Richard Sherman talks about advocating for change at students of color summit

April 3, 2017 GMT

Everybody has a struggle, Richard Sherman told a crowd of a couple hundred students at McConnell Auditorium in Ellensburg on Saturday. One of the biggest struggles for the Seahawks cornerback was feeling as if “the stork dropped me off in the wrong place.”

That feeling was echoed throughout the rows of students attending the first-ever Students of Color Summit hosted at Central Washington University over the weekend, where Sherman was the keynote speaker.

Students and community members wearing Seahawks jerseys streamed into the auditorium to hear the conversation with Sherman about his life and to hear him answer questions from students.

The summit, co-chaired by students JR Siperly, vice president for legislative affairs for the Associated Students of Central Washington University, and Justin Francisco, vice president of diversity for the Washington Student Association, invited four-year university students from across the state.

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About 175 of them made the trip to Central to attend workshops on identity, gender and self-development, leadership development, activism and listen to speakers like Sherman tell their stories.

Sherman offered advice on getting out of the inner city, combating racism, failing more times than succeeding, seeing things from another perspective, and uniting people of color toward action.

“Message means little without action, message means little without follow through,” he said while discussing the controversial taking-a-knee during the national anthem that swept the National Football League last season. It was kicked off by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in protest of police brutality against people of color.

Kaepernick had follow through, Sherman said, in that he focused his efforts on donating to charities. Sherman said we need more people who put themselves out there for what they believe in, although those who do are often ostracized, pushed to the side and punished.

“He was the guinea pig,” Sherman said of Kaepernick. “He was the person that got crucified for it.”

Sherman encouraged students to continue to be agents of change, which was the theme for the summit. By giving their time, students could fulfill their obligation of helping out others like them. And although the act of uniting people of color is difficult, since not everybody can agree on what action to take, the goal is to get people out there to be “about that action.”

He follows through with his foundation, Blanket Coverage, providing students in low-income communities with school supplies and clothing. Being born with pigment in your skin, he said, is a disadvantage, but ultimately those trials faced by people of color will make them stronger and more powerful. Sherman called it a trial by fire.

“You’ve got to overcome,” he said.

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Most importantly, he said, people of color have to overcome what he called the “crabs in a bucket” mentality of pulling someone else down on their way to the top, and being comfortable with failure.

“I failed more times than I succeeded,” he said, pointing out that people only see the wins and not the losses. People have to fight, persevere, fail and get up to try one more time, he said.

“Don’t ever let anybody blow your candle out,” he said.

A successful summit

Siperly said the summit was a success because the point was to initiate a conversation about diversity and inclusion. People were beginning to ask more questions during his workshop on running for student government.

“The more questions that we get, the better conversations that we have,” he said. “You can’t be an agent of change if you’re just silent.”

The summit provided tools to help students combat racism and provide an inclusive environment for their campus, he said. Bringing Sherman to campus to tell his life story, Siperly said, was important to let students know that someone’s opinion of you doesn’t mean it has to “become a reality.”

Throughout the year, Siperly said Central has been doing its best to identify and combat racism. An earlier incident in the fall, involving Ku Klux Klan fliers being distributed overnight throughout different areas in Ellensburg, led to the formation of a local group called Not In Our Kittitas County, which met at Central. Along with that, Siperly said the campus has provided educational sessions for students throughout the year.

Co-chair of the summit Francisco, 23, also works at the CWU Center for Diversity and Social Justice and chairs the Diversity Committee at WSA. He said the idea for the summit was to bring together all four-year universities to empower them and give them tools to become leaders on their campuses.

That main tool, he said, is empowerment. Students can share experiences on what worked at their schools and how they empowered individuals.

“How (you can) give them the energy, the momentum, the excitement to make a difference on their campus, to take up leadership, or to be part of the system so that their voice is included,” Francisco said.

He said he enjoyed hearing students talk about their experiences so far, and called it “invigorating.”

“They want to go back and make a difference,” he said, which makes it all worth it.

Francisco wants to make the summit an annual event, so university leaders can continue to become empowered to promote student diversity and social justice awareness.

At Central, Francisco said he hears stories about students dealing with microaggressions, or casual comments that degrade marginalized groups. They are happening, he said, and it’s not being talked about, so he hopes to put a spotlight on those issues and address them.

“That’s one of the difficult things is validating those experiences,” he said, “when a student hears that ‘No, that experience didn’t really happen.’”

Central students will continue to make an impact not only on campus, but in the community as well, he said.

“Having them understand different cultures and different perspectives and just empowering them to make a difference and stand their ground,” he said.

And while he’s heard of the Seahawks, growing up in the Philippines meant he didn’t really follow football.

“I think that it’s really great that (Sherman)’s here, it gained the attention,” he said. “At the same time, it kind of creates a platform to talk about social justice and empowerment.”

Passing on good advice

Sherman answered questions from students at the end of his conversation, and one of those student approaching the mic was Georgette Lugalia. The 20-year-old Whitman student asked how to go about uniting people of color, something that Sherman said was undoubtedly difficult.

“I want to unite other people of color because it constantly feels like we’re competing against each other, and it’s good to have action,” Lugalia said. “And I feel like action’s the one thing that’s going to unite us, and he answered that question really well.”

Overall, the summit is something she wants to return to next year, with a bigger crowd. At first, she was apprehensive about the summit because of the small students of color crowd at Whitman, she said.

“I’m so stoked to see my people,” she said about other students of color at the summit and those running the workshops, particularly the one she attended on inner beauty and uplifting other women. “They’re so passionate to help others. I’m just so excited to be here.”

Lugalia is a geology major, pursuing a career in civil engineering, and plans on finding sustainable water resources for third world countries, and in places like California and Flint, Michigan.

After the talk, CWU student Sina Bigelow was still recovering from her interaction with Sherman. She had raised her hand to ask a question without knowing what to ask, but figured it out while standing in line.

Bigelow said she grew up in a Caucasian community and was often the only person of color in her classes at school, something she mentioned in her question.

“It was always hard to feel like I didn’t fit in, so it was really important to take that advice to give to my future students,” she said.

Bigelow is a theatre teaching major. She asked Sherman what advice he could give to her so that she could pass along to her students. Sherman told her she already knew the answer to that; to use her own experiences to teach her students. What would she have wanted to know, he told her, while she was that age?

“I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self to not care what people think about you, not care if you fit in,” she said. “You’re going to find those true friends later in life that are going to like you for you, and appreciate you and respect you as a person, not just as a person of color.”