Moderator Casandra Shepard, top left, invites five panelists Monday to share closing remarks at the end of Bates’ Martin Luther King Jr. keynote address in Lewiston. Screenshot from video

LEWISTON — Hundreds of people from across the world listening online to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day keynote address by Bates College on Monday were challenged to help deconstruct structural racism from a global perspective.

In a break from tradition, the MLK organizing committee chose to invite not one, but five Maine-based activists to share their truths on this year’s theme, Decolonization and Liberation.

“We realized that the definitions of decolonization are many and that in the spirit of conversation, a keynote panel would be the appropriate way to do full justice to our theme this year,” said Tyler Harper, assistant professor of environmental studies and co-chair of the MLK Jr. Day planning committee.

Decolonization simply is about running out of patience, he said.

“We often like to think of patience as a positive quality, yet I’m going to engage in a bit of etymology,” the study of the origin of words, he said. “A patient person, from the original French and Latin, it connects to the word for suffering. So in the original sense, a patient person is one who is willing to bear adversities.”

“If decolonization is about running out of patience, or being impatient, as my friend suggested, then I think we might define decolonization in this way, as a practice of saying no to suffering, a practice of saying no to despair, and of asserting that we are finished sitting quietly, insisting on the possibility of change now,” Harper said.

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Each of the panelists have put aside their patience to drive change and advocate for those who continue to be harmed by colonization and structural racism.

Hamza Abdi, Bates assistant director of volunteer programs and community partnerships, said colonization has not only taken the lives of his ancestors, but it has also affected how he connects to himself and his culture.

Coming from the east African nation of Djibouti, he said, “I have long suffered from an identity crisis. I have lost my real identity and carried an unknown identity for many, many years. And to me, that’s one of the real dangers of colonization. Not only is it stealing lands, but also is stealing people’s identity and culture.”

“We must continue to show up in places where abandonment is permissible, where humans are disregarded and mistreated by our institutions of education, government and beyond,” he added. “Wisdom is lost when we are not intentional about listening and improving.”

At times, panelists directed remarks at the Bates community and college administration.

Portland City Counselor Pious Ali encouraged the Bates community to consider the source of their education materials, additionally pressing the college leadership to be fair to its workers.

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“It is about time that our institutions like Bates take the lead to look within and see whether it is some of the practices that you do, your relationship with your community, and then the books that you put in front of your students, and get rid of those that do not speak the truth,” said Ali, an education activist in Maine and a native of Ghana.

Ali said he received emails from “a lot” of people regarding the relationship between the administration and staff, noting that some urged him not to attend the keynote event.

Union organizers have accused the college of union-busting actions several times in the past several months.

“Actually, (Dr. King) gave his last speech in Memphis on the weekend of his death supporting the striking sanitation workers, and he believes in the struggling of the working class,” Ali said. “I will encourage the president of Bates and the leadership of Bates to engage these individuals in working with them. I know it’s not my place to say this, but you’ve invited me to speak, and I’ve heard from them.”

Maria Girouard, executive director of Wabanaki REACH, said her education about Maine history was “devoid of the destruction that colonialism affected this land.”

“Wabanaki people who were the original peoples of this land were caught up in this imperialistic struggle between European nations, and so that was a very traumatic, very violent event that I daresay is still happening today.”

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Telling Bates to match its actions to its words, Girouard shared that she has not accepted a speaking invitation from Bates since one of its professors, Bruce Borque, provided testimony against the Penobscot Nation’s claim to a 60-mile stretch of the Penobscot River seven years ago.

The Penobscot Nation ultimately lost the lawsuit.

“At that point in time I was really upset, a little bit hurt and a little bit disgusted, because at the same time, Bates was touting this theme of wanting to build better relationships with Wabanaki people,” she said. “To say one thing and then do another really promotes some bad trauma on people and this process of colonization has been very traumatic to those who have had to experience it,” she said.

Julia Sleeper-Whiting, a 2008 graduate of Bates and the co-founder of Tree Street Youth, helps create youth programming which encourages leadership, learning, exploration and growth.

“Every day here at the center we’re working with youth and young people who truly believe in the concepts of liberation, who truly believe in making worlds different and not being held to these boxes,” she said. “However, every day we’re also seeing the practices of colonization, even at times at risk within our own entities, restricting them, holding them back and teaching them that there is a right way or a certain expression or a way of functioning,” she said.

And when Deputy Director of the Indigo Arts Alliance Jordia Benjamin spoke, she shared the values of her nonprofit organization established a few years ago.

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“Our mission core values and principles create a melting pot where artists leadership, creativity and their vision provides us with a road map to what a healthy community could look like, a community that is equipped to dismantle and rebuild cultural narratives that have previously excluded and erased the integrity and capabilities of Black and brown people,” she said.

Indo Arts Alliance is the only Black-led arts and culture nonprofit organization in Maine, she added.

In her introduction, keynote moderator and assistant professor of Africana, Cassandra Shepard, told attendees that it is imperative to pursue decolonization at the institution and individual level, “severing the personal colonial ties that we have with our thoughts, habits, beliefs and body politics.”

Individuals serious about the work of decolonization will come together to “enact collective change that will transform our ways of being on the national, institutional and personal levels that leads to liberation,” she added, asking attendees to consider what the U.S. and the state of Maine owes indigent, displaced indigenous and Black folk.

“We know that it is truly engaged when settler populations do not seek forgiveness before recompense, when they make amends for the last harm suffering and death campaigns that have been maintained for over generations.”

The full keynote address can be viewed on Bates’ website.

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