An Empowering Weekend at Annual BLSA Conference

BY OHIA AMADI

Professor Charles J. Ogletree, conference co-chairs Diane Lucas, Amanda Edwards, Jenna Cobb, and Penn Law School Professor Michael Eric Dyson at the closing brunch for the 23rd annual BLSA Spring Conference.
Co-Conference chair Jenna Cobb, Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Dean Elena Kagan, Theodore M. “Ted” Shaw (Director-Counsel and President of NAACP Legal Defense Fund) and Amanda K. Edwards (L-R) at the Banquet and Keynote Address for the 23rd annual BLSA Spring Conference.

The Harvard Black Law Students Association’s 23rd Annual Spring Conference began last Thursday, March 9, and ran through Sunday, March 12. The four day event included the first annual Youth Summit, numerous panels, as well as a number of distinguished speakers, all connected under this year’s theme: “Forging A New Path To Empowerment: Reconnecting The Past, Present and Future of a Multi-Faceted Black Community.”

The conference kicked-off Thursday night with a round-table discussion entitled “Where Is Empowerment and How Do We Get There?” featuring a number of black Harvard faculty members including Ron Ferguson, Lani Guinier, Evelynn Hammonds, Randall Kennedy, Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., and David Thomas. The panelists strove to define what empowerment entails for the black community with debate centering on individual empowerment versus community empowerment.

Panels on Friday and Saturday spanned the gamut from activism within the corporate law firm to the impartiality and continued importance of the black judiciary to community-centered strategies for relief in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A highlight from the Katrina relief panel took place when Prof. Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, called Jesse Jackson on his cell phone in order to address the audience.

Another panel entitled, “Strange Bedfellows? Unexpected Alliances in the Civil Rights Community” organized by 2L Lexi Nunn, addressed the seemingly unrelated issues of environmental racism (such as the placement of waste storage facilities in neighborhoods composed predominantly of minorities) and gay rights, and why these issues are not as “popular” within the black community.

Saturday also saw the inaugural meeting of the Youth Summit Program, designed to include local high school students in the racial dialogue. The students participated in discussions focusing on such relevant and wide-ranging topics as sexual explicitness and the portrayal of women in music videos, body image, and whether beats or lyrics matter more in music. The event was DJ’ed by DJ Chubby Chub of Boston’s Hot 97.7 FM.

A speech by Theodore M. Shaw, Director-Counsel and President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, capped off Saturday’s formal events. Shaw urged HLS students, as future black alums, to support organizations like the Fund. The day closed out with a party at Redline that had the crowd, in the words of one HLS student, “leanin’ and rockin’,” a trend brought to national prominence by the hip-hop group Dem Franchize Boyz.

The conference came to a close on Sunday at an Inspirational Brunch with University of Pennsylvania Professor and best-selling author of the book Is Bill Cosby Right, Michael Eric Dyson. Prof. Dyson gave a speech that managed to weave in biblical passages and lyrics from rappers the likes of Jay-Z, all while raising issues of identity and race central to the black experience in America. Among a number of other issues, Dyson discussed viewing Hurricane Katrina as a watershed moment which forces people to hold the government as well as themselves accountable. HLS 1Ls and avid conference participant Marques Richeson found the speech to be “very inspirational” and were impressed by Dyson’s ability to use superficially divergent media “in a manner that was relevant and pertinent to the conference objectives.”

The event’s co-chairs were 2Ls Jenna Cobb, Diane Lucas, and Amanda Edwards. Edwards summed up the overall impact of the four days of the conference as an “excellent demonstration of active learning.”

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