Five Questions to Build Our Future: Charlene Carruthers Speaks at ASM

“Who am I? Who are my People? What Do We Want? What Are We Building? Are We Ready to Win?” asked Charlene Carruthers, founding national director of Black Youth Project 100 and author of the book “Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements,” during the special All-School Meeting (ASM) for Andover’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day programming on January 18. In her talk, Carruthers explained her motivations and helped students understand the importance of each of her five questions. 

To kick off the ASM, LaShawn Springer, Director of Community and Multicultural Development (CaMD), discussed the work of Martin Luther King Jr., providing context for the work of Carruthers, who was subsequently introduced by Niara Urquhart ’21. Carruthers crafted the five questions presented in her talk to be useful for people wanting to work towards a better future.

“As I sat down to write “Unapologetic”, I first started thinking about what I could offer up to people who were trying to figure out questions about ‘What should I do in this world when I see that everything is not ok?’… Thinking about this, I asked, ‘what would be useful to people?’ I could parrot out theory and ideas…  or I could provide people things that they can move with, that they can take and make their own. I came up with these five questions for anyone interested in doing the work toward collective liberation,” said Carruthers. 

Carruthers’ first question was “Who am I?”. She emphasized the importance of students acting in accordance with their own values and beliefs.

“It’s not enough to just believe something. Who you are is also about what you do in the world. What are the things that you care about? What are the things that you have experienced and how do they inform how you show up in the world, what you do out in the world?… If you have certain connections to systems of power, you have a responsibility to say, ‘Actually, how are my actions lined up with the values I say I have?’ There is always more we can go into,” said Carruthers.

According to Carruthers, there are no defined boundaries to being an activist. Many students, including Abi Olafimihan ’22, found this reassuring and encouraging.

“For me, as a Black person, I think just hearing her speech, it wasn’t repetitive for me, but it was more assuring me that my presence and where I am is important, and that there are things around me that are made to help me, and even though there are some people in the world who might not like my decisions, there’s nothing I can change about that,” said Olafimihan.

However, while Carruthers believes that activism comes in many forms, she emphasized that people should be sure their work expands the opportunities for people to live in their full dignity. She connected this to the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, which did not meet these guidelines for activism. Emma Staffaroni, Instructor in English and CaMD Scholars Coordinator, appreciated this distinction, which helps keep people honest about what positive activism looks like.

“I loved her ‘gut-check’ question for all activists: Is the work I’m doing expanding dignity for all? This feels more important than ever in a time when those in power attempt to co-opt the language of justice and liberation to prop up systems of oppression. This question about collective dignity keeps us honest,” wrote Staffaroni in an email to The Phillipian.

Carruthers continued by breaking down the question “Who are my people?”, discussing the implications of how the people you feel connected to define who you are. For Benjamin Perez ’23, Carruthers’ discussion on the struggle of undocumented immigrants had a heavy impact.

“It was something that really caught my attention because I felt that it was something many people don’t talk about. It’s hitting a wave of millions of people in this country who are oppressed and don’t have a voice because they’re scared of their citizenship status and general security. That really caught my attention, especially because I’m Latino, a part of the Latinx community, and those things really hit home in a way that other things haven’t before,” said Perez.

In her discussions of the questions “What do we want?” and “What are we building?”, Carruthers encouraged students to reflect on what they wanted the future to look like, and how they could contribute to this. Yuto Iwaizumi, Teaching Fellow in French, shared this belief in the importance of reflection.

“There is a lot of reflection involved in this kind of work. Many of the five questions that Carruthers introduced invite us to really look into what our values are and what we want. So I think the importance of reflection along the way of striving for social justice was a point I hope students took away,” said Iwaizumi.

In the closing discussion of her last question “Are we ready to win?”, Carruthers noted that the movement toward collective freedom has been a long time coming, calling upon students to take initiative and start thinking about how they can impact both their peers and future generations.

Carruthers said, “We are in this moment, in 2021. Are we ready to live in a world where people are able to be in the right relationship with each other and the land we live on? And if we actually get to that point where we win what we want, are we ready to show up as good relatives and how we will be good elders to future generations? If your answer is, “No, I’m not ready yet,” now is the time to think about how you are going to get ready… Think about how we get to the point where everyone has everything they need without other people suffering.”