The 2015 the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Fair was held Jan. 19 at St. Peter’s AME Church in Minneapolis.
“We’re proud to host this annual event that provides a venue for middle and high school students and their parents to learn about college opportunities,” said the Rev. Nazim B. Fakir, pastor of St. Peter’s AME Church.
More than 500 people took part in the fair that included a welcome by Fakir and Arnise Roberson, director, Career & College Initiative, for AchieveMpls. The event was sponsored by the Minnesota College Access Network, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and AchieveMpls.
Participants were witness to a step show performed by members of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., Kappa Pi Chapter; a keynote address by Nekima Levy-Pounds, attorney and professor of law and director of the Community Justice Project at the University of St. Thomas, a college fair with representatives and alumni from HBCU institutions, Skype sessions with representatives from Johnson C. Smith University and Tennessee State University, a panel discussion with HBCU graduates and a presentation by Alexander Hines, director of Diversity and Inclusion, Winona State University.
Levy-Pounds, also a community activist and a local organizer of Black Lives Matter, challenged the students. She told the audience it is important that they understand they have an opportunity to make a difference in the community, which starts by focusing on their education.
“When I was eight-years-old I moved from Mississippi to South Central Los Angeles. I didn’t move into a suburb of L.A., I moved right into the ‘hood.’ And, in that environment I saw a lot of young men winding up in the criminal justice system. I saw a lot of negative interaction between police and young men in my community. I saw a lot people winding up in gangs or feeling hopeless,” said Levy-Pounds.
Levy-Pounds said when she was watching all of this she felt there has to be a better way. When she was nine-years-old Levy-Pounds decided she wanted to become a lawyer. “I didn’t know anybody who was a lawyer. Nobody in my family had graduated from college. I only had seen lawyers on television. And, I said if they can do it, if they can get out there and be a voice for people, then I can do it too so I kept that dream in my heart,” said Levy-Pounds.
The professor and activist said she is blessed to have had strong people around her, a lot whom were her teachers.
“My teachers did not let me settle for less. They pushed me to be the best that I could be. They taught me so much about life. And, that’s really why I’m standing here,” said Levy-Pounds.
She reminded the students that she and others are marching and standing and fighting because of the legacy of people like King.
“He went to Morehouse because he understood the value of his education. He understood the importance of being grounded in a historically Black college, so that he could have a sense of identity,” said Levy-Pounds. She said that a lot of the schools that the students are attending are not going to teach them about their history, but it is important for them to learn it so that they can have a strong sense of identity.
When she was age 14, Levy-Pounds left Los Angeles and went to a boarding school in Massachusetts where she said she was around a lot of wealthy kids who did not have to work hard.
“They were born into wealth. That was not my situation. So I’m looking around at this environment and said, ‘Look, I’m a descendent of slaves and my family is broke, busted and disgusted.’ And a lot of these people benefited off the backs of my ancestors. They’re living high on the hog, wearing nice clothes, driving fancy cars and living in nice houses and I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute now! How did this happen?’ So, I started looking in the history books. I started staying in the library trying to learn about our history, our ancestors. And, when I saw all the oppression that we faced it really made me mad. It really made me start to use my voice in that environment to begin to rise up and to speak the truth. But, the other thing that it did, aside from making me mad, was to actually help me to feel better about my people. Because I’m like, wait a minute. If they can endure slavery, brutality, having to work for free, being kicked down, not knowing if their families were going to be torn down and destroyed. And, yet most of them found a way to resist it. That’s the people that I come from,'” said Levy-Pounds.
Levy-Pounds told the students that a lot of the things that they are dealing with today have their roots in slavery, but she stressed education as a way to achieve.
“In order for us to rise up and fight against the system that is oppressing us we have to be in school. We have to get our education,” said Levy-Pounds. “We have to resist the oppression that we know that we are going to face, largely because of the color of our skin … largely because of the fact that we have not progressed as much as we think we have in the United States. People will try to tell you that it’s a post-racial society. They will try to tell you, ‘Oh that was a long time ago.’ Well it wasn’t that long ago.”
The lawyer and professor said she is glad to have a law degree, but she uses it as a tool to fight for justice for her people because Blacks still have a long way to go.
“We still have to educate people about who we are. We still have to tell people when we say that discrimination isn’t happening, (to) begin to believe us. Don’t just close your eyes to the plight of people of color in the community,” said Levy-Pounds.
Alexander Hines, director of Diversity and Inclusion at Winona State University, challenged the students to, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” Hines said students must plan to spend 30 to 40 hours weekly studying outside of the classroom in order to be successful in college, and that many students of color make the mistake of not preparing a well-written college essay that can be modified to be used with all their college entrance applications. Hines said he is a living example of how one can turn his or her academic performance around. After being a below-average student in high school Hines went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and is now pursuing a doctoral degree.