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Leadership summit equips students to combat hate

  • What you do matters
    What you do matters  Students met with Carl Wilkens, the sole American aid worker remaining in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, as a part of "What You Do Matters Collegiate," a leadership summit on propaganda, hate speech and civic engagement held at William & Mary this weekend.  Photo by Graham Bryant '13
  • What you do matters
    What you do matters  More than 60 William & Mary students attended the summit, which included discussions given by leaders in the hate prevention field as well as William & Mary faculty members.  Photo by Graham Bryant '13
  • What you do matters
    What you do matters  In recounting his experiences in Rwanda, Wilkens told the students present, "The ones who will be building peace aren't going to be the ones who have control of the codes to the nuclear bombs—they’re us!”  Photo by Graham Bryant '13
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“The ones who will be building peace aren’t going to be the ones who have control of the codes to the nuclear bombs—they’re us!”

With these words, Carl Wilkens, the sole American aid worker remaining in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, challenged the more than 60 William & Mary students in the Sadler Center’s Chesapeake room to use their lives and educations to combat hate.

Wilkens’ message was just one of many discussions given by leaders in the hate prevention field as well as William & Mary faculty members over the weekend as a part of “What You Do Matters Collegiate: A Leadership Summit on Propaganda, Hate Speech, and Civic Engagement.” The summit sought to answer the question: “How can we create environments where hate cannot flourish?”

Addressing a need

The summit, which was planned in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), was the first of its kind to be held on a college campus. 

Chelsea Bracci ’13 interned with USHMM over the past two years during which time she helped develop the first two What You Do Matters summits, which were held at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. 

“At the end of the summer, a group of William & Mary students approached me about wanting to bring the summit to the College, and since I was the one who knew the staff and museum the best, I became the liaison between William & Mary and the museum,” said Bracci. “I never imagined we would actually accomplish a two-day event filled with speakers from around the country. I don’t think we ever imagined it would become this big.”

And big it was. This summit saw more than 60 William & Mary students from a variety of backgrounds participate following an online application and selection process. 

Bracci, a member of the summit’s planning board, sees college campuses as critical locations in which to raise awareness of hate’s prevalence.

“All major social movements start on college campuses, and if we recognize that power within us, then there’s really nothing that we can’t achieve with our community,” she said. “We saw a need in our community, a need to take our environment to a new level that’s inclusive and embraces all students and works across community borders. In the summit, that’s our goal.”

Hannah Kohn ’15 served with Bracci on the planning board and shared the vision of bringing the summit to the College. 

“In one of our breakout sessions [at the Holocaust museum], we said ‘We need to bring this to William & Mary.’ Our community here is special in that everyone has a degree of knowledge of each other, everyone has a connection somehow, and we're all really passionate in so many different ways,” she said. 

The mission of What You Do Matters is something that Kohn cares deeply about. Kohn, whose grandparents escaped the Holocaust, is a peace and conflict studies major who plans to devote her life to fighting hate. 

“People just knock it out of the park with what they say and how much they care,” she said, describing the first day’s proceedings. “This is why I came to William & Mary.”

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Putting passion into action

The summit featured a number of programs addressing issues relating to the fight against hate, including sessions on the promise and perils of social media as well as the challenges of hate speech and the First Amendment. 

In addition to Wilkens, students heard from Margit Meissner, a Holocaust survivor and volunteer at USHMM. William & Mary faculty including Tamara Sonn, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Humanities, and Paula Pickering, associate professor of government, also addressed attendees. 

Sunday’s programming was devoted to equipping students with the tools needed to engage communities and move forward against hate speech.

“Tomorrow is very much focused on how do we, as a community, utilize the tools that we have and find new tools to put our passion into action? How do we, as students at the College of William & Mary, create an environment where hate will not flourish?” Bracci said Saturday evening. 

Lexi Hartley ’15 already sees a practical application in her life for the lessons she learned at the summit.

“I’m involved in the William & Mary Bosnia Project, so I will be going to Bosnia to teach English and non-violent communication, and work with children who have grown up in an environment that has been directly affected by genocide,” she said. “Recognizing what hate speech is and the effects it has is essential. When I go to Bosnia, I’m going to be a little more attuned to what people say, because in Bosnia, it’s a little more acceptable to say ‘I hate Serbs’ or ‘I hate Bosnians’ just because of the legacy there.”

Other attendees saw the summit itself as an important tool for starting a dialogue about issues that society typically overlooks. 

“This conference deals with a lot of societal issues that largely go unaddressed, and I think to break down those barriers, you have to talk about them,” said Rachel Brooks ’14.

Noella Handley ’16 likewise found the educational aspects of the summit to be the first steps in fighting hate. 

“The most important thing for people to become active citizens and being able to combat these problems is education,” she said. “Going to something like this really helps people become really aware of what problems are and what resources are available to take steps to combat those problems.”

Creating positive change

As the summit drew to a close on Sunday evening, attendees departed excited to put their experiences into action.

“We’re the next leaders. We’re the next people who are going to be in charge of this world, and when we have the tools and language to confront these obstacles and combat hate speech, we can take steps to create positive change for the future so that other people don’t have to have these kind of hurts that we see all the time,” Kohn said. 

Bracci believes that the summit will forge new connections between the attendees and the campus organizations they represent, creating strong student networks that will partner together. 

“That’s going to change who we are at William & Mary,” she said. “If we combine our voices, no one will be able to silence the thunder of our chorus.”