Social activist panel inspires students to create change

For those who want to make a difference in the world, activism can be approached in a variety of ways. Some may enter the political scene to create positive change through public policy, while others use art as a form of expression. For students looking to enter this field, there is no better way to gain insight than from meeting experienced professionals. For the third year in a row, students at Concordia were provided with the opportunity for a panel discussion hosted by the social activism program, featuring four different activists in the Fargo-Moorhead community. 


Students gathered in the Jones A/B forum room at 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 18 to hear from these professionals, who were there to provide a first-hand account of their various professions, goals, and means of activism.  Prior to the event, the students in “Social Activism: Making Change Happen” invested a number of hours in planning the event, which was no easy task. From interviewing potential candidates to having class discussions, there was a lengthy process in determining who should appear—and why. 


One important criterion was that the panel speakers should represent the local area. For students looking to enter social activism as a career, many will end up pursuing opportunities in the Fargo-Moorhead community, making it essential to select activists who could account for their experiences in the same location. Another important qualification was that the speakers should work in a variety of areas. 

The class narrowed down their selections to four activists who worked in different careers inspired by activism.


“Our objective is to get some perspective on causes and issues, as well as diversity of tactics for community organizers and activists,” explained sociology professor Dr. Mallary Allen as she introduced the guests.


The first activist to be introduced was Frederick Edwards, a public speaker and spoken word artist from Minneapolis. Edwards has a passion for civil rights and racial equality, and has spoken at hundreds of colleges, high schools and middle schools to provide testimony about his struggles and perseverance. He gained further attention in the Fargo-Moorhead community after giving a TED Talk at TEDxNDSU, titled “Why I must speak about racial discrimination.”


During the panel, Edwards made particular note of an encounter with racism when he was in high school. A graduate of Washburn High School in North Minneapolis, he recounted an instance in 2013 when a black baby doll was hanged by the neck in a stairwell, drawing outrage from local activist groups and parents. In response, a Minnesota-based Neo-Nazi group later came to the school to support the students responsible and protest for “white rights.” This issue prompted Edwards to question the status quo of racial attitudes in his community and later inspired him to pursue activism as a meaningful career.


“I remember kind of denying the racism at our school until the school held a meeting, and I heard all these people in the community talk about their heritage and experiences dealing with discrimination. That had a big impact on me,” he explained.


Another speaker was Cheryl Biller, a 1986 Concordia graduate who has a long record of volunteer work in the community. Her most recent involvement is volunteering as a chapter leader for the North Dakota chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a non-profit that lobbies to combat gun violence. During the panel, Biller explained how she helps regularly advocate for public policy reform. She also discussed the personal benefits of activism and acknowledged how working towards an issue can give somebody greater fulfillment in their life.


“Working in activism has given me a place to feel productive when I sometimes feel like the house is burning down,” said Biller. “I believe that if you find something that you care about, you will feel better about being able to have an impact on the world.”


The third speaker, Planned Parenthood employee Jenika Rufer, agreed, explaining how she discovered her passion as a college student. 


“I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life until I took a women and gender studies course,” Rufer said. “I started going to feminist groups on campus, and then began volunteering with Planned Parenthood. I really just became more and more involved over the years because of my passion for feminism.”


The last panelist, Jamaal Abegaz, is an event organizer and member of the Red River Valley Democratic Socialists, where he advocates on issues including anti-racism, housing justice, and climate change. He entered into activism during his time as a student at MSUM, where he served in student government as a senator. Abegaz emphasized how his goal is to raise awareness and drive others to join causes for equality. An essential function of his role as a community organizer is to help educate and mobilize populations who are themselves affected by social issues.


“It’s critical to me and my work that I help people understand how cycles of oppression, cycles of capitalism, are affecting you in your daily life—and trying to empower people to stand up,” said Abegaz.


Dr. Allen then posed a thoughtful question to the panel.


“What skills and competencies are needed to be an effective activist?” she asked.


Edwards shared his opinion.


“Just don’t be afraid to speak up. Whether you hear something at the grocery store or at a friend’s house, it’s important to be vocal when other people are ignoring it.”


For current students, activism can seem like an arduous and daunting mission. However, Edwards’ advice was accurate. He emphasized the one way that everyone can help make a difference—by using their voice.


The students in “Social Activism: Making Change Happen,” gained great insight into the lives and ambitions of local social advocates. Whether or not members of the audience are interested in activism as a career, everyone present was still able to learn more about current social issues, where they’re felt the most, and most importantly—why they matter. And after hearing Edward’s advice, everyone should be a little more inspired to make a difference.


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