FLORENCE – On June 11, 19 educators, writers, artists and activists came together with members of the community for a day-long conference to talk about the intersection between education, art, race and society .
The Power of Truths conference was a collaboration between the Northampton Arts Council and Self-Evident Education, an organization which, as stated on its website, “creates multimedia teaching materials to help educators teach authentically about difficult stories and essentials of the race in America”. .”
Self-Evident Education founder Michael Lawrence-Riddell and Ousmane Power-Greene, author, director of the African Studies program and associate professor of history at Clark University, have teamed up for the first episode of Self-Evident. Evident Education, which spotlighted Elizabeth Freeman, the first Massachusetts woman to sue for her freedom.
The conference took place at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity, a multipurpose space at the First Congregational Church in Florence, across from the Sojourner Truth Memorial. The day before the conference there was an opening concert with music from DJ Trendz, Marcia Gomes and her band, featuring June Millington, Eugene Uman, Denny Pelletier and Fumi Tomita, The Lox & Keyes Theory and Akrobatik.
“The idea was to kick it off with a party full of joy,” Lawrence-Riddell said.
The one-day conference was structured into four sessions with a choice of programs to follow during each session. Sessions that directly examined education included “Much Needed: The Need for Hip-Hop Education in the Classroom”, “Equity and Justice in Education: The Clemente Curriculum in the Humanities”, “Au- Beyond Statements: Disrupting the Culture of White Supremacy in Public Schools.” and “Families in Power: Reflections on a grassroots grassroots movement for educational equity”.
Other sessions investigated the intersection of art, race and culture, such as “Representations of Black Girls in Graphic Novels”, “Identity and the Visual Arts: A Conversation with Local Black Visual Artists” , “The Truth About Speculative Fiction: Imagination and Speculation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature,” and “Is It Really True?” : Autobiography, autofiction and “truths” in fiction”.
Finally, several sessions examined race and society. These were “Critical Conversations: Critical Race and Other Moral Panics”, “Friends of Slavery? Rethinking Quaker Benevolence in the Early Republic”, “Can There Really Be Justice in Stolen Lands? Accurate and Honest History for All (AHHA): The Power of Stories to Change the World” and “Jobs, Not Jails: Liberal Guilt, Radical Cynicism, and the Movement Against the Prison-Industrial Complex.”
Lawrence-Riddell said the conference offered a choice of talks on the intersection between art, academics and education. Power-Greene said the variety of talks creates a greater chance that more types of people will come. At the same time, Power-Greene, who is a board member of Self-Evident Education, noted that it creates an opportunity cost by limiting the number of participants who can attend a particular conference.
“Ousmane and I were planning to do a tour, when [Steve Sanderson, a member of the Northampton Arts Council], said he wanted to hold an event here in Northampton. We said, “That’s perfect. ‘” said Lawrence-Riddell, adding that the vision of a conference with a variety of topics and speakers was Sanderson’s idea.
Another Self-Evident Education board member, Bayete Ross Smith, said the conference sessions were “intimate”. Participants could choose from a “buffet” of interests, allowing them to gravitate to topics that inspired and resonated with them.
Ross Smith’s keynote address examined the arts in media with a focus on social change and shifting perspectives.
Power-Greene, along with author Debra Jo Immergut, led a session titled “Is It Really Real,” which examined the role of fiction in examining historical and contemporary truths. He described the purpose of his speech as examining “how we tell the truth”.
Ross Smith said: “It’s not about telling people what to think, but about forcing people to look at their beliefs and ask themselves, ‘Why do I think that?’ Her background in identity-driven art was a good fit with the work Lawrence-Riddell wanted to do with Self-Evident Education.
Power-Green said the goal of the conference was to discuss what it means to be a writer, artist filmmaker or superintendent with the wider community rather than the industry. Even the leaders of each session attended other conferences to learn more about areas outside of their expertise.
Black Minds Matter Tour
Starting in October, Self-Evident Education will take the Power of Truths format on the road, traveling to cities across the country and hosting day-long conferences. The organization will be reaching out to people in the area to speak at their own day-long conferences.
The purpose of the tour is “to engage the local community with local talent and give people tools that can help people survive in racist communities,” Power-Greene said. He hoped that people would walk away from the conference in Florence and the tour thinking critically about historical “truths” and the stories communities tell about themselves.
“We need to learn more about the climate, about how marginalized communities tell the truth in their culture,” Power-Greene said. He said that to “seek the truth” is to understand that reality is “much more diverse and broader than the individual heroes people learn from. My work as an engaged educator presents information that these struggles have continued.
Power-Greene spoke about learning all facets of history and used the example of athletes who are also found in art, literature and science, but everyone is focused on their prowess athletic, missing large parts of the set.
Power-Greene added, “Science, education, historical work is constantly being revised. Sometimes you don’t like it, but sometimes you learn amazing things. Many local people do important work but are not recognized. Black Minds Matter will showcase them in their own communities and bring them to light.
The Black Minds Matter tour will continue through summer 2023 and Self-Evident Education plans to bring the Power of Truths conference back to Northampton in June next year.