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Connecticut College to host new social justice conference

New London — Connecticut College will host a new virtual event next week, Elevate: The Inaugural Social Justice Conference, to further its mission of educating people about social justice and anti-racism.

Held entirely on Zoom and open to students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members, the conference “is intentionally designed as a space of empowerment for people who have felt marginalized, erased, or silenced because of their social identities or personal backgrounds,” according to an announcement by the college.

John McKnight, dean of institutional equity and inclusion at the college, said the conference is meant to be an interactive experience that developed as a natural follow-up to social and racial movements that swept the nation in 2020.

“Following everything that happened last summer, our community, like so many others, was asking for more — more training, more education, more conversation — about issues of race and racial justice. So we built this conference idea kind of as a follow up to that,” McKnight said. “It was the natural culmination of a lot of groundwork that we’ve been laying at Conn for many years, we’re really thinking about issues of racial equity and justice.”

McKnight said that after seeing the nation react to instances of police brutality and racism last year with widespread outrage and calls for reform, the college felt it was important to create a space for conversations about race and racism.

“I think after the year we all had last year, when it became almost impossible to ignore systemic racism, it was necessary to give people somewhere to go to ‘elevate’ the level of conversation,” he said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the college also had time to host such a conference, as students are still waiting to return from their winter break.

“The school is on break until February, and we wanted to find a way to engage students — and community members — during that time,” McKnight said.

“So, we asked ‘What can we do during this down time that can help us continue to develop an awareness of the issues that are at the forefront of our community? What would help us to continue to develop an awareness to the issues that have been at the forefront of our community?’”

The answer was the Elevate conference.

Over the course of three days, attendees are invited to participate in discussions and learn new skills through a variety of sessions — from film screenings and research presentations to performances and interactive workshops.

“Elevate was built on the principle of full participation — the idea that every member of the community will have opportunities to thrive, reach their fullest potential, and contribute to the thriving of others,” McKnight said. “But in order for everyone to thrive, we acknowledge that we must continually work to create the conditions for all members of our community to feel respected, connected, and empowered.”

One session that will require participation — and an at-home dance floor — is a dance class taught by adjunct dance professor Truth Hunter and associate professor of dance Shani Collins.

The instructors will lead the group in learning a traditional Haitian dance called Nago to celebrate Haiti’s history and honor the anniversary of Haitian independence.

“This dance, and a lot of Haitian dances, represent unshackling, breaking free,” Hunter said.

Hunter said that in teaching the dance, they are incorporating the idea that it is a choice to determine one’s freedom and acknowledge liberation as a universal right.

Hunter, who has been studying Haitian dances with Collins and incorporating dance into lessons of history, culture and race, said that “developing African routed dances as a way to sort of promote well-being and to move towards liberation is the common thread of what we’ve been doing.”

The instructors will teach participants about Haiti’s history, and the history of enslaved Africans in the country, in addition to the dance moves themselves. Dancing, said Hunter, is a powerful way for people to learn: “It’s not only about telling students about the history, you’re about to dance it, you’re about to embody it, you’re never going to forget that.”

Throughout the conference, featured speakers will include Charlene Carruthers, an author, a community organizer, political strategist and founder of Chicago Center for Leadership and Transformation; Eboo Patel, an interfaith leader and educator; Shalini Kantayya, a scholar, an environmental activist and a documentary filmmaker, and Jonathan Mooney, a neurodiverse writer and activist.

Frank Tuitt, vice president and chief diversity officer for the University of Connecticut, said that a conference like Elevate will help prepare future Connecticut College graduates, giving them the tools to impact the people they encounter, the organizations for which they work, the communities they live in and society as a whole.

“A social justice education prepares students to successfully navigate an increasingly complex and diverse world,” Tuitt said. “Now more than ever, we need a cadre of new leaders and change agents who are prepared to help us navigate these difficult times while solving the great problems of the day.”

At the end of the conference, the college will continue the Conversation on Race, which launched in 2019 in collaboration with The Day and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, with a panel discussion on “Policing in the U.S. and New London.”

Members of the Public Safety and Review Committee, appointed in June 2020 and chaired by McKnight, will discuss their recommendations for strengthening police accountability and police–community relations.

“I’m excited that we get to open this conversation up to this community,” McKnight said.

All workshops, screenings and speeches in the conference, and the forum, are open to the public. Register online at


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