Three questions were asked to members of the audience in the packed side room in Irvine Auditorium on Sunday afternoon — two weeks after the unarmed Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
“What should be our focus?” said Brian Peterson, director of Makuu — the black cultural house. “What would you like Penn student organizations to do? [And] what can everyone do as individuals on this issue?”
The questions were borne out of a desire by black student groups on campus to create change after the death of Brown, an 18-year-old black teenager, at the hands of a white police officer.
“We really want to focus on action because that’s what is actually going to enact change in the future,” Nikki Hardison, political chair of UMOJA and a senior in Wharton, said to open up the discussion.
Sunday afternoon gave members of the Penn and Philadelphia communities an opportunity to come forward with their ideas about enacting change by answering the questions that Peterson posed, as well as a space to talk about what happened in Ferguson.
The 120-plus members in the room responded with a variety of answers ranging from, “trust building between police officers and communities of color” to teaching people that “attacks on white privilege are not attacks on white people.”
Wharton junior Rachel Palmer also suggested that it was important for student groups to be “figuring out a way to include white allies more in the activism on campus … because a majority of the Penn community is not black, but a lot of the community still does want to help.”
The open forum was then followed by a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” photoshoot, where the attendees stood up with their hands raised in the air as a reference to how Brown positioned himself when he was shot.
University Chaplain Chaz Howard ended the event formally with two moments of silence. One was for Michael Brown. The second was for thinking about the future and what change each indivdual can bring.
The event was followed by a closed session where student leaders of campus groups gathered to discuss their next steps.
Outside of the formal structures of student groups, many were encouraged to take steps on their own.
“It was really empowering, just to see the physical presence and hearing the ideas,” College sophomore Taylor Hosking said.
Her next step? “I am starting with educating myself — I need to educate myself about rights in interacting with police officers and past incidents relating to this,” she said.
Chaz Smith, also a College sophomore, said he plans to make a video blog post for his Youtube channel. “I’m going to talk about the condition of black people in America, not just the problems we face, but the next step.”
Peterson reminded students during the Town Hall that their current ideas and discussions are part of a larger ongoing conversation that has been happening before Michael Brown.
“This is the continuation of conversations that have happened to get many of you all in this room. Think about the history of Penn … There’s a lot that’s happened. This movement is a continuation of that. You all are being passed a torch right now, passed a baton to keep this going,” he said.
Hosking, an attendee, is confident about moving forward, like others at the event. “I know that there’s momentum here and I know that we’re going to do something about it,” she said.
CORRECTION: Nikki Hardison is a senior in Wharton, not the College. The DP regrets the error.