Activist, public theologian, writer & speaker Rahiel Tesfamariam to keynote Black History Month

This year’s keynote speaker will be activist, public theologian, writer and speaker Rahiel Tesfamariam. The founder and publisher of Urban Cusp and a former Washington Post columnist will speak on “The Role of the Black Millennial and the Black Church in the New Civil Rights Movement”  at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18 in the Symphony Room of Gordon Commons, 770 West Dayton Street.

Picked by the 2016 student planning committee, the theme of this year’s month-long celebration is “In Living Color: An Exploration of Blackness & Intersectionality” focusing on Blackness and the Diaspora, Blackness and Sex (Gender, Sexual Orientation, Sexual Identity), Blackness and Class, and Performing Blackness.”

Activist, public theologian, writer and speaker Rahiel Tesfamariam.  The founder and publisher of Urban Cusp and a former Washington Post columnist will speak on "The Role of the Black Millennial and the Black Church in the New Civil Rights Movement"  at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18 in the Symphony Room of Gordon Commons, 770 West Dayton Street. Rahiel-Tesfamariam
Activist, public theologian, writer and speaker Rahiel Tesfamariam. The founder and publisher of Urban Cusp and a former Washington Post columnist will speak on “The Role of the Black Millennial and the Black Church in the New Civil Rights Movement” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18 in the Symphony Room of Gordon Commons, 770 West Dayton Street. Rahiel-Tesfamariam

Jordan Gaines, a member of the Black History Month Planning Committee since 2013, said the mission of the committee is to create Black History Month programming to fulfill the lack, among other racial and cultural disconnectedness, a mere acknowledgement of Black students and a celebration of their contributions to both the past and present campus, local, and national community.

“The goal of the BHMPC both then and now is to create safe space for Black Students on campus and in the community, celebrate and acknowledge the presence and contributions of Black people to the campus,” Gaines said, “and embed these efforts and this acknowledgement into what is understood as the Wiscsonsin Experience. I believe these goals are most certainly being met.”

Three years after its start, Black History Month programming has become a staple on campus and a time that the student of color community looks forward to, she added.

“We have also seen the emergence of other cultural and identity months. As the chair of the committee it has been a pleasure watching the commitee, its programming, and the passion for what it achieves grow. This year has been especially fulfilling because I have been able to share the experience with a co-chair, Alexis Coleman, who I know will continue to make the community better.”

Gaines continued that one of the best aspects of the commitee is that fact that it is student led. This gives the students involved an opportunity to professionally and personally develop, build community with one another, network, and learn about our campus and community history. It also shows that this is something that students want and are willing to put effort and time into making it happen.

BHM logoThis year’s keynote speaker, Rahiel Tesfamariam holds degrees from Stanford University and Yale Divinity School, where she was the inaugural William Sloane Coffin, Jr. Scholar for Peace and Justice. Prior to attending Yale, she served as the youngest editor-in-chief in the history of The Washington Informer, at age 23. She went on to work as a community organizer for anti-violence youth initiatives before launching Urban Cusp in 2011.

She has traveled the world on various delegations and humanitarian projects and has spoken at prestigious universities and historic churches throughout the nation. As a leading generational voice, she has been featured in countless media outlets and is the recipient of several distinguished national awards. Tesfamariam is also a contributing author to the NIV Bible for Women by Zondervan and Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith.

Responding to the 2014 Ferguson non-indictment decision, Tesfamariam  led a national Black Friday economic boycott supported by dozens of celebrities called #NotOneDime. She has been listed in The Root 100, featured in Ebony and Revolt TV amongst “Leaders of the New School” and was one of six women Essence Magazine named “The New Civil Rights Leaders.” Black Girls Rock honored Tesfamariam in 2013, saluting “her tireless dedication to global issues, community activism and youth advocacy.”

Overall, the month-long February celebration will offer more than two dozen events and activities.  For more information on each of these events, please go to:

“We have worked very hard to establish a coherent set of programs, activities, performances, and lectures tying back to the theme and we sincerely hope you will be able to attend at least one or more events,” said Karla Foster, a Pathways to Educational Achievement advisor in the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement.

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Why the modern civil rights movement keeps religious leaders at arm’s length

Written by Rahiel Tesfamariam on October 7, 2015 at 1:20 a.m.

Originally published in The Washington Post on September 18, 2015.

On Aug. 10, the day after the one-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Mo., I was arrested with nearly 60 other faith leaders for blocking the entrance of a St. Louis federal courthouse in an act of civil disobedience. On my shirt was a quote from Hands Up United co-founder Tef Poe: “This Ain’t Yo Mama’s Civil Rights Movement.” The phrase has resonated with many young activists who reject the identity politics, conservative rules and traditional tactics of the church-led movement of the 1960s.

In the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, the new movement for black lives was radicalized by legions of poor and working-class youth who forced the nation to grapple with black rage. They fearlessly confronted a militarized police force, tear gas, snipers and tanks designed for warfare while Americans watched on their television screens. These young people, including countless women and LGBTQ people who have organized many of the movement’s most powerful acts of resistance, have changed the predominant image of black activism in America.

Rahiel in the washington-post-rahielThe front lines of the fight for civil rights are no longer “manned” by the traditional leaders of the black community: well-dressed, respectable clergymen. From Emanuel AME Church’s historical fight against slavery in Charleston, S.C., to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s leadership in the 1960s, the church was the control center in black America’s struggle for civil rights for generations. Its authority infused the civil rights movement with traditional values — hierarchical leadership, respectability politics and the guiding principles of reconciliation and nonviolence.

Today’s movement has dismissed these criteria, operating without centralized leadership and accepting as many straight women and LGBTQ people on the front lines as straight men. Last winter, young activists rejected the leadership of the Rev. Al Sharpton when they stormed the stage of his “Justice for All” march in Washington and demanded an equal voice. Instead, the movement chants a phrase coined by three women, two of them queer: “Black lives matter.”

For this generation, there’s no need to hide behind a veil of purity or wear a suit to have an authoritative seat at the table. This is a movement that encourages all to “come as you are.” Natural. Bohemian. Rebellious. Tatted up. Provocative. Ratchet. It seems everything is acceptable — except the constraining rules of our elders’ day.

Historically, Christian fundamentalism has created hierarchies that place higher value on some lives and alienate others. Churches are often led by charismatic, straight men. Women, in contrast, typically have been forbidden from ordination and the pulpit under long-debated biblical passages calling for them to remain “silent in the churches.” Similarly, scriptural references have been used to keep the LGBTQ community on the margins of church life. The church’s common rejection of homosexuality has granted permission for the rejection of an entire community.

This is inherently at odds with a movement that chants “black lives matter,” leaving no room for footnotes about who is included in that declaration and who is left out. The movement’s decentralized structure has ensured that the concerns of subgroups are not sidelined. After women in the movement pointed out that it had become exclusively focused on police brutality against black men, targeted hashtags such as #SayHerName emerged. Those efforts kept national attention on cases of women and girls, including Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd. And last month, movement organizers held rallies across the country to bring awareness to the high rate of murder of black transgender women.

This movement’s tactics, as well, have challenged the church’s influence. While the civil rights movement of the 1960s was characterized by nonviolent resistance strategies, this movement has been much more confrontational. Demonstrators have disrupted morning commutes, theatrical performancesand athletic events. In Ferguson and Baltimore, where many young people insisted on aggressive direct action such as throwing back tear-gas canisters and casting rocks at police, many clergy members encouraged them to instead “go inside” and negotiate around a table.

If there is a model of revolution that these young people have mirrored most, it’s not King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but rather the radical and countercultural beliefs of the Black Panther Party. Like the Panthers, they have unapologetically celebrated blackness, raising “black power” fists, sporting afros and wearing T-shirts with African imagery. In contrast, the church hasn’t typically been as radical in its rhetoric and tactics. King, for example, opposed the militant arm of the civil rights movement, noting that “black power” carried “connotations of violence and separatism.”

rahielin churchThe black church isn’t unique in its disconnect from young people. Millennials are broadly disaffected with organized religion, driven by their progressive views on homosexuality and a general skepticism of traditional institutions. More than 1 in 3 millennials say they are religiously unaffiliated.

But black millennials are more connected to the church than their peers — about 76 percent of black adults under age 30 affiliate with the church (compared with 64 percent of all young adults in that age group), according toa 2009 Pew study. Likewise, the movement isn’t devoid of religion. Preachers such as Traci Blackmon of Florissant, Mo., Osagyefo Sekou of St. Louis and Michael McBride of Berkeley, Calif., have stood alongside youth in street protests and mentored young activists. And Bree Newsome quoted scripturewhen she climbed the South Carolina statehouse flagpole in June to remove the Confederate flag.

Still, critiques of the black church’s declining influence have been building for years. In 2010, Princeton professor Eddie Glaude wrote an essay in the Huffington Post titled “The Black Church Is Dead.” Glaude argued that “the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.” He blamed the church’s deeply conservative dimension and its disconnect from social issues. Saying the church’s social currency is “memory” was a hurtful and harsh critique for many within the black faith community.
But others, including myself, saw the essay as a challenge and an opportunity to rededicate the black church to its liberation-centered legacy. Even though black liberation theology wasn’t formalized as a school of thought until the 1960s, its practice in the U.S. could be seen as long ago as the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, who said his acts were driven by the Bible.

For churches already rooted in black liberation theology — the spiritual philosophy that Christianity is a tool of empowerment for the oppressed — this movement is an opportunity to reclaim a generation that needs to see Jesus as a freedom fighter, liberator, community organizer and revolutionary. Churches like First Corinthian Baptist in Harlem, City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland and Community of Hope AME in Temple Hills, Md., do not see this moment as a crisis of relevancy, because they have been working at the intersection of Jesus and justice every day. Ministries like these not only preach the “good news” of Christ but also address the school-to-prison pipeline, health disparities in low-income communities and urban gun violence. Churches like these participated in “Hoodie Sunday” after Trayvon Martin’s killing; they lifted up the “Seven Last Words” of black people killed by police; and they supported my #NotOneDime campaigncalling for economic resistance in the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who killed Brown. These churches understand that Jesus came and died for the purpose of liberation, and his followers should be equally committed to putting their lives on the line for it.

This month, McBride, who heads the progressive, faith-based Live Free Campaign, was among 1,000 clergy members and people of faith who met in Sacramento to call on California Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a bill to combat racial profiling and improve police accountability. “While not every church has been involved, we know historically this has never been the case,” McBride said. “There have always been a faith-filled minority which has leaned into moments of social crisis and transformation.”

But in large part, the masses are not turning to churches for their social justice marching orders. The ideological and strategic differences between conservative church leadership and this movement have led to a generational wrestling match. While many elders have insisted that the movement assign leaders, tone down its rhetoric and use less-confrontational tactics, young activists have resisted in the spirit of self-determination.

To find their place in black America’s latest uprising, church and faith leaders will have to assess their theological values. A theology that addresses only freedom from sin is incomplete. There’s no way to talk about the story of Jesus without also addressing freedom from oppression.

Every generation should look to its elders for guidance and to the past for inspiration. The struggle for freedom is ongoing, and our fight is intergenerational. But young people must answer their calling and live out their purpose in ways that feel authentic. They must stand at the turbulent intersection of the world as it is and the world as it should be, pushing society out of its comfort zone. It’s an inevitable shift toward a civil rights movement reflective of this new era.