Black leadership panelists say strong identity is central to achieving dreams

GARDNER – Moderator Irene Hernandez started a Black History Month panel discussion Monday by telling the diverse audience in the packed lecture room that they are all indigenous people originating from Alkebulan – the real name of Africa – here in the Americas long before Native Americans.

African-American history in the U.S. started well before slavery, going back centuries, said Ms. Hernandez, who is project coordinator at Fitchburg Community Connections Coalition. People of color living here are not displaced, she said.

“Go see ‘Black Panther,’ ” she said. “It is not stereotypical or superficial. It talks about colonization, fatherless children, oppression, subjugation and loss of identity as displaced people.”

To fight against institutional and structural racism, “you have to know who you are and where you come from,” Ms. Hernandez said, and work toward changing social constructs so there is equity, freedom and prosperity for all to allow everyone to live side by side.

“In ‘Black Panther,’ the different tribes of the world show how great we are – intelligent and fierce, with wisdom, loyalty and honor … Our people were here in the Americas long before the Natives were. We are not black and we are not white. We are indigenous people. We are the tribes of Alkebulan – ‘mother of mankind,’ ‘garden of Eden’. Do your history and research. They were called ‘copper tones’ or ‘cinnamon’ people. Colonizers said they looked like Ethiopians because they were the darkest and thought of as ugly.”

The event was part of Mount Wachusett Community College’s Tea Time Speaker Series, held to celebrate Black History Month with a panel discussion titled “African American Leadership in North Central Massachusetts.”

Panelists included: Leona Early, vice president of community programs at Montachusett Opportunity Council; Angele B. Goss, director of Upward Bound Math Science & North Central Mass Talent Search; Dana Heath, president of Central Mass Flag Football and Gardner Biddy Basketball and assistant coach of Gardner High School football; Lamont Hicks, senior officer specialist of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and president and founder of the Future Hoops and AAU Basketball Program; Kathy Lewis, president of the Tiana Angelique Notice Memorial Foundation; Donata Martin, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg, Leominster and Gardner; and Candace Shivers, associate professor of sociology and human services at MWCC.

Each panelist shared their journeys to success and stories of challenges and obstacles they overcame, including poverty, racism and feeling marginalized.

Leadership from people of color can add a level of depth and diversity that can address marginalized populations who don’t always have a voice at the table, the panelists said. Disadvantaged children need mentors, they said, and those who feel marginalized need to find people who they comfortable with to ask questions and not feel intimidated to take a chance and step outside their comfort zone to do something different. Everyone has a responsibility to stand up and speak for those whose voices may not be heard.

Ms. Shivers said when she was hired years ago at MWCC it was “very light,” with only a handful of black faculty and staff. She said she is fortunate that at her place of employment she is able to engage in difficult conversations that may make people uncomfortable about race and may challenge the status quo.

Often, when a person of color enters a room, they have to overcome negative stereotypes just to get to “zero” and then have to work to show who they are, she said.

“People already made up their minds what and who you are,” Ms. Shivers said. “You have to overcome ‘what you’re not’ to get to zero and start from there. That is a heavy carry, especially for someone in school, overcoming things they had nothing to do with to change minds, show who they are, and, by the way, they also have to study.”

Ms. Lewis told the audience she was concerned about the climate in the nation and has spent sleepless nights over it. She called on the youth in the room to live with purpose and become leaders for a better future, citing the student activists in Parkland, Florida, who survived a school shooting Feb. 14 and are fighting for change.

“Learn who you are, fortify and enrich yourself in your history and past sacrifices and losses made for you to be here,” Ms. Lewis said. “Learn to be strong people of culture and innovations and strength and endurance and role models to children. The state of this country, we are actually the disgrace of the world now. I can’t believe what is going on in Washington, school shootings, in the news with (homicides) … It is totally out of control. The younger generations have the power to grab ahold of this mess and change it.”

She quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We better learn how to get along as brothers and sisters or we’re all going to perish together as fools.”

Ms. Martin said “so many children don’t dream anymore” and they need to be encouraged to pursue their passions and become scientists and engineers, for example.

“We have to start talking to them about that at an early age,” Ms. Martin said. “Their minds are open. Talk and be with them and the world is theirs.”

Laryssa M. Truesdale, 18, a senior in the Gateway program at MWCC from Gardner, is a student leader in the school’s center for civic engagement that helped organize the event.

“There were a few panelists from my hometown, so it was interesting to see their views and struggles,” Ms. Truesdale said. “All the speakers had very powerful stories of how they bounced back and kept dreaming. It really opened my eyes.”