The 2019 Clemson University Men of Color National Summit opened Thursday with author and college professor Melissa Harris-Perry challenging attendees to question the way we measure, define and reward achievement.
Students, faculty, staff, business leaders and educators around the country gather to hear Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. Image credit: University Relations
Wake Forest professor, political analyst, and TV personality, Melissa Harris-Perry kicked off the summit before a standing room only crowd of attendees. Image credit: University Relations
“What stories do we tell about the challenges facing our communities?” asked the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University who serves as the founding director of the Julia Cooper Center and co-founder of Wake the Vote.
“I want to try to lead with questions today rather than presuming I have answers because I don’t have answers,” she said.
The two-day conference at the Greenville Convention Center is dedicated to closing the achievement gap for African-American and Hispanic males.
This, the third year of the conference, brings together 2,000 experts, educators, thought leaders and students from across the nation to share ideas, discuss what works and doesn’t work and to consider what hasn’t yet been tried.
Melissa Harris-Perry speaks before a sold-out Men of Color National Summit. Image credit: University Relations
- Harris-Perry, the opening day’s first keynote, asked that attendees think about “the stories we tell about the challenges facing our community, what questions we can use to challenge those stories, and how these questions help us create more socially just outcomes.”
For example, she said, while there is much data to support the idea of a racial achievement gap, “What are we actually measuring? What do you mean by achievement?”
Harris-Perry spoke to the importance of education and how it directly relates to lifetime earnings potential. “Education is key, and no one is going to change that,” she said. But she urged skepticism that education is the answer to inequity and injustice. “Does knowing more mean having more?” she asked.
She spoke of the disparity in school suspension rates among blacks and whites, pay inequities for black women, and how income often doesn’t translate into wealth even for college graduates of color often saddled with staggering loads of student debt.
Men of Color National Summit attendees listening to keynote speaker, professor Melissa Harris-Perry Image credit: University Relations
“College does not cure wealth gaps,” she said. “You will earn more income, but wealth and income are not the same thing.”
She said there are many ways to think of achievement, including “the idea that being in community, being in relationships, caring about one another … those are the achievements that matter in the broadest sense of who we are as people. And we haven’t figured out any good way to measure that or reward that or think about that in ways that don’t make it look like there’s a big gap.”
Men of Color National Summit attendees listen as Melissa Harris-Perry delivers the keynote address. Image credit: University Relations
“Have you achieved making it through when there wasn’t enough money in the week? Have you achieved figuring out how to help a younger sibling? Have you achieved how to accomplish in a classroom when your teachers think you are not capable but you are doing your very best to be capable? Have you achieved hour-long commutes on your way to school?” she asked. “These are very real accomplishments.”
“We don’t have an achievement gap, we have a measurement gap. I need you to measure my achievement differently,” she said. “I know that I get my education not just so I can make more money, because in fact the dollars are inequitable and unjust. I get my education so I can part of a broader process of structural change.”
Harris-Perry closed by asking attendees to “think about how we can build not a leader-led movement and not a leader-less movement, but a leader-full movement.”
Structural change means questioning. It means critiquing.
“When we bring critique to anything – to Clemson to America to our racial community – when we bring critique it does not mean we don’t love. It means we do love,” she said. “It means we love enough to critique. It means we love enough to invest. It means we love enough to protest. It means we love enough to build.”