With each word that Umi Selah chanted, the audience grew louder and more forceful in repetition, filling the room with an empowering energy that could not be ignored.
“Power. Transformation. And miracles — I want it. I need it. I’ve got to have it. Right now!”
Selah, founder of the Dream Defenders, took the audience on his life journey through his riveting keynote speech January 25 in Emerson Suites at Ithaca College.
Selah grew up in Chicago in a family of four boys and struggled with poverty for much of his childhood.
“I detested it. There’s a certain look you get from other people, or a certain ‘not look’ you get from other people,” he said. “I remember as a young boy I said to myself, ‘If I do anything with my entire life, I will not, I will not, be poor. I’m going to prove to the world that you can grow up black and poor and you can make something of yourself.’”
Once at college, Selah embraced a slew of opportunities, most notably running for student government and serving as freshman class president. He found his voice as a community activist while studying at Florida A&M University.
“Florida A&M became my whole world,” he said. “It was a place that I could reimagine who I was. I could evolve into the person that I always thought I wanted to be, and it was beautiful.”
The following year he ran for sophomore class president, in addition to joining the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Everything was looking up for Selah.
Then he met Daryl Parks, a graduate of Florida A&M and a successful attorney, who was something of a role model to him. Parks invited Selah and others to his office one day to show them a video of a young African-American boy being beaten by guards. That young boy was Martin Lee Anderson. He died soon after.
“It was at that moment that the world that I thought existed, the one that I carefully crafted to fit my image of what my life was, shook a little bit,” he said. “I remember my mentor looking at us and saying, ‘What are y’all gonna do?’”
In response, Selah and a group of students formed the Student Coalition for Justice. They demanded that the guards get charged with murder and that the boot camp where Anderson died get shut down. And it worked.
“That was the summer of my life,” Selah said. “We did things we never thought we could do as young people, as college students. We breathed a sigh of relief. We won our campaign. We had won justice for Martin Lee Anderson.”
But six months later all the guards were acquitted, the boot camp was reopened with a different name, and Martin Lee Anderson was still dead.
In the midst of this, Selah continued his education. After college, he worked four years in pharmaceutical sales, each year telling himself he would quit in the following year. He was constrained by what he called the “golden handcuffs.” But once he heard about another case, the murder of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, he knew the golden handcuffs had to come off and he had to take action.
He founded the Dream Defenders, an organization dedicated to building a community of love and organizing young people in nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action.
“In a time when our communities are dying, it is indeed a time to be alive — a beautiful time to rise up from the sewers and from the gutter and say, ‘I am alive, I will protect my brothers, I will protect my sisters. Bleeding and bruised, I will be there.’”
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