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For me, like most people, the start of a new year is a chance for reflection and ambition.  This year, my thoughts turned outside of myself as I went to see the newly released movie, Selma.  Not only has the film garnered critical and industry praise, earning Golden Globe nominations and winning, scholars in higher education have stated it is an excellent film from a cinematic perspective, but it also teaches viewers about social justice during the Civil Rights Movement.  As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think of my family.  What was life like during that time for my mother, or my grandmother, who could not legally vote in the state of Alabama?  Or for my other set of grandparents, who would not be legally married until 1967 because they were of different races?

As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Selma in 1965 and present day, well, pick any city in the United States.  If you are paying close enough attention to the media, you will see that the freedoms and equalities they were fighting for in Selma are still being sought after today in parts of this country through Voter ID laws, access to housing and healthy, affordable food, and other social justice struggles. In fact, some of the imagery in the film could easily be replaced with clips from the local news.  Which begs the question, as a nation, how far have we come or how far have we been told we’ve come?

In Selma, we see the time when the grassroots organization SNCC was joined by Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council to advance the Voting Rights Act.  They staged a peaceful protest in which they sat down in front of a government building and put their hands up.  This same demonstration has been occurring in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Ferguson in response to the recent murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner.  Were it not for social media, just like the televised Bloody Sunday in 1965, most of the country would be oblivious to the day to day harassment, violence and struggle of people of color, particularly young men of color, within our current police culture and justice system.  In fact, black and brown people as a whole, as a community, do not ascend to positions of affluence or power under our current justice system.  There is legislation, cultural practices and safeguards keeping us out.  Yes, there are some who have opportunities and have seized them and are successful, but that is not the norm for these populations.  The specific and direct legislative examples of institutionalized racism and oppression, similar to those pre-Civil Rights era, are not overt.  They are carefully worded and hidden in the fabric of society.  If you examine not only the laws discussed in Selma, but present day housing laws, location/access to healthy, affordable foods, access to quality education or higher education, not just localized policing but mass incarceration, all of these things are examples in which you can see that racism is in fact institutionalized in this country to keep black and brown people as a whole from attaining a certain quality of life and access to upward mobility.

As higher education professionals, individuals working within diverse offices, serving diverse populations, you cannot effectively perform your job function without having at least an awareness of the reality some of the individuals you work with, or for, every day face.  It may seem like Jim Crow, segregation and other forms of oppression are from a distant time, but that culture and systemic injustice still influences the lives and opportunities of ethnic minorities and lower socioeconomic people today.  As such, it’s imperative to have an understanding of where each individual is coming from, what challenges have stood in her way, what chances has she capitalized on, what risks has she taken, and how can you help her to succeed and grow.

By Kendall Williams