By Peter Davis
On the first official day of our Student Freedom Ride, my fellow 39 riders and I heard three talks at the Newseum. In the morning, it was an honor to hear Diane Nash — the legendary leader of the second wave of Freedom Riders — discuss why she participated in the Civil Rights Movement and challenge us to participate in non-violent direct action of our own. In the afternoon, we listened to Stanley Nelson — award-winning director of the Freedom Riders documentary that inspired our trip — describe how to bring history to life through engaging filmmaking. To end the day, we heard Jalaya Liles Dunn challenge us to find the stories that will be the ingredients of our generation’s movement: our story of self, our story of us, and our story of now.
What struck me about the three talks is that all touched on the poetic side of movements: the importance of words, of narratives, of stories in building energy to sustain a collective effort. Nash started her talk with an insightful analogy. “When scientific inventions arise, we need new words to describe them,” she explained, citing how electricity made the words ‘volts’ and ‘charge’ arise. “Likewise,” she continued, “when social inventions take pace, we need words to express them.” She then went on to describe how the Civil Rights Movement needed a new word to describe the power that the movement’s fighters used to wage war on segregation. They chose “Agapic Energy”— a phrase deriving from the agape, the Greek word for ‘brotherly love.’ Indeed, Civil Rights movers and shakers did not only use sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and marches as tools of change— they used language, too!
Later in the day, Stanley Nelson discussed how a good narrative makes a good documentary film, reminding us that you need to make viewers latch on to the stories, characters, and emotions of a piece of media if you want them to care about it. Appropriately, Jalaya Liles Dunn echoed this emphasis on narrative in her talk about how organizing begins with engaging stories— the stories of why the individuals involved in a cause became involved, the stories of the group’s shared values, and the stories of why their cause is urgent. As I reflected on these calls to new words, to engaging narratives, and to unifying stories with my fellow Student Riders late into the evening, it hit me: the movements of the future cannot survive solely on organizers…they might just need poets as well!