August 20, 2019 | 81° F

Bakari Sellers talks college diversity, equity at lecture series

Former State Repsentative and CNN contributor, Bakari Sellers (D-S.C. 90th), discussed diversity, issues of equity and college at large, during an event apart of the James Dickson Carr Lecture Series. The program was held as one of multiple events for Student Access and Educational Equity's (SAEE) Access Week.

“Does Rutgers take up the offering before or after I speak?” said Sellers in the College Avenue Student Center Multi-Purpose Room. “I felt like I was in a Southern Baptist Church.” He said this to open up his lecture, right after watching a gospel dance troupe and performance by the Rutgers Liberated Gospel Choir. 

SAEE is a Rutgers organization with the mission to increase retention rates and success. This week is the organization’s fifth annual Access Week, described on its website as “... a week of community programming and dialogue to create campus awareness for first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students.”   

"Our office is based on progressive thinking, inclusivity and really supporting first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students. All our events somehow tie into supporting students that are in those populations,” said Sabrina Riddick, program coordinator for SAEE. 

The room was full with classes attending the talk, as well as advisors and faculty from all over the Rutgers community. Born and raised in South Carolina, Sellers is no stranger to Baptist churches or the troubled history of racism in the South. 

In fact, he spent considerable time talking about important cases and figures in the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Referencing important cases like Elmore v. Rice and Flemming v. South Carolina Electric and Gas, he built the historical framework for measuring equity.

Translating to the present day, he constantly questioned how far we’ve come as a society and where to go next. These questions permeated the speech he gave, as did the many pop-culture references he used to help connect to the crowd of students. "Black Panther," funny stories about Usher, Jay-Z lyrics and Will Smith’s Instagram were all brought up throughout his lecture, but a true sense of cohesion still remained. 

Sellers’s message was one of inspiration, making sure that students understood their potential in the face of adversity. When a student asked where the country was headed, he simply responded “You have more of a say in that than me.” 

A concept that Sellers introduced was the idea of “dreaming with your eyes open,” meaning to be goal driven and endlessly optimistic. His speech was effective beyond the usual “believe in yourself” schtick, because he directly correlated it to his own life. He won his seat as a State Representative at age 22, showing that age isn’t a hindrance, but a gift. 

Other solid advice for students was dropped throughout the event. “You have to look at yourself as a brand,” Sellers said, talking about the importance of presentation, especially as members of underrepresented communities. 

When asked for college-specific advice, Sellers stressed the importance of co-curricular activities helping him gain confidence as a student. Working in politician’s offices were instrumental in giving him the vision, tactics and direction for his own goals. 

Students and faculty alike also asked about things like the Electoral College, code switching, student activism and reading recommendations (to which he responded “James Baldwin”). When the topic of how to set future goals was raised, Sellers summed up the way he thinks about his goals.

“Every morning I wake up and say to myself ‘change the world,’ and every night I think ‘it’s not where I want it to be yet,’ so I wake up and do it again,” he said.

Jordan Levy

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