Students honored, Sojourner Truth remembered and celebrated

  • Lourdes Jean-Louis, one of the social justice award recipients, speaks at the Sojourner Truth awards ceremony Sunday afternoon. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lourdes Jean-Louis, one of the Social Justices recipients at the Sojourner Truth awards ceremony Sunday afternoon. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jacqui Wallace leads the Amherst area Gospel Choir in song at the Sojourner Truth Memorial Day Weekend Celebration Program Sunday afternoon. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sylvia Venus Shread, an award recipient, speaks at the Sojourner Truth awards ceremony Sunday afternoon. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dr. Trevor Baptiste speaks at the Sojourner Truth Memorial Day Weekend Celebration Program Sunday afternoon. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 5/27/2018 11:39:02 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Friendship and a strong self-definition are vital tools for the troubled world we live in.

That was the advice Trevor Baptiste had for the two area high school seniors who were honored Sunday as part of the 16th annual Sojourner Truth Memorial Celebration.

The event commemorates the activism of the former slave, social activist and abolitionist, who lived in Florence from 1843 to 1856. Around 100 people attended the ceremony, filling the Florence Community Center as rain forced the normally outdoor event indoors. Despite the rainy weather, the day began with a walking tour of historic sites.

“There has always been this turmoil and chaos and there has always been these questions about what to do,” said Baptiste, who is an assistant director in the Office of Professional Development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I want to rest your mind and moor you to some values, some lessons that, hopefully, no matter what happens, you can look to these and find your way.”

Friendship, Baptiste said, is essential to the soul.

“When there is chaos going on in the world, good friends — true friends — are where you can find an anchor for yourself,” he said. “Friends offer a mirror to yourselves, which becomes a bulwark against the chaos that can happen in life.”

Also important, though it takes a lifetime to master, Baptiste said, is defining oneself and not letting others do it.

“Sometimes others with great intentions will seek to define you, but you should no less because of their good intentions accept their definition of you as you would someone with ill intent towards you,” he said. “It is paramount to master how to define yourself … your definition of yourself ought to be undeniable, unmistakable, irrefutable.”

Remembering the woman whom the day honors, Baptiste recalled Truth fighting for her own definition — not the one someone gave to her as a slave.

High school seniors Sylvia Venus Shread, 18, and Lourdes Jean-Louis, 19, were awarded $1,000 scholarships for their social justice work. The scholarship program began in 2005, three years after the Sojourner Truth statue was installed at the corner of Pine and Park streets in Florence center. Over the years, the scholarships have grown from one $250 award to three $1,000 awards that will soon expand to Hampden County students. During the more than a decade of scholarships, 29 students have received the Sojourner Truth Social Justice Award.

Throughout her time at Northampton High School, Shread helped organize the school’s Social Justice Week, which focused on internationality and education, presented at a civil liberties and public policy conference, made a documentary on the definition and execution of masculinity and learned that “listening-based leadership” was the best way to build sustainable relationships within a community and change minds.

“In Akron, Ohio, at the 1851 Women’s Convention, Sojourner Truth famously asked ‘ain’t I a woman?’ Her speech questioned preferential treatment of white women and focused the narrative on the experience of being black and a woman. Truth’s question anticipated intersectional analysis more than a century before third-wave feminism adopted the framework,” Shread said.

“I grew up in this new movement of intersectionality and it influenced my activism so much that I joined every social justice club available when I came to Northampton High School.”

Shread will attend Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where she plans to create her own major combining her interests in film, new media, politics and social justice as well as education.

Amherst Regional High School’s Jean-Louis spoke of her experience immigrating to the U.S. from Haiti seven years ago and facing not only a language barrier but also a change in culture and discrimination.

“Seven years ago, I moved to this country with no English and had an open mind and a thirst for knowledge,” she said. “I was no longer living in the first black republic with a black majority. I was living in the minority. Black and a woman, proud and ready to inspire, be inspired, change and make a change. I refuse to be placed in the box I was put in ... I have control of the box.”

During her senior year, Jean-Louis attended the national Minority Students Action Network conference in Ohio where she said she learned to create a plan to benefit all students, especially those of color, who are in a system that predicts their failure from the beginning. Jean-Louis will attend Regis College, in Weston, where she plans to study nursing and social work.

“Just like Sojourner Truth, I don’t let obstacles get in my way from making change and spreading positivity,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 29, 2018 to correct the title of Trevor Baptiste. Emily Cutts can be reached at ecu
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