Third annual BOOM learning symposium engages campus

Photo by Trinity Kendrick ’21  Barbara Smith ’69, Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Raquel Willis held the keynote in Chapin Auditorium.

Photo by Trinity Kendrick ’21

Barbara Smith ’69, Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Raquel Willis held the keynote in Chapin Auditorium.

BY CAITLIN LYNCH ’20

Classes and other college obligations were paused this Tuesday, April 9 as community members participated in Mount Holyoke’s third annual Building on Our Momentum (BOOM) learning symposium for diversity, equity and inclusion. 

According to the event’s page on the Mount Holyoke website, the symposium is “an opportunity to engage in the work of diversity, equity and inclusion in all its manifestations,” aiming to promote thought and dialogue about the effects of systemic inequality through talks and workshops. 

When BOOM debuted at Mount Holyoke in 2017, classes were canceled for a full day of diversity programming, similar to this year’s event. Last year, the symposium was a week-long series of events, during which no College activities or classes were canceled. Based on feedback from participants, the College decided to return to the original model, clearing one day on the calendar each spring to make room for a centralized event, according to an email sent to students and staff by Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Kijua Sanders-McMurtry on April 3. The sessions planned for BOOM 2019 focused on several areas including “challenging gender-based oppression, creating strategies for countering bias, cultivating anti-racist pedagogies and praxes, examining histories and legacies of activism and identifying strategies for grassroots activism and mobilization,” according to the email. 

The day of programming began at 9 a.m. in Chapin Auditorium, with Angelis Liriano ’22, President Sonya Stephens and Sanders-McMurtry reciting a poem each in Spanish, French and English, respectively. After Sanders-McMurtry gave her opening remarks to set the scene for the day ahead, she welcomed singer and guitarist Dr. Diana Alvarez to the stage. Alvarez performed original music consisting of both Spanish and English lyrics and containing spoken word components, such as “to be an artist is to doubt the machinations of this world.” More music followed from artist Pamela Means, who performed two original songs on an acoustic guitar — the first a response to the 2014 shooting of black teenager Michael Brown Jr. by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri and the second a response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people were killed. “Ho, hey, NRA, how many souls did you kill today?” she sang. An American Sign Language interpreter remained on stage throughout the opening program.

After the performances, Sanders-McMurtry took the stage once more to announce the winners of the College’s name recording competition (Frances Perkins Scholars) and to encourage students to participate in this initiative by recording their names on my.mountholyoke. The goal to record the names of every Mount Holyoke community member is an effort to ensure that all community members’ names are correctly pronounced. Alvarez and Means returned to the stage to perform Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” to conclude the opening ceremony. 

Community members gathered in over 40 sessions throughout the day, including lecture presentations, panels, discussions, action planning sessions, workshops and film screenings. Film screenings included “Capture the Flag” and “X-Men,” and were a new addition to BOOM for this year, which Sanders-McMurtry said was in an effort to “offer people spaces where they do not have to be engaged in intensive dialogue all day in recognition of the sensory needs within our community” in her April 3 email.

One session, “Addressing Islamophobia” with Founder & CEO of AFA Diversity Consulting Dr. Amer F. Ahmed, provided information about the Islamic faith as well as the ways that popular narrative and media portrayals misrepresent Islam and its followers. Ahmed countered myths related to women’s rights, religion-driven violence and anti-Semitism among Muslims and highlighted the distinction between religion and culture. He described the limited mindset about Islam occupied by extremist groups including al-Qaida and the Taliban as a “distorted megaphone” that is misrepresentative of the religion as a whole. Speaking to his experience as an American Muslim, Ahmed said Islamophobia has been long ingrained in American society, though 9/11 and the election of President Trump have heightened tensions in recent years. 

Ahmed also presented at another session, titled “Healing, Justice and Inclusion: Skills and Strategies for Campus Inclusion in Tumultuous Times.” He said his experience as a presenter at BOOM “showed [him] that there are numerous people on campus who are committed to learn and engage about these issues to create a more inclusive climate for everyone” and that “it is [his] hope that the conference served as an important building block in that overall process at Mount Holyoke College.”

The Dining Commons was closed from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the day of the symposium in order to allow Dining Services staff to participate. “We are so grateful to those who work a number of off-peak hours in areas such as dining services, facilities and campus police,” Sanders-McMurtry said in her campus-wide email on April 3. “We hope that our decisions will allow for more participation so they might join us for at least part of the day.” Food trucks were hired to provide lunch for the community on Skinner Green.

White community members, including administrators, filled Blanchard’s Great Room to near capacity for a white privilege affinity group to discuss the ways in which white privilege influences their lives and strategies for supporting people of color. Other affinity groups focused on the experiences of first-generation students, faculty and staff, multiracial identities and people with disabilities.

The keynote of the conference, “This Way to Liberation,” was a dialogue featuring prominent feminist Barbara Smith ’69 and Executive Editor of Out Magazine Raquel Willis, moderated by Beverly Guy-Sheftall, founding director of the Spelman College Women’s Research and Resource Center. 

To open the discussion, Guy-Sheftall asked the panelists what “liberation” meant to each of them. Smith said she conceptualizes liberation not as individualized, but as a collective project to eradicate big systems including capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy. Willis and Smith both spoke about their experiences of choosing a college (the University of Georgia and Mount Holyoke, respectively) and how though they made notably different choices, both were based upon their prior understandings of systems of oppression. The panelists further discussed their own activism as it relates to feminist issues before the session was opened for an audience Q&A.

Sanders-McMurtry said she has “big plans for next year” in regards to the BOOM conference. In her April 3 email to students, she emphasized that “the planning team is committed to actively seeking your input, building on our success and learning from our mistakes in order to grow together.”