Two leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement urged students to participate in anti-racist activism in a talk organized by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Opal Tometi, co-founder of the movement, and Janaya Khan, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, presented to an audience of 120 students in the Bright Family Screening Room as part of the college’s celebration of Black History Month.
The popular hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was created in 2013 after George Zimmerman was not indicted for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.
“The reality is all lives will matter when black lives matter," Tometi said, referencing a common counterclaim to the hashtag’s use.
Khan told students to allow themselves to be uncomfortable and to make use of the learning space. They encouraged students to ask good questions, then the speakers opened the floor.
During the question session, Tometi said people born in the west have a duty to rise up and speak out about racism. Inspiring young people to get involved with activism is best done by emphasizing the importance of the issues and keeping them alive through conversations, according to Khan.
“You just have to be the person you needed years ago,” Khan said. “I wish somebody had told me the things I know now.”
Khan selected Sydney James, a freshman, out of the crowd to stand and say what she would be taking away from the event. James said she felt empowered and that she has an obligation to herself to make a difference.
In a press conference before the event, Tometi responded to last year’s student walkouts at Emerson. She said it was heartening to see students rising up, and that student demonstrations had been important to the larger movement.
“If injustice and racism are present, we have to call it out,” Tometi said. “At the end of the day we will miss it if we think about it as something that's happening 'out there.’ It's happening everywhere."
Tometi said they used social media to coordinate the group’s actions. Khan said social media use allows unheard narratives to develop and gives a voice to marginalized groups. Through technology, the group’s efforts have the power to bridge the gap between communities and extend the narrative to include all black voices worldwide, she said.
"The idea that this is a social media movement is too simple,” Khan said. “The movement doesn't exist because of these tools."
Khan emphasized the importance of intersectionality and that allies are essential for the movement to exist.
"When black people get free, everyone else gets a little more free," Khan said.
In an interview after the talk, James said she came out to the event to learn more about the movement. She said she left feeling personally challenged and compelled to start participating in activism.
“I never felt as connected to all of it as I think I should have because how much could I really do as a singular person?” James said. “I now realize that if everyone felt like that, nothing would ever get done.”
Janaya Khan uses they/them pronouns.
Assistant news editor Nathanael King contributed to this report.