Written by Digital Media and Communications students Aneesa Haque-Piccione, ’23, Lucas Medes, ’24 & Lei Anna Craig, ’24Listen, Learn, Act” panel to connect educators, students, and community members in a discussion about combating racism and the role that education plays regarding this issue. The importance of an event like this has the potential for helping the Buffalo community be more informed about supporting anti-racist agendas and endeavors around the country through dialogue and conversation. Considering the tragic events in Buffalo that occurred on May 14, the panel provided an opportunity to deal with the ongoing trauma of the Tops massacre. The event also helped to create a safe environment for support and connection through stories, healing, and opportunities for education about racism.
“Listen, Learn, Act” was hosted on Villa Maria’s campus and featured a broad span of voices representing important work being done of the front lines of combatting racism in Buffalo. The panel was made up of students and educators from local education institutions including:
- Villa Maria College
- Buffalo State College
- Medaille University
- Stanley Simmons from Say Yes, a non-profit organization that works to achieve racial equity and inclusion by removing barriers to educational attainment for students
- Say Yes Coordinator for Buffalo State College and Academic Career Coach, Shara Armprester
- Mia Ayers-Goss, Executive Director of Most Valuable Parents, who also brought her expertise in community organizing and empowerment to the discussion.
The event was moderated by Villa Maria College President Dr. Matthew Giordano and director of diversity and inclusion for the office of NYS Senator Timothy Kennedy—Zeneta Everhart, who graduated from Villa Maria in 2008. Panelists respondents included:
- Dr. Shahla Ahmad, MD, from the Community Health Center of Buffalo
- Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown
- Dr. Katherine Conway-Turner, president of SUNY Buffalo State College
- NYS Senator Timothy Kennedy
Panelists’ discussions revolved around how a crucial factor in fighting racism begins and ends with education, and education begins with dialogue—a theme that was stressed repeatedly during the “Listen, Learn, Act” event. The panel made it clear that because we are what we consume, if we aren’t learning the important facts about race, it leaves room for misconceptions. The education system shouldn’t wait for students to be older in age to be taught about the racial issues that society brings—it should be one of the first things taught in schools so that students can fully understand the topic of race before it’s too late. Medaille University student Emmanuel Wright expressed:
“I feel as though schools should prioritize teaching the younger generations about race or about gender; I feel as though the content you find in higher education should be accessible to all ages—I shouldn’t have to wait to learn the truth about racism until I get to undergrad.”
The panelists also reflected on how the academic year was going for them so far. While there were optimistic notes of hopefulness despite the May 14 tragedy, there were also transparent discussions surrounding the room for progress and change within the systems of education. Panelists and moderators focused on the importance of having more transparency in education curriculums regarding our country’s history—something that can benefit the entire community. The hope is that people will have access to a more honest and unsanitized version of that history—one that is not watered-down or subject to political regulation.
Stories of racism experienced by the panelists were also presented. Reports of racism often involve traumatic, if not violent, occurrences and these stories are something that people will remember for the rest of their lives. These instances of racism can happen even in the small attitudes of people in everyday life—even in moments when they don’t think they are being racist. It is important that people talk about this subject to avoid the dissemination of speeches and actions that harm minorities. One such story was that of Zariah Scott from Buffalo State College. Scott shared:
“I have personally experienced racism in both Buffalo and on various types of media. I have experienced racism by being followed when I go to a store to see if I I’m not stealing anything or somebody moving to the other side of the sidewalk because I made them uncomfortable by just being black or walking towards them. That’s not something I want to have any other person of color to experience because it’s not a very fun thing to go through.”
Healing and connection were cited as two ingredients that help ease the element of trauma that has been relevant both before May 14th and after. Connection begins when people have a drive to speak and an audience that is willing to listen and relate. Desmond Randall, athletic director at Villa Maria, explained how empowering and inspiring honesty is when it comes to race and how speaking on it sparks healing:
“The most empowering thing is people coming up to you and talking about how your story helped them, and how they think you’re courageous. We’re never going to be able to answer questions fully, we just have to be able to continue the dialogue.”
Students on campus can heal from trauma, they can bond, feel safe and comforted by talking. DennisJanee Brown, a psychology student at Villa, explained that this can only be made possible if more people come and tell their stories:
“Understanding that with this talk we all feel the same feelings, collectively, it made me feel supported. It’s good to talk about it because what we don’t know we can’t help with. So, we are helping the community by giving our input. I definitely feel encouraged and empowered.”
Panel moderator Zeneta Everhart gave impactful insight on how healing and connection work together to create a strong future:
“We needed the students to say directly to our elected officials and to our education leaders what they need, and what’s missing from the education system and the issues that they’re going through. That’s the #1 thing I took from this: Our respondents were listening to them, and that’s how we create change.”
Randall also emphasized the importance of education when it comes to racial injustice because of the conversations it can bring to the table:
“Racism and this situation is so complex. You need to be able to have a lot of conversations to be able to continue the dialogue.”
When it comes to the education system and racial dilemmas, it’s more than what is taught to the students—it is also important to know who is teaching these important topics. Brown went on to express the discouragement students feel when there aren’t people who resemble them when they need guidance or have issues that not everyone can understand:
“We need more people in the Villa community that look like us, they just don’t understand, and it’s hard to talk to them. I’m left talking to my friends more than the staff.”
All these discussions and honesty within the storytelling tie together three important aspects: Villa Maria has an agenda in combating racism here on campus and in the community. Stories can create connection and connection can bring healing from elements of trauma. And lastly, education is key, and listening can create a space full of comfort and support.