Teachers College hosts first annual Trayvon Effect Conference ☆

Earlier this semester Teachers College hosted the first annual Trayvon Effect Conference. On the weekend of February 28th-March 1st students, community members and activists gathered in the Cowin Center and various TC classrooms to discuss the effects of both Trayvon Martin’s death and the verdict rendered in court. The conference, spearheaded by Teachers College doctoral student Crystal Belle, served as a space where community members could voice their opinions and participate in dialogues on the issue of race.

On February 26, 2012, seventeen year-old Trayvon Martin was walking home from a grocery store in Sanford, Florida when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman who had been on neighborhood watch in his gated community last night had called 911 to report a suspicious person in the area. Zimmerman then proceeded to approach Martin and shot him in the head claiming self-defense. On June 24, 2013 Zimmerman was sent to trial for second-degree murder and on July 13, jury found him not guilty and he was acquitted of the crime.

“When Trayvon Martin was murdered, that really affected me in a profound way,” said Crystal. “The fact that he was 17, a young black male, and that he could be murdered so close to his home was very sad to me. I kept thinking about my brothers and my own experiences. Being Black in America is a very layered experience. It’s very hard being Black and having to navigate those layers of justice.”

It exactly those layers of justice that led Belle to create The Trayvon Effect Conference. During the summer, while Zimmerman’s trial was being televised, Belle and her husband would watch recaps of the clips every single day to see what was happening. When the verdict was read, pronouncing Zimmerman not guilty, Belle said that she and her husband just sat and cried.

“I was moved to do something,” Belle said. “I felt like I had to do something. It could have easily been one of my brothers or one of my students who had been murdered. It wouldn’t have been a White man if he were walking around in a gated community. In 60 years, we still have the type of racism that can take away a 17 year-old’s life. That’s scary to me.”

From that moment forward, Belle began developing The Trayvon Effect Conference. She envisioned the conference as focused on four strands—race education and the law, racial profiling and the media, social justice and curriculum, and black masculinity. For Belle the conference served as an inquiry based model on how we can have dialogues on the issues of race. In addition, the conference attempted to answer some essential questions around the relationship between race, education and the law, deficit dialogues about black masculinity, and how to help black men feel safe in their communities.

“Our goal was to encourage active dialogue that can promote change in our institutions,” Belle said. “Racism is the norm, and we don’t want to perpetuate the status quo, but focus on changing it.”

The conference, which took place over a Friday and Saturday, included a wide range of scholarly discussions and youth performances. Friday, which was designated for discussions and scholarship, opened with a performance by The Forum Project, a New York City based theater group that focuses on issues of oppressed communities. For the event, actors performed a scene titled “The Quota,” which followed the experience of young Black male being stopped and frisked by police officers while on his way to buy some books for school. The scene, which was developed from listening to actual audio of a stop and frisk, explored the main character’s feelings about the event, including his anger at being called suspicious, and the reactions of his friends and family members when he tried to talk to them about it.

After performing the scene once, actors asked audience members to come up on stage and take the place of the main character. As Jeremy, they got the chance to change parts of the story and engage the characters in a different way, perhaps changing the overall outcome.

From the stage, S. Leigh Thompson, executive director and co-founder of The Forum Project said, “The whole idea of this is to develop reaction strategies. These are not issues to be solved as individuals, but as a group.”

Following The Forum Project was a panel called Reframing Perceptions of Black Masculinity. This panel included presentations by Dr. Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University, Dr. Prudence Cumberbatch of Brooklyn College, and Derron Wallace, Ph.D. Candidate from the University of Cambridge in England. Each presenter focused on how the current representation of the male black body—in media, music, and the judicial system—allows racism to hide among everyday interactions.

“The violence directed toward Black men and women is something I like to call vigilante violence,” said Cumberbatch. “There’s this fear of the black body, specifically the young male black body and it’s trapped and spun in a web by the judicial system—it’s a form of racial containment. The hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin represents an unwanted intrusion of spaces. Black bodies have long been seen as suspect. Guilty of no crime except being black. Black bodies have been murdered for seeking help, walking home, speaking out and listening to music. When every action you take in society can be seen as a threat, how can you move in that society?”

Wallace followed up with a discussion on popular imaginations of masculinity and how those imaginations led to the notion of bad Blacks versus better Blacks. Using the story of Mark Duggan and the 2011 London riots as context—in which Duggan was shot and killed by armed police officers—Wallace argued that current attitudes toward the black community were justified by existing social attitudes. He termed these social attitudes “reasoned racism.”

“Reasoned racism positions some blacks as bad and others as better,” said Wallace. “It’s White racism, it’s a rationalization. It allows for the examination of Blacks for worthiness. It allows Whites to celebrate MLK, but reject Trayvon Martin. If we look at Mark Duggan, he was a teen father, unemployed, and a drug user. It was the deficit behaviors that made it acceptable for Whites to employ reasoned racism.”

Williams ended the panel with a presentation called Black Bodies as Evidence where he asked one essential question: Why has it become so easy to accept modern day stereotypical images of Black men in the media? He showed audience members images of black bodies being brutalized, observed, denigrated, segregated, investigated, and exploited and urged everyone to be conscious about how race is taught and presented to them.

Throughout the afternoon, attendees were encouraged to move from the Cowin Center and explore breakout rooms in other areas of Teachers College. These breakout rooms included panels on everything from racism and the drug war, hip-hop and survival, law enforcement and the community, social justice in school curriculum, race and the judicial system, and critical thinking about race theory.

Veronica Holly, assistant director for the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), one of the sponsors of the event said she felt proud that Teachers College could serve as space for it and that students, community members, faculty and staff could express their sentiments about a nationally reported issue.

“As the assistant director of IUME I was interested in seeing a student want to address what seemed to be a void in discussion around the social, emotional and political feelings around Trayvon Martin’s death and the verdict. I don’t know if I can define what the “Trayvon Effect” is—that’s what this conference attempted to do. We asked the question, What is the aftermath of Trayvon’s death and the verdict, and how has it changed and continuing to change the way people live?”

Holly added, “I felt that the panels were germane to the thoughts of Crystal and the other lead organizers. The breakout participation, from what I understand is exactly what people expected; it was very open to people’s thoughts and feelings. There are voices and commentaries across America that this conference allowed to be expressed.”

Friday evening closed with a Keynote address by Carmen Kynard, Associate Professor of English at John Jay College. Saturday, the day dedicated to youth, included performances from Bar Code, Urban Word Scholars, poet Alyssa “Lady Logic” Saunders, and The DreamYard Project, as well as a panel by a Young Men’s Mentorship group from Vanguard High School.

“Looking at the student perspective, I couldn’t have asked for more from the conference,” said Holly. “We had a school—Westhill High School—who participated in our conference, who has a really integrated student body, and they utilized their student body and they created these paintings to express their feelings surrounding Trayvon; it was an amazing experience; they’re still talking about the conference.”

Holly added, “It doesn’t matter how many people attended, or the type of people who attended, just that we made a difference in the lives of the people who attended. When you can get students to think about social justice in an artistic and academic way, that’s a huge success.”

Throughout the organizing process, Belle said that she learned a lot, including how to further take her own initiative and work with others in the process.

“When you want to do something, when you want to effect change, you just have to do it sometimes. A lot of the time I think people feel and think a lot about doing things, but often wait for someone else to do them. But it really is you who just has to do it sometimes. And there were a lot of great people who are committed to social justice, a lot of people who are doing amazing work, and I could have only been successful by having these people in the room and engaging in these powerful dialogues.”