Review: 934 Conference Black History Month: Empowering Young Leaders at the French Consulate Feb 15

Cover image:  Left to right: Arun Venugopal, Muriel Quincard, Janai Nelson and Vinny Dotoli

Consule Générale Mme Anne-Claire Legendre © WhereNYC

In recognition of Black History Month, Arun Venugopal, correspondent for WNYC kicked off the discussion with a bit background of what was once known as Negro History Week in 1929, coinciding with the birthdays of two abolitionists: President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The remarkable historical events commemorated during Black History Month, according to Mr. Venugopal, also transcended different communities and social groups.

“It isn’t only about black people,” Mr. Venugopal explained the impact the movement had on other populations and should be considered pivotal in U.S. history. Although he didn’t experience the Civil Rights era during the sixties, the movement also helped to bar racist immigration laws, which according to Mr. Venugopal, had previously barred people from Asia and and elsewhere to immigrate to the States.

Though the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s may have affected different ethnic groups, Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that African-American youth still struggle today. Academic expectations for African-American students still remains low. Black students comprise around 13% of academia but roughly only 2% percent  ever reach the PhD level. In spite of the glaring inequality, there are those who are trying to make a difference. Vinny Dotoli who has run the Harlem Academy, said that one of the school’s missions has been to give back to community and invest in the neighborhood’s youth. But still he said schools even his own still sometimes “stamp the status quo” without bringing revolutionary change.

Empowerment is not privilege based on race or social status, Ms. Nelson said. It is about giving the tools to create opportunity for those disenfranchised in society. It includes purchasing power, and the power of vote. According to Ms. Nelson, during the last presidential election, people of color made up of half the vote. She also argued that it was one of the most diverse electorate that had voted, and the level of participation has dramatically increased. The subsequent post-presidential election protests such as the Women’s March drew solidarity across the world.

In spite of the progress made in achieving diversity, it still is an ongoing struggle. Empowerment is not so easy to achieve, according to private school headmaster Mr. Dotoli. Although his school has been successful in providing quality education to a portion of the city’s African-American children, he acknowledges that his contribution is limited and only represents “a small slice” of the disenfranchised population. He attributes the problem to a lack of gifted and talented programs but admits that this cannot solve the entire problem.

934 Conférence © Consulat Général de France

Organizer Muriel Quancard, who has embraced the culture of inner-city youth in the suburbs of Paris and attempted to turn it into an expressive art, has worked with youngsters in France to build bridges over the gaps of social inequality through art and music. This combination of art and youth participation is encouraging especially when it comes to political participation. Normally apathetic, the election of Donald Trump has given a valuable lesson of voting and the importance of being informed. “People are learning about the underbelly of darker history,” Arun Venugopal said. Mr. Dotoli said that even adults have “woken up to their responsibility.”

French Consulate

934 Conférence © WhereNYC

While there are encouraging signs of general awakening of the power of the young, the level of political participation remains incredibly low. According to the New York Times and CNN, roughly 44% of the voting population did not vote during the last election. While Hillary Clinton received more than 3 million votes more than Donald Trump, the general voting turnout remained low.  Ms. Nelson said that it was not out of apathy, but in some cases, many were prevented from voting. “The real issue was voter suppression that affected turnout.”

Previous 934 Conference included Chef David Bouley and panel © Consulat de France à New York

Though it is a laudable effort on the part of the French Consulate to boldly create a hospitable platform to foster exchange of different opinions, the panel discussion fell flat and at times lacked focus. It was not entirely clear how a private school principal and arts coordinator could effectively address the ramifications of social inequality when they occupy a small place in the efforts of empowering youth. In respect to private and charter education, how can we discuss greater teacher accountability, as Mr. Dotoli had said without understanding the lack of funding that exists for public education? And for those who are not accepted to the Harlem Academy, what happens to them? If empowering the excluded means providing access, as per Ms. Nelson, then maybe students, themselves, need greater accountability to become active members of their community.

Full House © Consulat de France à New York

It was a daunting challenge to fully address these issues, but the 934 Conférence still allowed for a thoughtful, poignant discussion, upholding the revolutionary republican spirit of debate and understanding that have defined the French Republic since 1789.

For more information on upcoming events, please visit the 934 Conference.