• Shannon Brault

The Power of Education: Civil Rights Pilgrimage

January 2020

It is beyond wild for me to think that it is 2020 this year. It means a new decade, a new school and a new set of surroundings that are foreign to me but will help me grow immensely.

One thing that I was debating about for a long time was going on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage through the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. My sister had gone on it while she was in college and she has never stopped talking about how amazing of an experience it is. I knew I wanted to do it, but not knowing whether I was going to transfer or not led me to decide to go on the trip the night the money was due - More specifically 7 minutes before the money was due. Regardless, I am so, so thankful to have had this opportunity.

The Civil Rights Pilgrimage is an amazing opportunity that the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire does twice a year. It’s a 10-day trip where we stop at 10 different stops in 6 different states while following in the footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement. We went to different museums, did a slavery reenactment, explored and got the amazing opportunity to talk to people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, including Charles Person, one of the original freedom riders. Its a real-life learning experience that teaches the participants way more than you could ever learn from a textbook or lecture. There was a large amount of information I already knew, but seeing it in person and experiencing it makes it so much more real and gives it a completely new connotation. This trip was incredibly educational and I learned more than I could have imagined. In every educational system, and especially the American educational system, there is so much information that is left out of our textbooks. We are taught false narratives and once you begin to look at the rhetoric, learn the history and understand what narratives are being told and who is left out at the discussion table is when you can begin to put the puzzle pieces together and understand the true history. That’s step one to change. Education. Something so many of us take for granted. My 11th-grade history teacher taught my classmates and I to always be critical of the information we read. He taught us to examine whose voices are being heard and how to critically find true information, as history is often written by the winners. My psychology professor also taught us that being critical is the single most important educational skills we can practice. I say this because that was one common theme of this trip. It was examining the rhetoric and challenging it as it very often does not tell the full truth, which is an injustice to the entire world.

Growing up I always thought I was going to single-handedly save the entire world and to this day I still think like that, when that is the furthest thing from the truth. The reality is that there are so many terrible things happening in this world and we have so many problems. History also has a funny way of repeating itself and there are so many similarities between what is happening and what happened during the Civil Rights Movement. Often times we like to think that the Civil Rights Movement was so far in the distant past… but the thing is, it was less than 100 years ago, and it is still going on. Slavery still exists, people are still unequal, certain bodies and skin tones are still valued more than others in society, and we like to remain ignorant about this information. We like to live in our comfort zones where if something does not directly affect us, we shut it out. This was one of the discussions I had many times on this trip. Living in Minnesota and the North of the United States, it’s quite easy for me to just see all these things I’ve been taught in history classes as just stories. Not that I don’t believe that they happened, but it was so powerful for me to visit these places, speak to people who experience this first hand and continue to experience the implications of this every day.

I know I use this blog to share what I learn in all of life situations, good or bad. I truly believe there is a light in every darkness, even if you cannot see it right away. Everything we experience in life makes us into the people we are. Every experience, every interaction, every tear, every emotion, every heartbreak, every triumph and every way we interact with the world. Everything we do in this world has the power to change the world, but I’ll hit on that later. This post is going to be slightly different. This experience was so amazing for me, but the content we studied is heavy, under-taught and under-appreciated. Walking in the footsteps of freedom’s foot soldiers was an amazing opportunity to see and resonate with the hardships these events brought.

I have been trying to take a few days to reflect on this experience, as from the second we left to return home, I wanted to go back. This trip was truly a once in a lifetime type of experience full of learning that directly relates back to the things I am studying in school and the things I want to do in life. We need to be conscious of our privilege, as we all have them. Privilege, among other things in this world, exists on a continuum. Our privileges affect the way we interact with the world around us, how others view us, what boxes we are placed under in life, among other things that could be listed. This history is present, beyond important and has broader applications in our everyday lives and political, economic and social climate than we would like to admit.

I had the amazing opportunity to speak with some of these foot soldiers and people involved in the movement, but also the amazing opportunity to befriend and have meaningful conversations with people from other universities, including the University of Winchester. Joanne Bland said it best when she said that social movements are like jigsaw puzzles. If you are not involved in the movement, if you are the last piece of the puzzle before it is solved, you are the most important piece of the puzzle.

I could write an entire novel on everything that I have learned, but I’ll leave it at this:

We have to continue fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, ignorance and all other -isms. It is easy to think everything is so much better than how it was. It's easy to believe things you hear. It's easy to not be critical. It's easy to be complacent. It's easy to not question things. It's easy to stay in your comfort zone. It's easy to go about your day and not recognize the privileges you have. It's easy to think the past is the past and that it has no implications today. All of these things are easier to do than standing up for what's right, having these difficult conversations, sticking up for people, advocating for change, and most importantly CREATING CHANGE. We can speak about wanting to change things all we want, but what are we actually doing to create that change? Are we doing these things out of our own self interests, or are we doing this to better the human condition?

There are many things that these freedom foot soldiers said that I have been thinking about, among quotes from other civil rights leaders and songs I have listened to over the years. Learning and relearning is a constant process. It occurs throughout the entirety of our lives. We need to continue to learn and continue to change these oppressive powers to create a more just society.

"Young people today often say, "What did you get for all your sacrifice? You sold out. You were Toms." We didn't get everything we wanted, so they think we never gained anything. Though we still have severe problems in this country, we should not forget what the Movement did achieve. Many African Americans hold important positions today that were possible by the struggles and the sacrifices of those who are now of the older generation. African Americans are policymakers running states, cities, and municipalities; we lead state legislatures, serve on corporate boards, and help to shape policy throughout the country. None of that would have been possible without the Movement. But we also need to remember that the struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation. That is what we have not taught young people, or older ones for that matter. You finally win a state of freedom that is protected forever. It doesn't work that way."

-Coretta Scott King

The fight for civil rights isn't over. We all have the power to create change and create a more just society. It starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with us.

"If not you, then whom? If not now, then when?"

- John Lewis


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