When junior Mandy Byrd came to the University of Mary Washington, she got involved with the James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC) and the University’s new NAACP chapter. These organizations helped open her eyes to a wide range of social justice issues, she said, and “just how powerful this kind of work can be.”
Her goal is to devote the rest of college – and beyond – to educating people about injustice and encouraging conversations that result in “positive and lasting change.”
She’ll do both this Saturday, Oct. 10, when JFMC hosts its Social Justice and Leadership Summit on Zoom. Dozens of Mary Washington students will join high school and community college students from the Fredericksburg area, as well as UMW faculty members and guest speakers, engaging in a virtual dialogue about pressing issues currently impacting our country and planet. Held annually since 2018 – usually in person – the summit gives students, according to the website, “the chance to build coalitions across cultural barriers, strengthen advocacy and promote a more equitable culture and climate at UMW and in American society.”
On Saturday, after a greeting by President Troy Paino and Vice President of Student Affairs Juliette Landphair, freelance investigative reporter Greg Palast and UMW’s Disability Resources Director Jessica Machado will deliver keynote addresses.
Palast, a journalist and bestselling author with decades of experience reporting on voter suppression, will talk about the role young people can play in the upcoming election, including serving as poll workers. As UMW observes Disability Awareness Month in October – and marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year – Machado will share challenges experienced by the community she serves. Her office provides resources, accommodations and access to 12 percent of the UMW student population.
Mary Washington professors Danny Tweedy, Melissa Martinez, Christine Henry and Eric Bonds will lead breakout sessions with smaller groups throughout the day, focusing on systemic racism, the plight of undocumented immigrants, housing injustice, the climate crisis and more. These topics are also covered in JFMC’s Social Justice Teach-In series, being held virtually throughout the fall.
“These issues aren’t just happening around our country but right here in the Fredericksburg area,” said JFMC Assistant Director Chris Williams, who has organized several regional events centered on racial justice, including a town hall following the Florida death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Hired in 2017, Williams was tasked with putting together the Social Justice and Leadership Summit at UMW. “We try to provide a space where our students can learn about these topics and become change agents, both inside and outside the University.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined this year’s event, originally planned for March, JFMC pivoted, organizing a shorter, virtual version in June after the killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people at the hands of the police and white vigilantes. With the support of Vice President for Equity and Access Sabrina Johnson and JFMC Director Marion Sanford, Williams and the student subcommittee moved forward, deciding to host the full summit this fall and selecting the theme “No Justice Without Action.”
“It encompasses everything we want to instill in our students,” said Byrd, a subcommittee member. “Without justice, we’ll have to keep on protesting until we get it.”
A business and communication and digital studies major, she designed the summit website, as well as T-shirts, buttons, stickers and posters to distribute to attendees and promote the event across campus. Though students didn’t meet in person for the summer summit, Byrd said, “its impact was real and meaningful, even through a screen,” and she expects this one will feel the same way.
Mary Washington students also will be joined by peers from Germanna Community College, James Monroe High School and the James Farmer Scholars program, many of whom will vote for the first time in the coming weeks. Opening the door to others outside UMW expands JFMC’s reach and helps lead more people to activism, said senior Rachel Benoudiz, a subcommittee member and political science major.
“I was taught that being a part of the social justice movement is an obligation,” said Benoudiz, who feels compelled by her Jewish faith to address antisemitism and racism. She hopes to further educate herself at the summit, while also helping others better understand these issues.
“It’s so important to include our neighboring communities,” she said, “so we can further the conversation and encourage them to action.”
The deadline for UMW students to register is Thursday, Oct. 8 at midnight. Please click here to register for the Social Justice and Leadership Summit.
View a video from the 2019 summit.