Students Attend Lecture at Crystal Bridges


View of Walker Landing
On April 23, three Cottey College professors and eight students got insight into where art and activism intersect.

These students and professors attended a special event at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Organized by the Serenbetz Institute for Women’s Leadership, Social Responsibility, and Global Awareness, the trip offered a unique experience for Cottey students to explore a rare and powerful art exhibition as well asattend a presentation by the evening’s Distinguished Speaker, Patrisse Khan Cullors.

An accomplished woman leader, Cullors is best-known as one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2013, she helped create the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, provoking a national dialogue and sparking a movement. Cullors is also a writer, artist, and activist, who has long worked as a community organizer, advocating for racial, gender, and sexual equality.

In the evening’s lecture, Cullors discussed some of the key events that informed the Black Lives Matter movement—particularly the murders of black teens Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, as well as Sandra Bland’s death while in police custody. “I needed to know we could fight for ourselves, and other people would also fight for us,” Cullors said. “Today, in this gorgeous auditorium, I hope that it isn’t just about seeing me speak. For people who haven’t joined the movement, I hope this becomes your moment, where you say ‘Where do I sign up? What can I do?’”

Cullors also offered some context for the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” which some have countered by saying, “All Lives Matter.” “Of course we know that all lives matter,” Cullors said. “…The argument is that black people were brought here in chains — our language was lost, our people were lost, our minds were lost, our bodies were lost. We’ve spent the last 500 years reclaiming ourselves. #BlackLivesMatter is a reclamation moment.”


After the talk, Cullors shared from her new memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist. The book weaves together Cullor’s own experiences as a queer Black woman with an examination of the scholarship that shaped her world view, drawing on influential writers and philosophers such as Audre Lorde and bell hooks. Cullors also signed copies of her new memoir for those in attendance, giving Cottey students an opportunity to meet the Distinguished Speaker face-to-face.

“Students were deeply moved by this experience,” said Denise Hedges, director of leadership development. Hedges coordinated this event, assisted by Dr. Chioma Ugochukwu, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, and Dr. Brenda Ross, professor of chemistry and social justice.

As a diverse, inclusive community that welcomes students from more than 30 countries around the world, the Cottey experience is designed to promote a global perspective. This event supported that mission, by offering students insight into the Black experience in America – valuable learning for students from any culture. As one student noted: “Many students who went were from various backgrounds, not just racial backgrounds, but political, financial, international, etc.”

The opportunity to hear directly from Cullors — a figure who has been as controversial as she has been influential — was both inspiring and challenging for the students in attendance. One student wrote, “What I found most impactful and empowering was how Patrisse helped give rise to a movement on an issue that everyone thought was over. Systematic forms of oppression are still visible in public and private institutions/industries and she did a great job showing this when she talked about prisons in the U.S.”

Another student found insight for her own approach to community action, saying, “Listening to Cullors speak, I understood that it is best to start locally in our efforts to generate change.”

Students also explored the museum’s temporary exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. The exhibition was developed by the Tate Modern in London and debuted at Crystal Bridges from February 3 to April 23; it is now on display at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. This show served as background and foundation to Cullors’ rousing speech, offering both historical perspective and artistic insight.

The show brings together pieces from 60 artists, including Romare Bearden, Noah Purifoy, Martin Puryear, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Alma Thomas, Charles White, and William T. Williams. These artists and others worked in a variety of media — paintings, sculptures, photography, murals. Taken together, this body of work offers a breathtaking look into a movement that defined an era, and its pivotal influence on contemporary art.

Soul of a Nation’s curators offer more insight into the depth and breadth of the exhibition:

“Some artists, galvanized by the spirit of the civil rights movement, created images that spoke of solidarity, strength, and resistance, while others focused primarily on color, form, and concept. Some works paid homage to legendary African American figures from the period, including political leaders Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis, musician John Coltrane, and sports hero Jack Johnson. The variety of artworks reflects the many viewpoints of artists and collectives at work during these explosive times.”

Crystal Bridges is one of the region’s premiere art museums. The museum is nestled around a natural spring in the Ozarks, a perfect location for their mission to “celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature.” The museum’s buildings were designed by renowned architects Moshe Safdie and Marlon Blackwell and are surrounded by a 120-acre park. In addition to rotating exhibitions such as Soul of a Nation, the museum’s permanent collection highlights influential American artists such as Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol, and Georgia O’Keefe.

The trip to Bentonville, AR – and all the work of the Serenbetz Institute for Woman’s Leadership, Social Responsibility, and Global Awareness – is supported by the Class of 1950 fund. Through the generous giving of this dedicated group of alumnae and donors, Cottey students are offered even more opportunities to grow into thoughtful and effective leaders.

“It is through these types of experiences students learn to pause and listen, ask questions, and gain a respect for diversity,” says Hedges.

A student agreed. “I will apply the knowledge that I gained from this experience towards keeping an open mind and listening to the experiences of others, and also doing more to fight against ignorance through art and leadership.”

Drawing on the language used by Cullors, who spoke about replacing destructive systems with positives ones, another student wrote: “I will carry this conversation with me into life. Engage others. Expand thinking. Re-conceptualize the world. Create a new system.”

Photo Credits: View of Walker Landing and lower pond from the overlook;  photography by Dero Sanford. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

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