I didn’t plan on going to a grassroots activist rally that day, June 4, 2018. But my days offer many different opportunities, so I wasn’t surprised. Traveling to Springfield with the Director of Religious & Spiritual Life and College Chaplain Rev. Matilda Cantwell proved to be a fortuitous occasion.
We met up with the group of protestors in the central grassy area of Court Street across from City Hall. There were a couple hundred people of all backgrounds with homemade signs and spirited attitudes. Taking turns at the podium were a local Springfield minister, the director of Arise for Social Justice, a young rap artist, and a series of mother-activists deploring the mold in the public school buildings where their children face the devastating effects of asthma. They charged the city with negligence in enforcing the state sanitary code that governs Springfield’s aging housing stock. According to literature distributed to the crowd, “Springfield has the highest number of asthma-related emergency room visits in the nation,” ranking number one “as the most challenging city for asthma in the United States.” Speakers lamented about poor families subjected to asthma triggers such as rodent droppings, mold, and cockroaches.
At the rally, Matilda held conversations with friends she knew who came up from Northampton and the hilltowns to be in solidarity with the protestors. I waved at and shook hands with a couple of people I knew from Springfield, but I found myself wondering where all the people of color were, in a city whose public school system is comprised of over 80% black and brown children. The predominant race of the crowd was white. They were mostly older, and committed to a worthy cause, but removed, to some degree, from those most affected. The minister who spoke admonished the protestors to get in touch firsthand with a poor person—it was, after all “The Poor People’s Campaign.”
We started walking to the state building up the street, two streets over to the left and then to the right, ending up in front of the Western Massachusetts Office of the Governor State Office Building on Dwight Street. As the crowd chanted the “The people, the people rule,” drivers honked their horns in support. I was glad we were representing Smith’s Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, lifting our voices and sounding the alarm.
Looking back, I hope we somehow made a difference that afternoon. Will the government listen to the concerns of the people; and more importantly, will it act? And will those we were fighting for come forward in larger numbers to demand justice?
Kim Alston serves as Muslim Student Adviser and Program Coordinator in the Center for Religious & Spiritual Life.