By Sabrina Edwards
Grand Rapids Community College kicked off the 25th anniversary of the Diversity Lecture Series with a virtual presentation by Michael Skolnik, a civil rights activist, who spoke about being an ally versus being an accomplice from his home in Brooklyn.
Skolnik co-founded of The Soze Agency, which is a social impact agency that serves to aid in equity. He also serves on the Board of Directors for Rock The Vote, The Trayvon Martin Foundation, Policy Link, The Gathering For Justice and The Young Partners Board of The Public Theater. Prior to that he was a filmmaker.
Skolnik opened by reading a piece he wrote on Sept 25, 2009 after attending the funeral of a 16-year-old black teenager who was killed in Chicago.
“We watched this precious, beautiful, 8-year-old angel stand over her cousin’s open casket and hug him like she may never see him again,” recited Skolnik. “We watched a child gently touch and caress the face of another child, yet one was living and one had passed.”
Skolnik then poised the question of “what happens when black kids die and what happens when white kids die?” Showcasing that the only black child’s death that was spoken of in America in 2009 was Emmett Till, in comparison to white children who are remembered for decades, like Jonbenet Ramsey and Natalee Holloway.
“When black kids died 11 years ago, they were lucky if they made a newspaper,” said Skolnik. “They were lucky if they were a statistic of homicide.”
This led to Skolnik creating a series, writing about the death of young black people, titled “He has a name.” The first one featured Derrion Albert, the trial is still being talked about. Albert was the 16-year-old boy killed in Chicago previously mentioned, he was hit on the back of the head with a wooden plank after being pulled into a fight. Skolnik then began receiving requests from parents to honor their children who were killed. He attended funerals of children he never met, documenting their lives. After a thousand plus articles, Skolnik wrote one about Trayvon Martin.
“I had written a piece a week after Trayvon’s death saying “Dear white people, you will never look suspicious like Trayvon Martin,”” said Skolnik, following this Martin’s family asked him to join them in their march at Sanford, and he went.
After being requested by Martin’s family to attend the court hearing, Skolnik began receiving death threats, but he still went.
“I thought to myself what is an ally, said Skolnik. “An ally shows up, an ally is present, and ally listens, an ally believes, but is that enough? In that moment I thought to myself what am I willing to die for. At a certain point if you believe in injustice these questions have to be asked, especially to white people, like myself.”
Skolnik reflected on a time where a friend of his mentioned it being almost everyday that another black person is killed, he responded with it’s been like that for 400 years we’re now just seeing it for the first time as white people.
“Black Lives Matter was born out of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial,” said Skolnik.
Skolnik went on to compare being an ally versus being an accomplice. Allyship means you show up with others, when you’re an accomplice, you may have to show up alone or even first. An accomplice stands up against injustices when they aren’t being watched.
“Don’t demand that those you are supporting produce proof of the inequality that they are working to resist,” said Skolnik quoting Melissa Harris Perry. “Do recognize the shield of your privilege may blind you to others’ experience of injustice.”
He recommends that people should listen and talk less. That this is a fight that has been ongoing for centuries, and others are there to offer their support. Skolnik went on to say that America is going through a demographic transition, that can’t be solved with one election or a few laws. That this is white supremacy versus Black Lives Matter.
“I do this work because justice creates equity,” said Skolnik. “Justice is not about the law. Justice runs deep in how society treats each other. Who has access to the resources to live a productive life and who has access to resources to not be killed by the police.”
Skolnik mentioned it’s a constant fight for racial justice and that people are taught at a young age to be racist. Those who want to be accomplices, have to actively educate themselves. He also says there’s no judgement in taking the steps on the journey towards consciousness.
“Racism is a cancer,” said Skolnik. “I decided that I didn’t want cancer, and I didn’t want you, other white people, to have cancer.”