BROOKINGS – Those who are looking to better understand race relations will have an opportunity this weekend to hear firsthand from a woman whose life was devastated by a nationally-publicized, racially-tinged incident involving her son.
Sybrina Fulton, the mother of the late Trayvon Martin, will be featured as a speaker at “Town Hall Meeting: Race Relations and Marginalized Communities” at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 30, in SDSU’s Volstorff Ballroom. The free event is sponsored by the South Dakota Humanities Council and the SDSU Multicultural Center.
Fulton’s son was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, an armed citizen who was later acquitted on murder charges. The story dominated national news for months.
There is a dispute between differing communities on Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense in the incident that left Martin dead. Kas Williams, program adviser for African American programs at SDSU and event co-organizer, said Fulton brings a rare perspective to the community.
“People feel that because we're in Brookings, these types of issues don't affect us,” she said. “So we realized that we needed to take this to another level.”
Williams and SDSU assistant professor Laura Chandler have spent the past two years teaching awareness of social justice issues like “Black Lives Matter” and uprisings in Ferguson, Mo.
They saw the South Dakota Humanities Council’s recent “Race and Civility” Initiative, which promotes civil behavior through empathy, as a perfect opportunity.
“The South Dakota Humanities Council grant proposal centered on what we’re trying to do,” she said. They applied for the grant and received it, while also raising other funds to bring the program to SDSU.
SDHC, a statewide non-profit based in Brookings that serves the entire state with humanities programming, created the initiative last fall as a part of its regular grant cycle. The SDHC board of directors, which reviews major grant applications twice a year, gave priority to proposals related to the initiative. The initiative especially encouraged discussions of historical race relations between local or statewide communities and American Indians, South Dakota’s largest minority group.
“Our Race and Civility Initiative is one of the most important themes we have embraced over the years,” said SDHC Executive Director Sherry DeBoer. “We believe that the simple concept of empathy for each other can lessen the conflicts that have become so public in recent years, from clashes between cultures to incidents between citizens and law enforcement officers.”
SDHC has funded $55,823 for the initiative out of a total of $80,000 in grants awarded during this fiscal year.
The Race and Civility theme relates to a nationwide National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) program, “Humanities and the Legacy of Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.,” which supports public programming that addresses “persistent social, economic, cultural and racial issues that divide our communities.” NEH provided $15,000 from that program to SDHC.
NEH chairman William Adams said the national initiative was designed to promote civil conversation and tolerance.
“In the wake of recent events in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Minneapolis, people across the country are calling for more vigorous and consequential public discussion of the persistent social, economic, cultural and racial issues that divide our communities,” he said.
Facilitate a conversation
Chandler said the Sunday program will “facilitate a conversation surrounding race relations between marginalized communities, law enforcement and the media.”
“Over the last few years, there has been increased attention given to marginalized communities regarding deadly force, officer discretion and media perception,” she said. “We strongly feel this program will address many social justice, cultural and racial issues.”
SDHC sponsors only apolitical programs, which means the town hall discussion will not be a forum for advancing specific political views or agendas. Rather, it will offer citizens a chance to share ideas and information about how to avoid unnecessary conflicts and even violence.
“It's a welcoming area,” said Williams, a Louisiana transplant, of the Brookings community. “But there's some issues that we don't talk about. And this is an opportunity for us all to come together as a community and have a conversation around this in a positive way.”
Fulton, an author and speaker, has dedicated her life to transforming her family tragedy into social change. She delivers her message to communities across the country. A Miami native, Fulton graduated from Florida Memorial University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English. A proud mother, Fulton worked for the Miami-Dade County Housing Development Agency for more than 25 years and is a member of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church of Miami Gardens.
She is the founder of the Trayvon Martin Foundation and the co-author of “Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin,” released January 2017. Fulton will be available to sign copies of the book following the lecture.
“Fulton has become an inspiring spokesperson for parents and concerned citizens across the country,” said Chandler, who will moderate a Q&A session after the main program.
The “not guilty” verdict in Martin’s case sparked protests. Even though Martin was not killed by a police officer, the verdict pitted the black community against law enforcement.
The publicity surrounding Martin’s death and the ensuing trial catapulted the country into national debate. Despite the intense struggle of losing a child, Fulton has become a role model to many by turning her grief into advocacy. Remaining strong throughout the trial and ensuing months, she lends her voice to speak against violence toward children and the need to build better, safer communities for all.
Sunday’s conversation will cover the topics of protests, media coverage and law enforcement as it pertains to race relations. Several noted journalists and law enforcement constituents will engage in a conversation with Fulton to encourage civility, education and compassion. Fulton’s theme is, “We are all Trayvon.”
Some have reacted to the news of Fulton’s appearance as an attempt to stir up controversy, Williams said. The goal of the program is quite the opposite.
“It's a healing process,” she said. “What can I do in my community in my space and my time to make my community just a little bit better? She has a story to tell, and it's a very important story. She's a humbling spirit. This is her calling, and she takes it seriously.”
The audience will engage and participate in the conversation via the question-and-answer portion of the program, which will be done prior to the event through social media and email.
In addition to the South Dakota Humanities Council, the event is sponsored by SDSU Multicultural Center, Brookings Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Brookings Human Rights Commission, SDSU College of Arts and Sciences, SDSU Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College, SDSU Women’s and Gender Studies Program, and the SDSU University Program Council.
Williams said the program is an important opportunity to engage SDSU students and others in the community, giving them a chance “to be able to participate in something that's bigger than themselves.”