If you asked me a year ago who Ella Baker was, I would have said she was the Civil Rights activist I pretended to know, but did not. When my friends preached about her wisdom over community marches and coffee, I’d nod in agreement, but truthfully, I never read past her Wikipedia page.
Dr. Strmic-Pawl came to Coastal this year and brought a few things with her; some wisdom, truth-bombs, passion, intelligence, about eight different eyeglasses (why so many?) and, most recently, Ella Baker Day (EBD). Dr. SP founded EBD and the campaign to make it a nationally recognized holiday. In doing so, she posed a few questions: Why is there such little recognition of women, especially women of color? Why do we glorify the contributions of a single leader, neglecting the contributions of millions?
Ella Baker not only contributed enormously as an individual to organizations such as NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC, but she mentored many of these organizations so they could be sustainable and self-perpetuating. She was a believer in participatory democracy, the idea a movement belongs to the people rather than a person, and challenged the concept of “leaders and followers” by mobilizing people to create change collectively. She was enormously influential and could have easily built a public platform on her successes, but believed too much focus on an individual belittled the struggles, victories and autonomy of the whole.
EBD 2014 included a panel discussion where panelists discussed their struggles and successes in their activist work, particularly as women of color. Charley Bovill, Vice President of PEACE, who sat on the panel said, “Hearing the wisdom and stories of the older women sitting on the panel [Bertha Fladger- Multicultural Services, Barbara Blain-Olds- City Council, and Zenobia K. Grant- Founder and Director of Frameworks: A New Generation of Storytellers] was truly inspiring. Listening to them talk about what they went through, how they pushed, and are successful African-American women is inspiring.”
Like all good things, the panel discussion had to eventually end. Some students, however, continued the conversation. Wesley Boyd and Briana Dinkins of Real Teal Radio followed up with an hour-long segment about race. Briana said, “Just hearing about Ella Baker and everything she did woke me up and made me think ‘I want to do something big, I want to make a difference.’ We decided to do the segment on race because we wanted to do something different, something real. I feel like people really need to be educated.”
Dinkins and Boyd invited their own panel, exploring topics like modern racism, skintone stratification, white privilege, and the concept of “color-blindness.”
Following the segment, a conversation started about how to strengthen the efforts of those already “movement making” on campus. Student organizations decided to schedule a roundtable to discuss forming a network, their goals for the upcoming 2014-2015 school year, and working together to further the interest of the whole. To me, it’s obvious the movement has spread far beyond Ella Baker’s activism and I think that’s exactly what she hoped for.