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Inaugural Social Justice Hackathon Highlights Local Activists

Gutman Library at the Graduate School of Education.
Gutman Library at the Graduate School of Education. By Sidni M. Frederick
By Margaret M. Hylton, Contributing Writer

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Cornell W. Brooks and Boston activist and organizer Monica Cannon-Grant spoke about how to fight for social justice in the United States at the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice’s inaugural Social Justice Hackathon Friday.

The hackathon, which was held in Gutman Library, featured both presentations and group work time and began with a discussion between Brooks — former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — and Cannon-Grant — who helped organize a 2017 march against white supremacy and a counter-protest during the 2019 “straight pride” parade in Boston. The two discussed Cannon-Grant’s experience with activism, which she said began during a summer in which her neighborhood saw 15 separate shootings. Cannon-Grant said she started throwing block parties in order to unify her neighborhood and combat violence.

Several years after starting her block party initiative, however, a young man nearly shot Cannon-Grant’s son in the head, and her son only survived because the trigger jammed. That incident launched Cannon-Grant’s career advocating for young black people in Boston.

Cannon-Grant concluded that victims and killers deal with similar stressors and decided to commit herself to helping and advocating for the “shooters.” She started a non-profit organization called Violence in Boston to address these issues locally. Cannon-Grant said that federal funding often goes to state police to prevent crime, but it should go to activists on the ground working to rehabilitate people.

“We are not going to arrest our way out of any problem,” Cannon-Grant said.

After Cannon-Grant’s talk, the audience broke out into several groups. Each group discussed possible solutions to several issues including immigration, voter suppression, bail fines and fees, and reparations.

The immigration team discussed the Liberian immigration crisis and finding long-term stability for immigrants to the United States, and the voter suppression group brainstormed strategies for making voters feel like their ballots matter and increasing general civic engagement. Members of the bail bonds and fines team examined bail bonds in Louisiana and discussed strategies for resolving black-white disparities in court fees. At the same time, the reparations group considered how to best repair the damages of historical institutions like slavery and undo institutional racism.

After the small group session, Brooks and Cannon-Grant again spoke to the audience about strategies for creating and operating advocacy organizations. Cannon-Grant urged students to consider what intellectual or financial resources they have and can give to movements for social justice.

“Everybody’s activism is different,” Cannon-Grant said. “Show up in whatever way is comfortable for you.”

After Brooks and Cannon-Grant spoke, local activists Renée Omolade, Segun Idowu, and Atara Rich-Shea spoke on a panel about their own distinct social advocacy.

Omolade — who started youth engagement and community development organization We Are The Ones after her friend was shot in 2014 — said that she felt she had a moral obligation to become an activist because she is from Dorchester, Mass. where less than 10 percent of residents have college degrees. From the time she was 14 years old, she was involved in Boston violence prevention programs. She said that, through her experiences, she discovered that activism can happen at any time and place.

Idowu said his social justice career began in 2011 when he protested the execution of Troy A. Davis — who was convicted for the murder of a police officer though he maintained his innocence until his death — in Georgia with a group of Morehouse College students. He said he is currently working to fund local black businesses to build wealth in black communities in Boston.

Massachusetts Bail Fund Executive Director Rich-Shea said her work as a public defender representing marginalized people led her to believe that prisons do not do a service for society.

Friday’s event ended with a poetry reading from National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda S.C. Gorman ’20 and a performance from Harvard’s Kuumba singers.

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