Honoring King, activists discuss their work to create ‘beloved community’

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We must remember … that a boycott is not an end within itself,” the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said of the infamous Montgomery bus boycott he helped to lead. “But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

Those words, from King’s Dec. 3, 1956 address, “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” were quoted throughout the evening of Jan. 23, when Yale hosted a panel discussion between local social justice activists as part of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration event.

We are indeed facing the challenge of a new age,” said Assistant Yale College Dean Risë Nelson, director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, during her welcoming remarks. “Tonight’s speakers live a life dedicated to the notion of beloved community through their work, day in and day out, through the years, through these streets. They honor King’s life by being civic leaders, activists, healers, and educators.”

Moderated by social worker and performance artist Hanifa Nayo Washington, the panel featured Kerry Ellington, a community organizer with New Haven Legal Assistance; Barbara Fair, a criminal justice reform activist and organizer; Aaron Jafferis, a hip hop poet and founder of the youth program The Word; and Mikveh Warshaw YSN ’17, a psychiatric nurse, trans activist, and founding member of the “liberation-oriented Jewish havurah” Mending Minyan.

The panelists spoke about their work, the self-care required to sustain it, the importance (and pitfalls) of social media, and their personal visions for a “beloved community.”

For me it’s about loving humanity,” said Fair. “We need to love, if nothing else, that we’re human beings, and love humanity enough to want to get out there and do something when we see these injustices happen.” Fair also described her experience encountering the criminal justice system for the first time when her brother was arrested at age 17, and her early work trying to reform prison conditions in the state.

Other panelists also recalled the personal experiences that led them to social justice activism.

I began to question very early on,” said Ellington. After a childhood move from the Bronx to suburban Westchester County, New York, she was exposed first-hand to the disparities in wealth and resources between the two communities. In 2010, after relocating to Connecticut to study journalism at Quinnipiac University, her best friend was shot by New Haven police — an incident that spurred her to begin organizing against police brutality.

For Jafferis, the “journey towards becoming an activist,” started with his parents, who “were not activists, but were also not passive.” While he was growing up in Westville, his mother encouraged him to attend the local Hillhouse High School, pointing out the racism that motivated other white families in the neighborhood to send their children elsewhere. Speaking of his art, Jafferis said it was a way “to really challenge people. To push, while simultaneously… bringing people together.”

Describing what motivates her work, Warshaw cited three ingredients: trauma, from “gender violence to … emotional abuse in the home … [to] a dose of antisemitism”; love, rooted not only in personal relationships but in communal and religious experiences; and dreaming, “tied to both of those things … How do we have more of [love], and have less trauma.” Connecting her work as an activist to her practice of psychiatry, Warshaw said “the most effective thing for my patients… is to be in the streets, because it’s the social conditions that are causing 95% of why we’re all going to therapy in the first place.” 

Eric Cruz López
Eric Cruz López (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

The event also featured opening remarks by Eric Cruz López, the programming coordinator for CT Students for a Dream. López, an undocumented immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico described his experience crossing the border and settling in Bridgeport when he was 7 years old, and called on the audience to “be present” and aware of one’s own biases and privileges, to “use money and resources” to support activists in the community, and to “be an accomplice” who confronts injustice when necessary.

Performances by the a cappella group Shades of Yale and local high school student and poet Koena-Marie Gomes bookended the evening.

The commemoration was held as part of this year’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebrations, and was sponsored by the Yale College Dean’s Office, the Office of the Secretary and Vice President for Student Life, and the Afro-American Cultural Center. More events and information can be found at Yale’s MLK 2019 website.