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Where Do We Go From Here? People of Color and Coalitions of Conscience

How do social inequities persist in a world with powerful visions of human freedom, massive changes to laws, and extensive media coverage? This question was pondered by Patricia Hill Collins, M.A.T.'70, at the Askwith Forum held March 4 in conjunction with the three-day Alumni of Color Conference (AOCC).

This year's AOCC, 'We Make the Road by Walking': Education for Leadership and Transformation, brought together alumni, students, and community members over several days, to contemplate building paths to a more just society, one in which individuals, their communities, and society are transformed. The annual conference aims to establish a blueprint for change in our neighborhoods and institutions through active dialogue on pivotal issues at Harvard, the Boston area, and the education sector. Collins, a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland, examined the dilemmas of changing freedoms and social inequities in her keynote address.

"How do we re-imagine the 'we' of a socially just community," she asked. "[Collins] is a role model for all of us and so privileged to have her here today," said Associate Professor John Diamond, calling Collins a "trailblazing intellectual and groundbreaking educator." In her speech, Collins suggested that the reality of freedom is different for everyone and, for most of us, that opportunity is linked to birthright. From poor, urban African American boys nailing milk crates to telephone polls as basketball hoops to their middle-class, white counterparts playing soccer on manicured green fields, Collins said that we are all born into our place in America and that sets the stage for our futures.

"The bodies in which we are born and the currency of where our bodies belong determine everything," she said. "I've spent much of my career trying to understand the peculiar combination of changes and spaces that characterizes American society as it stumbles on trying to put teeth into its vision of freedom." Thus, what we have is a society of permanent winners and losers, she said, leaving some questions: How can we conceptualize race, class, and gender; and how can we transcend barriers to build coalitions central for social change? When Collins began researching these questions, she realized that it is extremely complex living in this tangled web of "privilege and power" that affects everyone. In a common quest for social justice, she wonders how far we have actually come.

"Are coalitions really the answer to overcoming barriers and, if so, what do we do with them," she asked. As a teacher in a Roxbury, Mass., school many years ago, Collins said she experienced coalitions firsthand. Despite the tremendous diversity of the school educators, parents, and students, and the inevitable conflicts that arose, Collins noted that they all shared one quality: commitment to the kids.

"None of us could do it alone and we had to work together to get the job done," she said. According to Collins, due to the many barriers that shape our perspectives of race like social control, mutual policing, and silencing victims, it isn't easy to achieve coalitions. These barriers exist within and outside all people of color and this very notion of "people of color" having been constructed by society, can add to the barriers of coming together, she said. For instance, society now operates from a stance of "colorblind" racism.

"The ideology is that we are done with racism - we don't see color and that's what color blind racism is referring to" Collins said. "If you turn to a problem that is difficult to see and don't see as hierarchy there is a lack of responsibility to fix the problem." As far as how to work on the problems of social inequities and racial injustices, Collins believes in the power of interventions and education that re-examine the relationships and concepts of color, and redefine community. It begins, she said, with thinking about de-centering whiteness and "having a robust community where we are not all pretending to like each other under the term people of color."  


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