The Colgate Thirteen had just filed off the stage when senior Kori Strother took to the podium. It was the first event of Martin Luther King Jr. Week, and Strother’s speech would close the ceremony. The a cappella group’s enthusiastic expressions and upbeat tones had left a sense of energy in the audience. But as Strother stood in front of the chapel’s packed pews, she wasn’t smiling. “It was a normal Friday night,” she began after a deep breath, and the audience fell silent. Everyone could anticipate the severity of the story she was about to tell, and all attention was hers.
Her opening story relayed the tragic death of the mother of a hometown friend. Capturing our attention and empathy, the account identified a larger message that Kori would carry throughout the entirety of her speech: life is too short to be silent. Life is too short to wait. Throughout the address, Strother covered several successes that emerged from the social movements of the previous semester – the sit-in, the creation of the Association of Critical Collegians (ACC) and the other student protests in early December. But the excitement that manifested from these successes soon began to fade, and the reality of racial exclusion on Colgate’s campus set in once again. She continued to share statistics regarding current race relations in America.
“Nationwide, the rate at which black people are killed by law enforcement is three times higher than that of white people,” she stated. She reminded us of the all too familiar tragedies of Michael Brown of Ferguson and Daniel Pantaleo of New York, innocent black men whose lives were taken by police officers. But then she continued to list names of several individuals that most people had never heard of before, black men and women whose deaths don’t reach the headlines but are just as devastating to their families and communities. Everyone she mentioned was below the age of 22. They were our age, they could’ve been someone we knew. They could’ve been one of us.
Strother then began to address the audience personally, heightening the severity of the room.
“My peers and I etched these statistics into the walls of this institution in a desperate attempt to gain your attention,” she said. “Many gave off the impression that academics, that finals, were more important.” At this point in the speech, I can imagine the audience felt pretty bad. Some may have felt personally attacked, others may have simply felt a lack of ease. But this was exactly the emotion that her speech intended to provoke. Discomfort, as she continued to explain, is essential to any social movement. Moreover, discomfort is at the foundation of learning in general. When we first learn a new concept in calculus or a new set of vocabulary words in a foreign language, we are uncomfortable with the unfamiliarity. It makes us vulnerable. Yet this vulnerability causes us to question what we’ve previously taken for granted and from it comes a heightened sense of understanding. Discomfort makes us better and pushes us further. Without it, humankind would continue to linger in ignorance and complacency.
This is where Strother’s speech turned from frustration and confrontation to advocacy and hope.
“Activism,” she spoke, “is active.” The crowd laughed and the tension eased, but she pushed her point further. Activism isn’t exclusive to sit-ins and protests; it can take form in writing, spoken word, class discussion or even intervention in a harmful social interaction. The key, she stressed, is “to simply remain active in which ever avenue you choose.” These issues are prevalent now, and they cannot afford to wait.
Ultimately, Strother’s speech not only confronted issues of race on this campus and in America, but it encouraged the audience to self-reflect. “Why are you here?” she asked, a simple question, yet one that crosses our minds far less than it should. As Colgate students, we are the central members of this community and thus have the ability to control its atmosphere. Regardless of whether you care about Colgate’s racial issues, it is safe to say that most everyone cares, in some way, about Colgate in general. And if you care about something you want it to be the best it can be. Colgate is not at its best. In Strother’s words, we can “do better.”
Strother’s speech served as a reminder that although social change takes time, these issues are too important to put off. She successfully managed to captivate the audience, incite feelings of discomfort, frustration, defensiveness, anger, hope and motivation, and concluded by challenging the community to work harder, do more, be better. Regardless of the audience’s reaction to her points, everyone left the chapel with a certain impression of her words. Even for those who felt offended or self-justifying, at least her speech made them feel something. In this way alone her speech was effective, for the enemy of change is not anger but apathy; when has progress ever resulted from indifference?
In the words of Frederick Douglass that Strother relayed to the audience: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightening.”
Yes, Colgate’s efforts to improve its community will bring about storms of tension and controversy. Yet with these storms come rain, and this rain will eventually bear fruit. So if we can unite as a community, as Strother challenged us to do in her speech, not only will those who feel isolated and excluded on campus benefit, but the overall community will be more cohesive, allowing Colgate to thrive as an institution.