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Cornell William Brooks on Diversity

Every year for the more than a decade, Colorado State University holds a free and open conference promoting multiple social aspects called the Diversity Symposium.

Cornell William Brooks speaking at Colorado State University
Cornell William Brooks speaking at Colorado State University

“The symposium is a week-long conference which hosts speakers and workshops with the goal of educating our community about diversity, equity and inclusion,” according to Ria Vigil, assistant vice president for inclusive organizational practice.

One year, the keynote speaker for the Diversity Symposium was former NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks.

The symposium committee chose Brooks for his “connection to the NAACP, his commitment and work in civil rights and his ability to motivate people to action,” according to Vigil.

Brooks is a civil rights attorney, ordained minister, writer, coalition builder and social justice activist. He was a graduate of the Head Start program and Yale University. During his time as the president of the NAACP from 2011 to 2014, he successfully led the organization to 11 victories against voter suppression.

Brooks delivered a powerful message about student activism during the symposium.

He began his presentation with two words: “Thank you.”

My very Southern grandmother told me and taught me to always begin every speech, every sermon, and every occasion with two simple words. Those words being ‘thank you.’

Brooks went on to thank the RamEvents team, the student organizations present, the staff, Mary Ontiveros who is the Vice President of Diversity and Colorado State University for hosting the conference.

We find ourselves this evening … at a morally peculiar moment in American history. We find ourselves caught between calamity and chaos. … We find ourselves in the moment of unprecedented student activism. This is the moment in which the students are challenging all authority.

Supreme Court overturns abortion rights Roe vs Wade law in historic disappointment and civil protest
Photo via Envato Elements

Brooks uses Pauli Murray as an example of how impactful student activism can be. Murray wrote a thesis as a student that was then used to aide in the U.S. Supreme Court victory of Brown v. Board of Education.

Social justice is not only a matter of protest in the streets but scholarship in the library.

Brooks underlined his bottom-line message with three rules that the audience should follow to promote student activism:

  1. Look for models and role models, but don’t look too far
  2. Love deeply
  3. Lead boldly

His first rule was explained with his own role models and who they were.

My role models were not experienced, my role models were not long educated. My role models are 18 year olds, 19 year olds, college students. They were met in places like Ferguson and Flint.

Brooks believes that one must look for role models, but shouldn’t look too far because there are role models in closer places than we think. He uses his grandfather as an example.

My granddaddy ran for congress in 1946 … because he wanted to register people to vote, he wanted to put people in positions where they could register themselves … [he was] a role model.

Brooks reiterates that role models aren’t celebrities, they are students studying social justice, civil rights, and learning about legal ways to combat these challenges.

Multiracial movements are important but multigenerational movements are essential. The most powerful and efficacious movements in history are when you have the Motown generation and the Hip-Hop generation working together.

Stronger Together: Image of Caucasian and African American hand locked together.
Stronger Together: Image of Caucasian and African American hand locked together (Photo via Envato Elements).

His second rule, love deeply, was introduced as a result of “exercising a degree of civility.” Brooks explained his rule with another story about a woman named Mary Radcliffe, who marched alongside him in Ferguson, Mo., and displayed several forms of real love.

“She did not curse those who cursed us, she greeted them with kindness, with respect, with love. Don’t tell me what you are willing to do as an activist unless you are willing to love.”

Black demonstrator people holding hands against racism - Focus on civil fists - Black and white edit
Photo via Envato Elements

The third rule, Lead Boldly, was explained with a story about a 68-year-old war veteran named Middle Passage. Brooks met Passage during a march named the America’s Journey for Justice for the Voting Rights Act Restorations. This journey was from Selma, Ala. to Washington, DC. Passage wanted to walk the entire distance, carrying the U.S. flag with him. The march took 43 days and 1002 miles, Passage did not make it due to heart complications that he was fully aware of.

“If a man was willing to die for the right to vote why can’t you vote and fight for the right to vote?”

Brooks concluded his powerful speech with the first verse from the song Lift Every Voice and Sing.

“Vote here” sign at the voting poll on election day. A duty and civil right of all citizens.
“Vote here” sign at the voting poll on election day. A duty and civil right of all citizens.
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