sports names like the St. Louis Rams and the Notre Dame women’s basketball team have now overshadowed her. But, Smith’s protest in which she walked in the now iconic “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” posture toward the flag during the national anthem and then lain prone for four and a half minutes (a time symbolic of the four and a half hours Michael Brown lay dead in a Ferguson, Missouri street last August) and delayed the start of the Knox College basketball game against Fontbonne University in Clayton, Missouri was one of the first.
Her story, however, keeps getting attention (at least in my social media feeds) because I am a 1995 graduate of Knox College, that small liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, where Smith played forward on the women’s basketball team. Athletic department administrators initially suspended her from the team for walking out of the game following the protest. The suspension was later rescinded and College President Teresa Amott issued a public statement expressing regret about the situation that unfolded.
Although I am interested in this story in part because of my personal connection to the school, I am also intrigued because of my passion for empowering leadership, particularly among young people. Initially, my fellow alums invited me and others to write letters, holding the institution accountable to its own values. This liberal arts college, which was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, has long been committed to fostering open discourse and dialogue about difficult subjects including racism. In fact, I would not be equipped to write this blog if I had not had the benefit of that outstanding education that taught me to recognize that race, class and gender have everything to do with how we view the world.
Situations like the ones that have ensued since the shooting of unarmed Black man Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO last August challenges all of us as individuals and institutions to live up to the values we espouse. No longer are words adequate when young black and brown men are shot at epidemic proportions. Although I’m happy to listen to conversation on racially motivated violence, I can’t stop from asking, “What do we DO about the circumstances that breed it?”
This question applies as much or more to the progressive church, where I now spend most of my time. As someone who cares about empowering young leaders, I wonder how we teach them to overcome their fear and speak out when something is very wrong in the world. How do we create with young people new institutional systems that are not threatened by being challenged to live up to its own values? How can we all empower and equip young leaders to challenge institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and classism?
I’m not sure just how we accomplish this goal, but I do know that conversation alone doesn’t seem adequate any more. When I gave my small annual donation to Knox College this year, I asked that the money be used to create a program to encourage and equip student activism. I hope that the college to which I owe so much can find even better ways to teach young adults not only how to think critically, but how to do things in the world that transform society.
Knox College is not alone in this challenge. I ask the churches with whom I work in the United Church of Christ to develop strategies for teaching young people to put their commitments to justice and peace to work on the streets. I coach, consult and train congregations to work better with young people all the time. Perhaps when we are planning our next youth gatherings (either local, regional or national) we include significant opportunities for young people to hone their leadership skills through training in anti-racism, non-violent protest and community organizing?
These are just my first two offerings of idea of what we might do together to show that #BlackLivesMatter. What are your concrete ideas for transforming the institutions with which you work?
More articles about Smith’s protest and resources on the #BlackLivesMatter movement:
- Black Lives Matter movement website;
- Interview with Ariyana Smith in The Nation;
- Article about the athletic protest movement;
- Local article about Smith’s protest and subsequent reactions;
- NBC News Timeline since the shooting of Michael Brown.