Student Government Association connects students and community activists in new “We Love This Place” panel

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

The second installment of the Student Government Association’s “We Love This Place” panel series was hosted on Thursday, Oct. 22.

Where the first panel, which occurred on Sept. 28, connected students with the elected leadership of Chestertown, the second edition introduced students to social justice activists within the community, so students could “learn about current initiatives and ways [they] can get involved,” according to the Student Government Association’s Oct. 19 email.

Just such a promise brought one student, senior Vax Jones, to the panel.

“My roommate and I will be living in town through the summer and are very keen to volunteer in meaningful ways, but have been slightly at a loss on what the main existing organizations here are,” they said.

The Zoom event was moderated by SGA Secretary of Service and Community Relations sophomore Maegan White, and featured Steering Committee Member of the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice and Community Historian for the Chesapeake Heartland: An African American Humanities Project Airlee Johnson; President of the Kent County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Pastor of The Potter’s House Ministries Bishop Charles Tilghman, Sr; Media and Communications Coordinator for Sumner Hall Gordon Wallace; and Deputy Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and Staff Member on the Chesapeake Heartland Project Dr. Pat Nugent.

To introduce student participants to the different work of each activist group, White asked the panelists to describe the groups they represent and how students can get involved. 

Johnson introduced the SACRJ as an activist organization whose theme is to “work around action, not just talk but for there to be action.”

The organization has six Action Committees, including the Steering Committee; Achieving Justice Together, which partners with the representatives from the local criminal justice system; the Rapid Response Team, which helps students, parents, and guardians address disciplinary actions and disputes in Kent County Public Schools; Johnson said the CommUNITY group “works with the community to establish more of a racial balance so you don’t see white organizations, black organizations, but everyone working together”; the Education Committee, which explores how to address racial inequalities within KCPS; and the Political Committee, which utilizes the political process to confront systemic racism.

SACRJ also works with local Kent County Public Schools students through the “Students Talking About Race” program, which, according to the SACRJ website, encourages “open dialogue and self-reflection around racism in our schools and community” through conversation, partnership, and activism. 

They also provide resources for allies, including a list of black businesses to support and the White Challenge, which is a list of action items that, “gives white allies a chance to actually exercise and put in place some items that they feel they need to be addressing to address racial inequality,” according to Johnson.

Recent projects include the Kent Feed the Elderly initiative, which began in March and developed from an earlier food project that focused on school-aged children, according to Co-Chair of SACRJ Paul Tue, III in a September interview with Kent Pilot.

Johnson said students can get involved with SACRJ at their website. Students can join any committee by calling or emailing the contact on the website.

Tilghman said the NAACP met at 7 p.m. on every third Thursday in The Potter’s House Ministries church on Fairlee Road; however, they moved online due to COVID-19. 

A major challenge he faces with NAACP is keeping membership high and the branch moving forward.

To be in compliance with the national organization, a branch must have more than 50 members. If they do not exceed 50 members, a branch cannot vote or participate in national organization events, according to Tilghman. 

However, he found that recently they were joined by 20 new members, “so it’s working out pretty good so far,” Tilghman said. “We’re trying to continue to work and do what we can in the community because we understand that’s needed.” 

Tilghman added if students want to get involved with the Kent County branch of NAACP, they can call him at 302-598-0053, or mail the NAACP branch at P.O. Box 600 in Chestertown.

His primary area of focus is the Potter’s House Ministries. While COVID-19 has created a challenge for the church as well, the congregation returned to in-person meetings two months ago.

He invited students to Sunday services at 11 a.m. Students can also find the church online.

“My job is to try to partner as much as I can with any organization so we can bring unity and come together to be one…whether it be in the church or outside of the church,” Tilghman said. “If anytime I can be of help or of service to any of you guys, I am just a phone call away.”

Wallace then introduced students to Sumner Hall, a local museum that promotes “an understanding of the African American experience within the context of American history and culture,” according to their website.

Part of Sumner Hall’s mission is “advocating for social justice,” Wallace said. Sumner Hall partners with different advocacy groups in the community, including SACRJ who met in Sumner Hall before COVID-19.

Sumner Hall also uses its forum to promote social justice through initiatives such as their current exhibit display: “Answering the Question,” which consists of Wallace’s work, and which he said captures moments of global protest within the community.

Another major effort by Sumner Hall is the James Taylor Lynching Remembrance Coalition, which “is a coalition to remember a man who was unjustly lynched in Chestertown right in front of the courthouse…we’re kind of leading that effort to bring awareness and spread awareness of what happened here,” Wallace said.

Wallace said for students interested in getting involved, there will be a paid internship position soon. They are looking for someone to help with Chesapeake Heartland work, including digitizing veteran-related materials and conducting oral interviews with veterans.

There are also volunteer opportunities for students. 

President of Sumner Hall Larry Wilson said that it is important for all generations to learn about Black history.

As part of that engagement, they are looking for new ways to engage with the community, which he encouraged students to share if they have such ideas.

Interested parties can email Wallace at gwallace@garpost25.org.

Dr. Nugent said the Chesapeake Heartland project is a “broad collaboration between Washington College, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but very very importantly, and particularly to this conversation, is the number of local organizations, including Sumner Hall, Kent Cultural Alliance, and the Kent County Public Library who are substantial partners [in the project],” Dr. Nugent said.

The project preserves, digitizes, interprets, and makes accessible items connected to African American history and culture within Kent County.

Dr. Nugent said that mission does not necessarily make a project an act of activism. But what differentiates the Chesapeake Heartland project is its mission to share substantial resources with the community and to support the community through their work.

“Rather than assume as a history professor that I knew what to do, how to use this project to make the community better…what we did was when we had the opportunity to partner with the Smithsonian on this, we asked students from WC to interview members of the community and ask them, beyond just digitizing images, how can we make this project work for the Black community,” Dr. Nugent said. 

He said that several goals which guide the project emerged from those conversations, including to have materials be community-interpreted; to support local schools and Black-led businesses and organizations; to foster cross-generational and interracial conversations; to engage local teenagers; to document moments of joy; and to both identify and undo racism, according to Dr. Nugent. 

Dr. Nugent highlighted some images in the digital archive including those of Black employees, yearbooks from the H. H. Garnet Elementary School, debutante balls, weddings, contemporary activism, and veterans.

Jones described seeing the digitized photos as “striking.”

“The displays of that history were particularly fascinating,” they said.

The project also supports the community in several ways, according to Dr. Nugent, including the sharing of fundraised money.

The money raised by WC for the project is not going to the College’s budget, rather it is being shared with subgrant partners, new staff members, and community curation fellows.

The project also supports the community by documenting current activism and sharing the Humanities Truck. 

The truck was recently completed and can be borrowed by community groups for their events. It has a makerspace inside so users can digitize images and print exhibit materials.

In addition to working with Sumner Hall, Chesapeake Heartland is looking for paid interns to help collect oral histories, digitize and catalog images in the digital archive, and conduct robust research, according to Dr. Nugent.

Following the moderated questions, Dr. Nugent asked students how the community can connect with and support their activism.

President of the Class of 2023 and sophomore Jonah Nicholson said where he faces challenges in activism is getting people involved, noting that fewer people attended the activism panel than the Chestertown leadership panel.

SGA President and senior Elizabeth Lilly added that enacting systemic changes in a strategic and effective manner is an area the community can especially assist with as a support for consistency in creating long-lasting changes because they will always be in the WC community.

Johnson added to the connections between the Chestertown and WC communities by discussing how “refreshing” it was to work with students, encouraging more students to get involved with the community and experience “that community love” that Kent County fosters. 

After the panel, Jones expressed a desire to do just that in a volunteer context.

“I’d like to get a foot in the door to connect so that over the summer I can make the most of the time and really get involved with the various initiatives,” Jones said.

“When it comes to activism…use your youth to your advantage. Don’t go for the traditional ways of what was activism in the past, think of ways you can improve things now,” Wallace said.

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