Black Lives Matter panel tackles tough questions, creates space for positive discourse

by | Dec 12, 2016

Social justice experts, students, faculty and staff recently gathered together at UMSL to promote unity and healing and push for change.
Black Live Matter, UMSL

Black Lives Matter panelists (from left) Mustafa Abdullah, Timothy Lewis and Chris Sullivan discussed the movement from their individual perspectives as scholars, activists and professionals who are committed to social justice reparation and reform. (Photo by August Jennewein)

A panel discussion led by social justice experts involved with the Black Lives Matter movement locally drew a large crowd of faculty, staff and students from the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Panelists Chris Sullivan, UMSL’s clinical director for Counseling Services; Timothy Lewis, a political science doctoral candidate at UMSL specializing in minority politics and politics of discriminated groups; and Mustafa Abdullah, lead organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, led conversation in the Dec. 7 event at the Pilot House in the Millennium Student Center.

Each discussed his own views on why the Black Lives Matter movement is necessary, talked about some of its obstacles and fielded a diverse set of questions from eager audience members.

Some questions challenged the movement.

When one audience member cited concerns about the alleged negative behavior of some Black Lives Matter protestors, Lewis spoke to his own view of the movement’s scope and purpose.

“We must be careful to delineate the actions of individuals from the actions of a movement,” he said. “Black Lives Matter – as a movement – has never advocated violence or the visceral language of hatred. The Black Lives Matter movement only wants to reinforce that black lives are just as valuable, have just as much to offer and are just as contributory to society as white lives or Hispanic lives or Asian lives. It is not only black lives matter, but black lives matter.”

Other questioners and some panel members offered constructive critiques and suggestions for improvement. A call for Black Lives Matter to be more inclusive of LGBT members of the African American community was issued, and a lively but respectful debate ensued over whether the movement, founded by three black women, should have a unifying, Martin Luther King Jr.- or Malcolm X-like leader.

The vast majority of questions during the two-hour discussion overwhelmingly pointed toward a desire for peaceful and sustainable agency and change.

One female faculty member captured the general spirit when she, after identifying herself as an ally, asked of the panel, “What more can I do? How can I help?”

Though disagreements arose, the tone of the event stayed respectful and inclusive throughout.

The chance to have these sometimes difficult and complex conversations is absolutely vital, said Jennifer Boston, president of UMSL’s chapter of the Associated Students of the University of Missouri.

The senior political science major said that ASUM – which organized the event in conjunction with UMSL’s Associated Black Collegians and Political Science Academy – wanted to respond to students across campus who have been asking, especially in the wake of the presidential election, for more opportunities to discuss current social events and concerns.

“ASUM is a nonpartisan organization,” Boston said. “We pride ourselves on providing information and encouraging civic engagement on campus and within the community, so that’s part of what we’re doing here today.”

“This is a chance for us to exchange information, to talk about these important issues that have arisen over the course of the last several years,” said Sullivan, who spoke from a mental health perspective about the ways in which the movement, as well as open and inclusive university settings, can be a part of unity and healing. “In spite of the challenges we face – whether in economics, housing, the criminal justice system – we can uplift each other as a society, too.”

The UMSL Experience

Jami Hirsch

Jami Hirsch