Following the first Sankofa Community Conversation held in December 2017, the University’s Sankofa event series has continued to promote intimate and critical conversations surrounding social justice, race and ethnicity. On June 2 and 3, the Heller School for Social Policy and Management's Office of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity hosted a virtual Sankofa Community Conference titled “Co-Constructing Racial Justice through Life and Work.”

Sankofa, which directly translates to “go back and get it” in Twi, sets the expectations and goals of the conference. “The spirit of the conversations respects the Ghanian (Twi) concept of remembering the past to prepare for the future,” according to the Heller School website

Over the course of two days, participants listened to four speakers discuss racism and anti-racism through various lenses including COVID-19, disability rights, education and restorative justice.  

“In this moment, my people, Black people, are hurting … the need to address structural racism has always been urgent, and between the current pandemic and heightened racial violence, we are feeling it even more now,” Dr. Callie Watkins Liu, the coordinator of the conference, said. Watkins Liu is a visiting research scholar at the Heller School and an alum of the Heller Doctoral Program. Rather than just discussing the existence of racism, which she emphasized is not up for debate, Watkins Liu said the event was meant to help the Brandeis community develop individual and collective action steps to “foster a racially just society.” 

The Sankofa conference was organized around a framework known as the Four I’s, which looks at racist and anti-racist systems within various levels of society. For the event, Watkins Liu explained that the Four I’s were condensed into the following three levels: Ideology, which includes culture, norms and beliefs prevalent in society; Institutions, which includes policies, structures and organizations that shape society; and Individual and Interpersonal, which are the acts, perceptions and interactions between an individual and others.  

Discussing the structures of settler colonialism and white supremacy was also essential, Watkins Liu said. Understanding our country’s history of white colonists who violently stole land, exploited people and resources and committed genocide of Indigenous people is key to analyzing racial injustice in the United States today. Watkins Liu explained how deeply ingrained white supremacy is in American society, saying that “The most important thing to remember about white supremacy is that it is not a question of just bad individuals or actors, it is an unjust power structure and system that is invested in and protected.”

The event also used Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality as foundational theories for the presentations.  

Following the two presentations held each day, participants had the opportunity to discuss anti-racism in breakout rooms. While organizers initially expected around 100 participants, over 500 signed up. “It is very heartening to see so many people engaging in anti-racism work,” Watkins Liu said. 

The Sankofa Community Conference was co-sponsored by the Brandeis department of African and African American Studies and the Stonehill Faculty of Color Association. Kendra Davis was the conference co-coordinator. 

Day one presentations

After introducing the event, Watkins Liu presented “Current Event Discussion: COVID-19 and Race.” Using the COVID-19 crisis as a lens to analyze structural racism, she tied together ways in which the pandemic “exacerbated structural violence and vulnerability.” 

Watkins Liu began with a discussion of the vilification of Chinese and other Asian communities at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the virus hit U.S. soil, in addition to Asian communities experiencing racist attacks, Black and Brown communities, immigrant communities and low income communities face higher infection and death rates. 

When it comes to employment inequality, Watkins Liu said that the communities listed above also disproportionately make up the frontlines battling the pandemic. Having access to stable housing for quarantine, healthcare, internet, clean water and electricity is a privilege many communities do not have, increasing their risk. With regards to testing, many Black and Brown communities were denied access to proper materials. Watkins Liu provided the devastating example of the Navajo Nation, which ordered testing supplies from the government and received body bags instead.   

Applying the 4 I’s framework to create anti-racist action steps, Watkins Liu explained what participants can do at various levels of society to combat this problem. At the ideological level, it is key to challenge racist narratives, anti-Black violence and orientalist othering. It is also important to tackle the problem at the institutional level, she said, which means working to create structural solutions to inequalities regarding housing, healthcare and employment. Looking at the interpersonal/individual level, Watkins Liu encouraged people in positions of oppression to focus on self-care and undoing internalized feelings of inferiority, and advised people in positions of power to use their privilege and resources to protect vulnerable individuals.  

Next, Anna Clements, a Heller School Ph.D. candidate, presented “Racialized Disability: A New Framework of Rights.” Clements first shared a definition of disability which comes from International Disability Rights Law, stating that “disability is a long term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment in which in interaction with various barriers may hinder people's full and effective participation in society.” Drawing from literature, personal experiences with her disability and stories from others, Clements explored disability rights in the United States through a critical race theory lens. 

“Black kids with mental and cognitive disabilities are either just given up on, not taught or disciplined and thrown in juvenile detention,” Clements said. Special education programs in the U.S. often do not provide Black students one-on-one accommodations in classrooms; instead, they throw Black students in a space to be “babysat [and given a] minimal education,” she said. On top of this, Black students with disabilities face harsh discipline, oftentimes in the form of police violence. Clements compared this to her own experiences going through a special education program as a white student, explaining that her curriculum and accommodations were highly personalized and sensitive to her needs. 

Outside of the education system, she added that police kill people of color at disproportionately higher rates, highlighting that the intersection of having a disability and being Black leads to heightened vulnerability within the white supremacist system. 

As a solution, Clements called for “a new system of disability rights that is race-conscious, is anti-racist [and] focuses on fixing the system but not fixing the person.” This system would trust people to describe their own experiences for determining needed accommodations, give reparations for disabilities caused by government policies and use labels to help — rather than limit — people.  

Day two presentations

Milan Friedman, Stonehill College BA’20, gave a presentation titled “Survival Within Inequality (Two Interwoven Personal Narratives About Two People of Color Who Grew Up in the Boston Area).” Friedman compared the experiences of her friend Domenick Hicks, who identified as Wampanag and Cape Verdean, and herself, whose father is biracial and mother is Cape Verdean.    

Friedman first explained that Hicks was criminalized rather than supported at school, eventually dying by what was deemed suicide in 2018, although a proper investigation was never conducted. When Hicks was struggling with work at school, rather than providing assistance, police officers came to school to intervene. Hicks was eventually sent to the Cape Cod Collaborative, which Friedman explained is essentially a jail. “Anyone that has been to the Collaborative that I know has died from drugs or other reasons or they ended up living a life of crime and then just jail,” she said. Friedman framed Hicks’ story within the broader issue of the school-to-prison pipeline, which primarily affects low income communities and communities of color. 

In her own experience, Friedman explained that she was demeaned verbally in school, but was never forced into an institution that would further oppress her. As a soft-spoken woman, Friedman explained that she “just lived through,” and was not always confronted with the same stereotypes society applies to Black men. “Black masculinity is something that is painted by a society and applied to Black men before they even have a chance to understand or to really form into who they want to be,” Friedman said. 

Friedman discussed the urgency of deconstructing institutional inequalities, calling for investment in poorly funded schools and communities of color. This means more than just investing money — it means creating policies for hiring workers and countering implicit biases. She also stressed the importance of “recreating sources of power for people of color,” by centering the stories, struggles and abilities of Black people.

Ona Wang, MA COEX’20, followed with her presentation, “Restorative and Transformative Justice Towards Truth and Racial Reconciliation (The Need for Reparations).” She explained that, “[Restorative] [justice] and Transformative justice provide an alternative framework to crime systems that disproportionately criminalize and punish people of color, especially Black and Brown [people].” Together, these frameworks prioritize investing in the needs and rehabilitation of individuals and communities of color. Calling for a reimagination of the way we view justice, restorative and transformative justice encourage establishment of practices and policies based on mutual aid and community care. 

Wang provided an extensive list of anti-racist action steps that participants could take to help transform and rebuild communities. A condensed list of her recommendations from her presentation can be found below:

-In the Boston area, donate to Black Lives Matter Boston and Cambridge, Violence in Boston and Mass Action Against Police Brutality.

-Support activists while staying off frontlines: cook for and feed people, provide child care, drive protestors, hand out bags of supplies, donate medical supplies, serve as a medic near a hot site, bail people out and provide jail support.

-Write to someone in prison through pen pal organizations such as Black and Pink or WriteAPrisoner.

-Visit local prisons with groups like the Transformational Prison Project, which visits Norfolk Prison. Dean of Students Jamele Adams and director of the Brandeis Counseling Center Dr. Von Steiger organize visits to the prison with students. 

-Send books to people in prison through organizations such as Books Behind Bars or Women's Prison Book Project.

-Ask Brandeis to end investments in private prisons.

-Read shorter pieces at