Disruption. Love. Taking responsibility for our society.
These are three actions that create change, noted Malia Lazu, the keynote speaker at an MIT community gathering held in the Bush Room on Aug. 22, 2014. Hosted by MIT’s Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO), the gathering was inspired by recent clashes between civilians and police in Ferguson, Mo., after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer.
While discussing reparative steps members of the MIT community can take against racism and injustice, Lazu observed, “This is a long process, a project I think Jesus was working on thousands of years ago.”
Lazu, the MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) Mel King Community Fellow ’11 and executive director and co-founder of Future Boston Alliance, punctuated the title of the gathering — “Transformative Conversations: Responding to Ferguson” — by challenging the audience to approach racism not with tactics, but with personal transformation and a commitment to finding each other’s humanity. “While we as individuals might not be racist,” she observed, “we still allow it to continue.”
More than 100 members of the MIT community attended the event, which was introduced by Institute Community and Equity Officer Ed Bertschinger, a physics professor and former head of the Department of Physics who was appointed to lead the ICEO in 2013. Bertschinger, who described his role as advancing a respectful and caring community at MIT, emphasized the importance of MIT’s approaching the recent events in Ferguson as a new opportunity to focus on the community’s needs and values.
Bertschinger was followed by MIT Chaplain Robert Randolph, who lamented the pattern that brought us to this moment: “To be black in the West for 400 years is to live in danger,” he said. He then used his own profile as contrast: “To be tall, white, and loud is a privilege.”
Chaplain Randolph also used the proverbial “lantern on the stern” to “cast light” on the historic and present brutalities that helped ignite the protests in Ferguson. “Forces have been unleashed to turn us against each other in the interest of the power brokers,” he said, and Ferguson tells us that to be only concerned with “me” or “mine” is not acceptable. “We’re technocrats at MIT,” he said. “But as we advance, we also need to advance humanity.” Chaplain Randolph closed by urging the community to leave with a few commitments: widen friendship circles, celebrate differences, and see the world through other’s eyes.
Lazu’s keynote offered further thoughts about the three ways to move a community toward transformation and action: love, disruption, and taking responsibility. “There is no magic pill,” she said. “Racism, classism, and militarism don’t go away overnight.” Begin with love by observing yourself, she suggested. Determine what barriers you put up. “We can’t do this without actually loving each other. Fear and terror won’t stick if there’s love.” She challenged the audience to view both Michael Brown, the black young man who was shot, and Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot him, as brothers. “Take rage and alchemize it in the heart so that it comes out as love.”
Lazu’s second action item was disruption. People need to disrupt the status quo, she said, and tell America that “black men’s lives are more than business as usual.” Disruption should be organized and done at every level, in large and small ways: Question your own biases; report an injustice; organize a group around an issue; tweet your mayor and police chief.
Taking responsibility was Lazu’s third action item. As with love and disruption, she described taking responsibility as a transformative action. Become your brothers’ keeper, she advised. Lazu closed with a provocative question: Are we ready to let go of the American exceptionalism that supposedly makes us great in order to become great?
A lively Q&A followed Lazu’s talk. The audience members who posed questions reflected the spectrum of the MIT community — from current students to alumni such as Linda Sharpe ’69 to parents of incoming freshmen. At the event’s conclusion, Julian Green, ICEO program director, noted that this was the ICEO’s first event and encouraged the attendees to continue the conversation in their own communities.