Andratesha Fitzgerald exhorted the Wesleyan University community to use “power” as a way to lift each other up and honor one another.
Fitzgerald, an activist, educational scholar, and international speaker, shared her personal experiences during Wesleyan’s 15th annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Feb. 4. Wesleyan’s 2022 celebration of MLK Day served as the concluding event of the second annual Equity and Inclusion Summit.
During her talk, titled “Power and Empowerment: Honoring by Decision and Design,” Fitzgerald explored the notions of power and empowerment that are made evident in our decisions, our designs, and our outcomes under the umbrella of antiracism.
“As we sit today and think about Dr. King’s legacy … there are so many black and brown students of color who are seeking to become invisible because they’ve been told by our policies or procedures and courses that ‘I am not enough.’”
She described for the community a series of incidents from her life, instances where, because of her race she was made to feel less than worthy.
In fifth grade, Fitzgerald recalls sitting at the ‘honors table’ in the center of the classroom. During a math lesson involving Roman numerals, the teacher called on Fitzgerald—who did not have her hand raised—to answer a question. She got it wrong.
“‘You’re not smart enough to sit at the table in the center,'” Fitzgerald recalls the teacher saying. “And with the eyes of the entire classroom me. I had to gather up all of my belongings and take this walk of shame to a desk that was separated in the corner from everyone else. The trauma that I experienced at that moment made me feel like, not just that I wasn’t smart enough, but that I was not enough. It stuck with me, and I tried my best to melt into the academic fiber, to not raise my hand, to not share when I did not know or understand, to not share if I was struggling or confused, but simply to be invisible.”
She also recalled an incident while working as a student-tutor while an undergrad in college. A white student had requested help with her English lessons, and Fitzgerald was assigned to help.
“She took one look at me and the color of my skin and decided that my background, my ability, or my expertise, could not help her. She assessed me. She took a moment, turned around, and ran out of the room,” she said. “And so while she used these nuggets of hate, she couldn’t stand in the space after her actions.”
Rather than creating a culture where power is used to destroy people, it should be used to honor others, Fitsgerald said. People have the ability to create a community to lift each other up. Merriam Webster’s dictionary, she said, defines “power” as the “possession of control, authority, or influence over others,” “the ability to act or produce an effect,” or using physical strength. “I want you to think about the power that you have and how we can use that power to honor others,” she said.
This idea resonated with Demetrius Colvin, director of Wesleyan’s Resource Center.
“Sometimes we can get into too much of a single-person hero worship, and it’s not to say that some people don’t deserve all the clout and accolades you can give them, but nobody can do anything alone,” Colvin said during the MLK commemoration. “That’s what Dr. King really talked about the most …. [about] connecting to be part of a community. Just try to support and show up for one another. To do that is really quite brave, though because it’s being vulnerable enough to show your own flaws, your own ignorance, your own biases, and things that you’re still trying to understand and overcome, but then it’s also accepting someone else for all their mess, and all of their strengths as well.”
Diana Martinez of the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships introduced an excerpt from Dr. King’s commencement speech delivered at Wesleyan in 1964.
“When Dr. King described the conditions that made 1963 ripe for revolution, he spoke of Black folks feeling excluded from and disillusioned by both political parties; of the deliberately slow pace at which the promises of integration were being enacted; of escalating U.S. militarization and warfare meant to defend and promote freedom abroad that millions right here could not access; of Black unemployment and pay inequity; of the irony of the spotlight on women entering workplaces when Black women have always had to work, unpaid or for pennies on the dollar, for their families survival,” she said. “He talked of the cunning wordsmithing of policy, of legal loopholes, and the crushing delay of freedom caused by those who insisted we not ruffle too many feathers. And here we are in 2022, still talking that same talk.”
Fitzgerald, who is the author of the book Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning (2020), also spoke about her work using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as an effective framework to teach Black and brown students. When designing courses, Fitzgerald recommends that instructors ask “what decisions are you making about others, how will you purposefully increase awareness of systemic barriers for Black and brown people, how have you examined your own awareness of power and privilege in your design and others. (View slide online here.)
Fitzgerald concluded her lecture with a video clip of Derek Redmond, who tore his hamstring during the 400-meter semifinal race at the 1992 Olympics. With help from his father, Redmond continued the race, limping his way to the finish line. For many people who are Black or brown, life can feel as if they are running a race, she said.
“We hit the ground running and, in our effort, to make it to the destination that we’ve chosen, something happens. There is an injury that takes place. Maybe it’s systemic where we don’t have the funds or maybe it’s a policy … and maybe it’s what people thought about you or said about you and you can literally see everyone else charging toward the goal. And there, you are in agony, hurt, but making the decision to get up and press towards your goals,” she said.
“If you’re seeing someone in the Wesleyan University system [who] is struggling, [who] is hurting, will you come alongside them and help them get to the goal they’ve chosen for themselves? Will you take the time, make the effort, jump out of your comfort and allow them to cry and scream and press on? Will you take the power that you have and shoo away those who are not in the business of saying Black and brown students reach their goal? Will you press toward the mark, not just for yourself, but for someone else?” Fitzgerald said.
MLK Day is supported by the Office of Student Affairs, Office for Equity and Inclusion, Department of African American Studies and the Center for African American Studies, Olin Library, College of Education Studies, Fries Center for Global Studies, and the Shapiro Writing Center.