ABLE vice president and junior Yasmine Davila did not approach the dinner with Elizabeth Eckford as though she was going to be meeting an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. While Davila acknowledged that meeting Eckford was an amazing opportunity, she wanted to be respectful of her personhood.
“I didn’t want the space to just be ‘let’s go back to where you were that day’ because it’s traumatic for her. I appreciated it as a space where we could talk about anything,” Davila said.
After the Civil Rights activist and one of the Little Rock Nine, was welcomed as Knox College’s 2018 convocation address speaker on Sept. 12, Eckford allowed the campus to hold a dinner with her that same day.
Eckford is very open about her struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Junior Iesha Said, whose Race and Ethnic Relations class met with Eckford after Convocation, said it was heartbreaking to witness the effects of Eckford’s trauma firsthand.
“She explained how it really affected her life, her children, her being severely depressed,” Said said. “She can’t have anything loud around her. There was a time when the speakers were going off during convocation, it was a loud noise, and you could tell it took a toll on her.”
Ultimately, Said was awed by Eckford’s resilience. Senior Alex Kellogg, who also attended the dinner, admires how Eckford uses her experiences to offer education and guidance to others. Both appreciated that Eckford acknowledges the ways in which she is shaped by her experience without allowing it to make her bitter or hopeless.
In her convocation speech, Eckford stressed the importance of mental health. Davila wants to uphold this idea by making space for emotions and people in her activism. This can take the form of counseling or emotional debriefings, like when Davila traveled to Selma, Ala. with the Center for Intercultural Life last spring. She described how the group spent five hours in one Memphis museum.
“It was literally from the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade to today and how we view race relations in America today,” Davila said. “It was at those times you had to sit with yourself and be like, what does that mean and take care of yourself emotionally to be ready to talk about it in a political sense or a cultural sense.”
While the idea of making space for people’s emotions struck a chord with some students, Said felt that many did students did not understand the importance of Eckford’s experiences or their relevance for students of color in higher education today. Said witnessed one white student mocking Eckford’s advice to seek counseling on social media. She believes this kind of behavior stems from ignorance about Eckford’s life and those of students of color on college campuses.
“We’re still at predominantly white institutions,” Said said. “Even though Knox is a majority-minority school now numbers-wise, we’re still taught mostly by white faculty, white administrators, white curriculums basically Ñ the way it’s originally been. As a black student it’s like wow, if this person can get through that and graduate then so can I.”
Said believes Eckford connected with students of color, many of whom come from communities where talking about mental health is stigmatized. She expressed concern that students of color at Knox, many of whom are involved with social justice organizations on campus, do not have adequate access to mental health resources.
“You can’t really get an appointment until three weeks in Ñ that’s midterms Ñ you’ve already finished thinking about what you’ve gone through and now you didn’t even process that but you’re going on,” Said said. “Knox talks a lot about self care, utilizing your resources, but I feel like those resources are underfunded.”
Eckford’s dinner with students became a moment of self care and relaxation in itself. Said said it served as a kind of respite for Eckford after two full days of traveling, fielding questions and delivering speeches. The activist made casual conversation with the gathered students, who Davila says were happy just to bask in the moment and Eckford’s presence.
“I think sometimes in activism people don’t understand humility and stepping back and being a listener and just being able to embrace the feelings of presence and existence,” Davila said. “I don’t think that’s talked about or appreciated so I think that’s something I want to incorporate in my activism in the future, the power of being.”