Throughout the month of February, we celebrate many people that have paved the way for social change in our nation and our community. African American History Month or Black History Month gives us another opportunity to learn about leaders of our past and present that are creating a roadmap for us to follow.
Having the ability to discuss issues and learn about facing the difficult challenges allow us all to grow, and that is what the attendees of the virtual event, “The Making of a Leader: An Open Discussion with Prominent Black Community Leaders”, had a chance to do the evening of Wednesday, February 24.
The panel hosted by University of Arkansas Student Government Association included prestigious members of our community and our nation that have come from the African American community. The student government leaders; Ty Collins, and Landon DeCay arranged the enlightening discussion with the assistant director of the Multicultural Center, Lauren Wilson.
We thank their continued efforts to arrange these amazing opportunities. They chose these panel candidates to not only support Black History Month, but to ignite a spark in any student having trouble overcoming challenges dictated by social norms.
Many of the panelists overcame their own hardships on the journey to where they are now. Among them was Mayor Frank Scott Jr., the first black elected chief executive and 73rd mayor of Little Rock. State Senator Joyce Elliot, a public-school teacher and former Democratic Candidate for U.S. Congress. The first African American CEO in the state of Arkansas, now retired, Jannie Cotton. Mrs. Cotton is also a mental health policy leader and advocate along with a Democratic Candidate for State Representative.
These inspirational leaders spoke about their backgrounds, their challenges, and their road to success. A particular moment that stood out, was whenever they all three spoke about the journey they had coming out of segregation. A mountain had to be climbed in the state of Arkansas in order to succeed in the endeavor for equality.
Sen. Elliot and Mrs. Cotton both remember the issues they encountered growing up in a segregated community. The challenges they faced to get an equal education, equal job opportunities, and an equal voice led them into supporting social activism. Fighting against social normalities is a difficult task, but it was one that many rose to accomplish. As a result of the growing numbers, segregation began to disperse in multiple states. People that were once hiding were stepping out and making their voices heard.
Sen. Elliot went into great detail about how she gathered her inspiration to go into politics from President John F. Kennedy, a man whose voice helped represent the black communities all over the nation. “I saw this man, that was able to bring those hunched over and struggling- I saw them become an oak, not a willow. I knew that is what I wanted to do.” The former President Kennedy allowed hope to rise in the African American population, along with other minority groups, and in return people started showing their potential.
The African American community started to realize that they could be anything they set their minds to, and they should have the same chance as any other qualified member of society. Sen. Elliot has become an oak herself in todays’ society, planting herself strong and speaking out. She has been a true advocate for social change, and her work continues to inspire others to use their voice; no matter their color, race, or ethnicity.
“Being able to open or knock down doors that were previously closed is the only way to break those barriers dividing us,” Sen. Elliot stated.
Breaking Barriers became such an important statement among these three role models. Mayor Scott spoke about how important it is that we understand intergenerational differences and discussed the importance of it with both Sen. Elliot and Mrs. Cotton. “Previous generations fought very hard so my generation would be invited to the table.” It is important to understand the past, just as well as the future.
He continued on, stating that it was our responsibility, as the generation that can make change, to pursue those risks. “It is our responsibility to make sure you’re always on the right side of history,” his declaration is one of great importance to many communities and ethnicities in the community. You need to understand where you need to be, and work to get there in a proper manner.
To do good and do good rightfully are equally important. Mayor Scott Jr. presented a trifecta that we should all use in order to improve our society moving forward. The ability to not only make change, but to make a better country and community relies on the people.
“We can forward black history, other history, by being intentional, being inclusive, and having integrity. These are all monumental factors in making change,” said Mayor Scott Jr..
Change begins within each of us and then we are able to spread awareness to others. By being aware of our own actions, we can create a better future. “You never want to be just the first,” Mrs. Cotton described her view on effective social change, “Leave instructions. You might have paved that path but leave instructions for others to use. Even if they choose not to follow them, it is there if anyone needs it.” Paving the way for social reform is a task in itself. A burden, but one worth pursuing. Being a social advocate means to create change, to make ideas actualities, and do that work that needs to be done.
Black History month is an important time to reflect on yourself, no matter your ethnicity. Is your voice being heard? What changes can you make? Are you putting in the work? There are so many inspirational role models that you can learn from to help you pursue your own goals. You have to have a first, before you can have another.
Be the first. Break those barriers and leave your mark on history. Let your voice be heart, become the oak, do what is right, and put in the work to create a better future. Do all this in hope the next person on the journey will know which path to take and will do good along the way.