A Moment, A Movement | St. Lawrence University

A Moment, A Movement

Monday, March 22, 2021

The first time the Black Laurentian Initiative (BLI) convened, it was a Friday morning. I remember it all—the heat, the passion, the zest. Our frantic attempt to discuss the heaviness we all felt in a 40-minute Zoom call seemed impossible.

The BLI was formed in the Red Summer of 2020. After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, a drive to address the racism and injustice perpetrated in all facets of life brought a group of St. Lawrence University students together.

Amid their frustration, my fellow students and I discussed how we could hold the organizations we are members of accountable and responsible for issues of race. We unanimously affirmed that we could no longer be part of institutions that do not represent our concerns, aspirations, and needs. Black Laurentian Initiative President Hamidou Sylla, among other student representatives, was at the forefront of these conversations. I would, however, like to acknowledge the work of countless other students whose names I may not mention but who have played crucial roles in developing the BLI.

While unpacking the issues, one critical question from Hamidou stands out: “What is our university doing to make a meaningful contribution to these social movements that are important to students?” In other words, what role does our university play in this greater structural machine? We asked these questions because we sincerely believed that in discussing and seeking solutions to the challenges of our broader society, institutions like St. Lawrence must be involved. Asking the right questions is important to seeking the right answers.

It would be an overstatement to say that the first meeting went well, but it was the beginning of a movement and we all knew it. With the help of other members, I played a role in orchestrating those early discussions. I felt tremendous joy as students gave their time and commitment. The grief of racial injustice brought us together, but we were motivated and exhilarated to do the work. So far, our passion, dedication, and advocacy has been received with an eagerness to learn and respond to the BIPOC community's issues.

A central approach in discussing anti-blackness at St. Lawrence was, as Hamidou stated, to “examine the successes and shortcomings of the University’s academic, co-curricular, and institutional efforts to be consciously anti-racist.” Students from various organizations were committed to identifying and generating innovative solutions to translate discussion around the issue of racism into action. This led to the question of who was missing from the table and who should be included in our conversations. The importance of language became very apparent. We acknowledged that Black students are often grouped under the term “students of color,” which does not accurately capture the specific lived experiences of Black people.

Although we acknowledged the allyship of other students whose activism enriched the work we were doing, we wanted to be intentional in amplifying Black voices, which is why we chose to call our efforts the Black Laurentian Initiative.

BLI is committed to recognizing and reviewing proposed systemic improvements to enhance the Black experience at St. Lawrence. Our overarching goal is to discuss problems that have an impact not just on the Black community, but on the entire BIPOC community. We support reforms that will strengthen the collective place of all BIPOCs. We agreed to set up short-term and long-term action plans to resolve the problems impacting different areas of campus and encourage other college campuses to do the same.

Through our advocacy efforts, we have secured $100,000 in funding toward our goals. Over the next two years, this grant will help us involve the St. Lawrence community in research, teaching, and service-oriented missions devoted to addressing racial inequalities and equity concerns.

Your Opportunity to Join the Movement

When it comes to systemic change, it’s hard to understand what you can accomplish until you start doing the work. Achieving justice is a monumental goal, and there’s no single formula for getting there. For an ally and a supporter of any socio-political movement, research and learning from others’ practices must be a crucial component of their activism. 

The BLI hopes our process can inspire others to create change in their own communities. We aim to ignite a fire in students across the country, as we see the need for similar initiatives during this time. It is imperative to institutionalize movements like this because they shift the culture of predominantly white universities.

Though these takeaways are integral to BLI's growth, they may not be universal. As you push for change, contextualize your movements to best represent the unique communities you want to serve.

  1. Connect with the right resources such as the Board of Trustees, President’s Office, Senior Staff and Faculty to garner popular support and understand the underlying shortcomings within every crevice of the campus. Their contribution is imperative to solidifying the work that we do as students.
  2. Collaborate with existing organizations and campus partners working toward similar goals to understand work that is being done and prevent replicating what already exists. Having widespread support and partnerships across campus can be beneficial to implementing changes at a structural level.
  3. Implement a social media presence because it is important to highlight and showcase the work your organization is achieving. Change must be seen and felt.

Lastly, I encourage you to focus your gaze on the sun at this moment when our world's injustices and complexities can feel overwhelming and powerless. Your passion can become a movement.