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Jackson ‘16, MLK devotee, attends influential conference

Published: November 15, 2013
Section: News


Cynthia Jackson ’16 is the president of Brandeis’ MLK and Friends Club. Although she is not an MLK scholar, she knew that she wanted to be as involved as possible when she joined the club last March. MLK and Friends works to support community service through the principles of Martin Luther King, Jr. They have participated in projects such as cleaning the Charles River and helping to build playgrounds at Waltham schools.

When Dean of Student Life Jamele Adams told Jackson about the National Race Amity Conference in Norwood, MA, she didn’t quite know what to expect. She applied for a scholarship from SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism) and received it, which allowed her to attend the conference on both of the two days that it was held. The SOAR scholarship paid for the weekend of meals, panels, breakout sessions and an awards gala. The conference took place on Friday, Nov. 1 and Saturday, Nov. 2. While other students attended the conference, Jackson was the only one who was able to go on both days.

The conference was attended not only by undergraduate collegiate students but also by graduate students, teachers and professors. “I wasn’t expecting so many people to be there from so many places … it was a very mixed crowd,” Jackson said. The majority of the weekend was spent in breakout sessions, which consisted of discussions lead by prominent community leaders from all over the nation. Each session lasted for about an hour, and there were always around five to choose from.

“Is there race in my movie?” was the topic of discussion in one of the breakout sessions that Jackson attended, which was led by Frederick Gooding. Jackson attended this particular session after having a discussion with its leader the previous day about Tyler Perry movies and whether or not they represent the black community. However during the breakout session, Jackson said they discussed the new “Planet of the Apes.” While a moviegoer doesn’t necessarily focus on whether the antagonist is black or not, the session considered the question, “Would we leave the movie saying, ‘Wow, that black guy was awful’?”

By far, Jackson’s favorite breakout session was led by Xernona Clayton. Clayton used to work for MLK himself, which immediately drew Jackson to her. “She’s this older woman with this cute Southern accent … about 4’11” or 5’, but she speaks with power, when she speaks, the room listens, she has command in her tone,” Jackson said of Clayton. Clayton was hugely inspiring to Jackson, especially as she told a story about her relationship with a Ku Klux Klan member, and how after about a year of talking and being challenged and intimidated by the KKK member, eventually he denounced the KKK and credited the move to Clayton. “Through his change of heart, she was able to influence a lot more people. But I think the best part was that she gave all of the credit to God, which was so inspirational for me.”

Apart from the breakout sessions, the conference included a gala for more leaders in race amity from all over the nation. Leaders won medals and gave speeches. One awardee was William Winter, former governor of Mississippi, who made a huge impact on race equality in education in the state. The 90-year-old man accepted his award Friday night at the gala.

On Saturday, before the breakout sessions, the day started with an activity at tables of about six people. Everyone had one notecard on which they wrote down six words that came to mind when they thought of race, and another notecard on which they wrote 12 words that described their own personal experience with race. “It sounds similar but it was actually very different,” Jackson explained.

Jackson learned not just about race at the conference, but also about what it means to be a leader. “You’re not always someone who’s speaking up—it’s okay to be quiet and just listen to people, which is something I struggle with. Sometimes I feel like I need to speak up more, but you can listen because that’s also leading, which was very encouraging.”

“You don’t always have to be a leader to have influence … Overall I learned that you can always do something with whatever situation you’re in,” Jackson said.

One fun surprise at the conference was how many people knew and appreciated Dean Adams. “People asked me if I went to Brandeis and I thought that they were going to talk about me, but then they were like, ‘Tell Dean Adams I say hi!’” Dean Adams also took part in the conference, leading a breakout session about SOAR, the scholarship that gave Jackson the opportunity to attend the conference.

Jackson was joined at the conference by classmates Witney Christie ’16, Naya Stevens ’16 and Aja Antoine ’17. Jackson urged others to attend the conference, “I really recommend people to go next year … a lot of people didn’t know this was a thing, I didn’t know about it … but it will definitely change your life.”