Young Charges Students to Lead

Civil rights leader Andrew Young inspires a rapt audience in the RISD Auditorium. | photo by David O’Connor

When former UN Ambassador and legendary civil rights leader Andrew J. Young, Jr. spoke at RISD on January 22, he professed that his lifetime commitment to advancing human rights was sealed when he was only five years old. “I was initiated into the problems of society before I got to kindergarten,” said the affable octogenarian, referencing a Nazi rally that took place in his neighborhood in New Orleans. “My father told me that white supremacy is a contagious sickness,” he added, “and you don’t get mad at sick people.”

As the keynote speaker in RISD’s 2016 MLK Series, Young was happy to share stories about confronting bigotry alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. “Martin used to say that in order to be free, you have to overcome the love of wealth and the fear of death,” he recalled. “He would jokingly preach your funeral to make you laugh at the possibility of death.”

Young was instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act passed, and he has continued to realize King’s dream in his expansive and ongoing career as a politician, diplomat, humanitarian and documentary filmmaker. During the hour-long talk, his quick wit and cultural awareness came through, with references to hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar and current struggles for human rights and economic equity in the US and abroad. “The only answer to bullets is jobs,” he noted. “Boots on the ground don’t solve problems. Try putting some Ferragamos on the ground.”

In describing the guest speaker’s work as “a powerful call to action,” President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID noted that RISD is undergoing a thorough self-examination and striving to use its unique perspective to “actively dismantle oppression.” Young picked up on her words, advising students to “be prepared to rule the world. Think about how to shape the future together,” he urged. “Just being at this blessed place will nurture that seed inside you.”

As one of the students who had the opportunity to speak with Young before his talk, Student Alliance President Yelitsa Jean-Charles 16 IL noted that “being in the same room with that kind of legacy is pretty amazing. It’s easy to forget how recent the civil rights movement was and how [relevant] these issues are today,” she said, adding: “This isn’t over.”

Jean-Charles says that she appreciates RISD’s efforts to “prepare students to be leaders in social change,” but laments how few are engaged in the struggle. “In order to change students’ perspectives – to get them fully ready to use their unique abilities to make change – RISD needs to bring these issues into the curriculum,” she asserts.

Like Jean-Charles, junior Stacy Chiou 17 ID is personally invested in “shaping the discourse around social issues,” and hopes that RISD will take the lead in championing social and racial equality in the realm of art and design. “The overwhelming historical narrative here and in the mainstream art world has been Western-centric,” she notes. “At RISD we have a moral obligation to effect positive change. Choosing not to [do so] would be a missed opportunity.”

Buoyed by Young���s talk, Chiou describes their brief meeting as “refreshing and encouraging. He feels positive about the direction in which things are headed,” she notes. “He believes we can resolve issues related to human rights and economic disparity if we work together.”

Young’s positive energy permeated the RISD Auditorium as his talk came to a close. “We are ready to take on the future,” he declared. “We just need to have faith and confidence. There is a resilience driving the American people that comes from our diversity.”

With his deep bass voice, Young then broke into a gospel classic, assuring the spellbound audience:

I’ve got a feeling everything’s gonna be alright.
I’ve got a feeling everything’s gonna be alright.
I’ve got a feeling everything’s gonna be alright.
Be alright, be alright, be alright.

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