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Lecture series kicks off with faith-equity emphasis

Grand Rapids  —  Austin Channing Brown says there’s a connection between our faith and how we think about racial equity. 

In conversation with Grand Rapids Community College’s chief equity and inclusion officer, Dr. B. Afeni McNeely Cobham, Brown opened the 2021-22 Diversity Lecture Series, presented by the GRCC Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion over Zoom.

The speaker and author’s discussion focused on the series’ new initiative called “inter-faith literacy,” which aims to increase awareness and knowledge of different world religions. 

“Tell me what you believe about humanity and the world and I will tell you where you stand on racial justice,” said Brown, previously a resident director at Calvin University. “I need a love that is intolerant of injustice.” 

Speaking to a Grand Rapids-based audience, Brown also referenced the locally known concept “West Michigan nice,” when saying, “Harmony, the absence of outright conflict, often leaves deeper conflicts untouched.”

She addressed the struggle that people of color have to maintain their “personhood” in the face of white supremacy.

“To every person in every marginalized community, it is your right to fight for yourself; it is also your right to rest, to laugh, to twerk in the mirror, to be fully human,” she said. “You are worthy of justice and being considered fully human, worthy of health, education, housing, love, grace and patience.”

“Tell me what you believe about humanity and the world and I will tell you where you stand on racial justice.”

— Austin Channing Brown

Emmy Award-winner John Leguizamo and Pulitzer Prize-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones are among the speakers highlighting the series and Latino Heritage Month.

Leguizamo, the keynote speaker for Latino Heritage Month, spoke during a live conversation over Zoom on Sept. 12, with a rebroadcast at 6 p.m. on Sept. 15. Hannah-Jones will speak at 6 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2022.

“Our overarching goal for the year ahead is cultivating equity and inclusion through an intersectional framework,” McNeely Cobham said. “I encourage students to participate in these important conversations and use the Diversity Lecture Series to strengthen skills in areas that include, but are not limited to, intergenerational dialogue, critical analysis, and social justice literacy.”

Here are some other takeaways from Brown’s thoughts on creating justice and equity for all, and “standing in the shadow of hope,” a metaphor for patience and grace. 

Author and speaker Austin Channing Brown spoke over Zoom about how organizations’ actions fall short of words promising equality and justice

On hope:

“We all so desperately want to be hopeful, it’s part of what makes us human and what draws us to a faith tradition,” Brown said. 

“I believe there is a place and a time for inspiration, but it is often much more helpful to talk about what is real, and what’s real is that we are tired. The world is exhausting.”

Brown re-emphasized that all people are deserving of equality despite the color of their skin.

“I want to say to every person of every marginalized community that it is your duty to yourself to keep fighting, even if you’re not hopeful that your work will not end in some magical utopia.”

On racial justice:

McNeely Cobham asked Brown, “Why do people struggle with understanding justice comes before reconciliation?”

“Justice comes before reconciliation because justice is so much harder,” Brown said. “We overcome that exhaustion by doing work as a community, not as individuals… the pursuit of racial justice relies on us; no one person is working alone.”

When explaining the difference between equity and equality, Brown gave the example of a white board member giving up their seat for a person of color to fill, giving power back to marginalized communities. 

“It’s a lot easier to take a Black person out for coffee than to give up your seat on the board,” Brown said.  

On education:

Brown called on educators to “be creative and do things differently” to put the power in the hands of students.

“On one hand we are told classrooms are changing, and on the other I want to acknowledge the politics at play that work against any progress for justice.”

“If we really believed in our core that every single human was deserving of a good education… we would not be able to tolerate the system as it is now.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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