The following essay was written by Kayla J. Smith, third-year MDiv student and President of Harambee: Students of African Descent.
The 5th annual Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture Conference (BRSCC) at Harvard, hosted by Harambee: Students of African Descent at HDS, occurred February 11-12, 2021.
Planning this fifth conference was monumental for Harambee members. The commitment to Black scholarship and praxes at HDS has survived through the constantly changing student body. As current members, we wanted to honor the vision and dedication of the original conference planners. (More details about the conference’s origins can be found here.)
My personal connection to the BRSCC led me to becoming a HDS student. I was a part of the phenomenal 2016 Diversity and Explorations (DivEx) cohort. The first BRSCC took place during DivEx week. I was in such awe to witness Blackness being centered, celebrated, and carefully examined by Black people. As a junior in undergrad, my entire mindset was transformed. Additionally, my passion to study Black history and cultures and intentionally identify with womanist philosophies and practices was affirmed.
I attended the 3rd annual BRSCC as a first-year MDiv student. I was a co-planner for the 4th BRSCC. During the closing last year, I vowed that we would continue this important student organizing and that the 5th annual conference would be even bigger. And it was just that. The restrictions from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic led us to find creative ways to expand the conference. I am proud to write that this year’s conference reached over 600 people worldwide.
Success of this conference is thanks to the BRSCC planning committee team: Amaia Cook, Lesedi Graveline (Harambee Vice President of Communications), Nadia Milad Issa, Ebony Joy Johnson, Eboni Nash (Harambee Vice President of Events and Organizing), and Kayla J. Smith (Harambee President). Huge gratitude also is for our beloved HDSSA President Malini Srikrishna, who developed our website and was graphic designer and strategist for our social media presence. Malini shares our dedication to radical change, coalitions, and community building.
There was an obligation from this year’s executive board to be very clear about our weariness of the constant state of anti-Black violence we overwhelmingly witnessed throughout 2020. Eboni, Lesedi, and I’s goal as the executive board this year was to primarily further concretize the legacy of Harambee, which includes truth telling and taking risks. In addition, it was important to us that we emphasize the creative responses from Black folks to their reality. A very relevant example would be creating a conference on Black religion, spirituality, and culture at the oldest institution in the U.S. as graduate students. Black people see a need and strategically answer those needs with nourishing solutions.
Last August, Harambee wrote an address to HDS leaders highlighting the significance of this conference to the HDS community. Moreover, this student-led conference is notably used for HDS marketing, annual reporting, and for attracting prospective students. We were pleased to receive immediate affirmations and substantial institutional support for the first time since the conference started. Our address secured funding for the conference for the next three years. With this essential new support, the conference planning committee was ready to break out of the box as we proclaim in our call of the hour. In our overview of the conference, we named different religious and cultural affirmations that connects Blackness to its Indigenous roots and global context.
Being Black is a full embodied experience, and this is how we got our theme: B.L.A.C.K or Black Liberation, Activism, Community, and Kinship. Black ancestry molds us to know we need each other, and that individualism and greed is death. With this expansive theme of B.L.A.C.K., we decided on the following sessions:
- Ayibobo! Dancing Deities in the Diaspora: Danced Religions of Afrikan Diasporic Spiritual-Religious Traditions,
- Global Militarization of Police: Black Freedom and International Solidarity,
- AfroCuban Folklore (Yoruba) / Orisha Dance Technique Class with Nadia Milad Issa,
- Native and African Ways of Being in Community: Resilience as Resistance,
- Rethinking Study As Transformative Justice Student Panel, and
- Alumni Doing The Work.
We also planned an opening night introduction to the conference. On Thursday, February 11, conference attendees saw Lakou Ayití/Casa-Templo/Terreiro performance from Jean Appolon Expressions (JAE) and participated in a Breathing with Orisha workshop led by Baba Oludaré Bernard. Jean Appolon spoke to the meaning of being connected to your birthplace as we saw in JAE’s performance. Baba Oludaré centered us with intentional breathing and alliance with our ancestors who left us tools to be in tuned with our bodies. This set the tone for Friday’s sessions.
On Friday, February 12, we started off with a land acknowledgment, and HDS student Eilaf Farajallah blessed us with an original song and her angelic voice. In the Ayibobo! panel, Andrea E. Woods Valdés spoke to how “dance makes the spirit tangible”. Nadia Milad Issa reminded us that in times of crisis “we turn to art.”
During the Global Militarization of the Police panel, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill talked about the transnational dynamic of global policing and how white supremacy and capitalism does not stop at the border. Additionally, “if the threat is global, then the resistance is global.” Throughout our intermission, Nadia Milad Issa led us in movement with AfroCuban Folklore (Yoruba) / Orisha dance techniques for half an hour.
During the Native and African panel, Dr. Barbara Krauthamer addressed “the intertwined histories of global dominance” of whom Melinda Micco referred to as the first Americans and forced Americans. During our fiery Student panel, alum Steve Núñez declared that “revolution is a praxis, not an event” and that “together we must continue to build soft spaces for us.”
Our Alumni panel explored the amazingly bold work former Harambee members are doing in the world politically, religiously, socially, and academically. Rev. Dr. Aaron Mcleod, esq., reminded us to “practice self-care.” We concluded the conference honoring Dean Melissa Wood Bartholomew as the 2021 Sankofa Award recipient. This was a well-deserved recognition of a former Harambee member who continuously offer trailblazing contributions to HDS.
Focusing on Black liberation, activism, community, and kinship, Harambee honored our ancestors. We spoke truth to power, and we named how our experiences and practices are vital scholarship. People of African descent offer a great deal to the world on how to genuinely love, to practice self-care, to be centered in joy, and to radically rebuke oppression through creative responses. It is so fruitful to learn from direct experiences. Storytelling is both validating and empowering.
I am honored to be a part of Harambee’s legacy of fundamental student organizing and visioning a more transformative HDS experience, while providing a critical platform that highlights our humanity. Àṣẹ, Aché, Ayibobo, Aho, and Amen!!!
Kayla J. Smith, third-year MDiv student and President of Harambee: Students of African Descent