The University of Nevada, Reno’s diversity summit series continued on Thursday, March 30, with a presentation from Bree Newsome, an activist and supporter of diversity.
Newsome is best known as the protester who scaled a South Carolina flagpole and removed the Confederate flag in June of 2015. She did this as a response to the state’s unwillingness to remove the flag from its capital.
“The meaning of the Confederate flag was never lost on me,” said an impassioned Newsome.
In her talk, Newsome frequently mentioned the massacre of nine people in an African American church by white supremacist Dylann Roof in the summer of 2015. One of the victims was former South Carolina Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
“As long as I live, I will never forget the night of the Charleston Massacre,” Newsome said.
While Newsome recognizes this event as a spark for the movement to remove the Confederate flag at the state capitol, she also said the debate had been raging on for many years.
Roof was sentenced to be executed January of this year.
After the Charleston Massacre, Newsome and other local organizers launched a grassroots movement to remove the Confederate flag. This was a response to community outrage over the flag’s presence at full mast outside the state capitol during the funeral of Pinckney.
Newsome and her group of activists wasted little time in removing the Confederate flag after Pinckney’s funeral. Mere days after the funeral, they enacted their plan for what is now a part of American history.
Soon after Newsome climbed the flagpole, two police officers were at the base of the pole.
According to Newsome, the officers’ advisor told them to taser her while she was still on the flagpole. Newsome said the only reason she was not tased was because her caucasian friend at the base of the pole was keeping watch.
“He said, ‘If you are going to tase her, you are going to have to tase me.’ After he said that, the officers backed off,” Newsome said.
She said she is forever grateful to her friend for his courageousness.
Even though it was symbolic, Newsome knew of the gravity of what they had done.
“By removing the flag, we forced North Carolina into a moral crisis,” Newsome said.
Director of the Center, Every Student, Every Story Blane Harding said talks like Newsome’s are an attempt to reach students with a very important message.
“With these talks, the Center wants faculty, staff, and students to know what diversity really means and how they are a part of diversity even if they do not understand it,” Harding said.
When asked about diversity, Harding had a simple response.
“Diversity is difference,” Harding said.
The university has had other diversity speakers in the past. Last year it had a former president of Sacramento State University who talked about similar issues.
However, Harding said that the Center wanted to bring a new voice to these diversity talks.
“We wanted folks who could talk about it in a different way than we are accustomed to. I think the message she gave and the fact that she is nationally known compounded with a younger speaker gave our students a different viewpoint of a similar topic,” Harding said.
Attendee and freshman at the university Lenette Abad said the talk hit her close to home.
“As a woman of color, I was always conscious about who I was as an individual,” Abad said. “The talk made me realize that I am not the only person who feels this way.”
The university is currently 38 percent diverse, among students, according to Harding. While he acknowledges this as a marked improvement from past numbers, he believes the university can still do more to promote diversity.
“The area we are really lacking in is the faculty,” Harding said. “We are probably somewhere around 17-18 percent diverse among the faculty. So, the faculty do not represent the student population.”
Newsome’s talk was followed by a short Q&A session where attendees had the chance to ask about a variety of topics such as the financial viability of activism, education of LGBTQ communities in public schools and what we can do at the community level.
Harding stressed the importance of Newsome’s talk and other events that emphasize diversity on campus.
“Talks like these help train students. If a student’s education is not grounded in diversity, I think they are really missing out on an important piece of their education. Eventually, you are going to be out there working in a very diverse workforce and the country is changing. It is important for students to be comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations about race and diversity,” Harding said.
Jake Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.