Black History Month symposium stirs conversations on the justice system

by Kallie Delis

Amendment 4 panel
Fourth-year Cabrini Austin, Ed James III, Deidra Larkins, Gabriel Harris, Carlton Mayers, Demetrius Jifunza, and Dr. Queen Mecca Zabriskie participated in the afternoon panel on Amendment 4.

As a pillar of New College’s Black History Month events, the fifth annual New Schools of Black Thought symposium was hosted in Sudakoff on Saturday, February 8. This all-day undertaking provided education and connection for all who attended. The central theme of both the month-long celebration and the symposium is about salient issues with the justice system and how it disproportionately affects black members of society. Due to its current prominence, Amendment 4 is a main focus – the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative. 

“We sit down and think, what do we have a responsibility to highlight as black people during this month? Amendment 4 and these consistent, seemingly never-ending issues of police brutality are how we settled on a theme for this month,” fourth-year student and panel moderator Cabrini Austin said.

Among the first featured sessions included an opening address delivered by Devan Cheaves of the advocacy organization Dream Defenders. She referenced her personal experience with witnessing brutality and the drawbacks of the justice system through an incident where a classmate, Rodney Mitchell, was shot and killed by Sarasota Sheriff’s deputies in 2012. The tragedy urged her to become an activist in her own right. She further informed the audience about Amendment 4 being restricted by the legislature after its passing by requiring formerly incarcerated individuals to repay all court fines and fees before they can vote.

A spoken-word performance by Matthew “Cuban” Hernandez, an author, poet, and co-founder of the Spoken Literature Art Movement followed Cheaves’s address. His performance and presentation brought audience members’ attention to the detention facilities where he teaches. He warned of the trauma that comes from experiencing such systems firsthand, and how many of the students he works with have endured traumatic losses.

Following the spoken-word was the first panel of the symposium: Preparing Individuals and Communities for Life After Incarceration. Hernandez joined Luis Rivera – a business owner who served and worked in the prison system in Puerto Rico, Dr. Jean D. Kabongo – Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship professor, and Helen Neal-Ali from Life Changing Consulting & Associates as panelists to provide the audiences with insight. They each shared about how their work is combating the lack of support from many angles, whether it be providing education, business opportunities, or other tools for reintegrating previously incarcerated people into society. 

A workshop was held after lunch by panelist Neal-Ali, titled “Overcoming a Traumatic Past.” This theme resonated strongly throughout the day as panelists described the perspective and often-unknown experiences that previously incarcerated people have while trying to return to their lives. There was an emphasis on education, coordination, and mental health, not only in respect to welcoming returning citizens back to society but also in continuing to support the fight for Amendment 4. 

The second panel of the day delved into Amendment 4: Before and After. Panelists included Gabriel Harris, a Legislative Aide for Margaret Good, Ed James III from Every Vote Counts, Deidra Larkins from Black Lives Matter Manasota, Rev. Demetrius Jifunza from the NAACP Sarasota and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and Carlton Mayers from Mayers Strategic Solutions, LLC. Each of the panelists reflected on what it took to get Amendment 4 onto the ballot, and how the amendment began to be stripped only a couple of days after being enacted. They all agreed on historical connections that were drawn, from the Black Codes to Jim Crow laws. They cautioned the audience to recognize the consequences of these legislative re-workings of Amendment 4, such as criminalizing poverty. The panel closed with encouragements of education, accessibility, and coordination all across the state.

Rev. Jifunza delivered the keynote address at the end of the symposium, sharing his firsthand experience with incarceration and the dehumanization that comes with it. He is a staunch advocate for mental health services, especially for previously incarcerated people. Jifunza detailed how there is little to no support for returning citizens after making it through the justice system, and there needs to be mentorship to promote success. 

“This amendment is not just for voting. There are other issues going on. But we have to encourage people to go out and register to vote because that’s the only way we can change something,” Jifunza said. 

Dr. Queen Mecca Zabriskie, assistant professor of Sociology who facilitated and moderated much of the symposium, knew that the symposium would be an opportunity for education. After witnessing each performance, panel, and address, she knew that something more was born from this symposium. 

“I’m feeling really inspired by the lessons learned, and the kind of energy that is still out there, and the kind of work that people are continuing to do,” Zabriskie said. “I feel like I’m leaving here with a lot of hope.”


Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is the state's only legislatively designated Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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