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Award-winning author-activist Alexis De Veaux headlines Social Justice Festival

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Solari Ekine
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Social Justice Festival
Featured speaker will be Alexis De Veaux, winner of the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction and a protege of the late Tony Morrison.

Every day, communities grapple with conflicts and injustices that often remain unresolved because we lack the tools and vocabulary to effectively address them. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Buffalo State College is holding its annual Social Justice Festival to share methods, practices and experiences that bring people together for change.

"It's not hard to find social injustice in our world today, where corruption, where greed, where the pursuit of power is put in front of taking care of each other," said Drew Kahn, a SUNY Distinguished Professor and the founding director of Buffalo State's Anne Frank Project, the organizer of the festival. "The real basic meaning of social justice is taking care of each other, that there is 'we' before 'me.'"

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WBFO's Marian Hetherly talks with Buffalo State's Drew Kahn about social justice and the festival

Jewish-Dutch Anne Frank hid from the Nazis during World War II, but eventually died in a concentration camp, still just a teenager. The diary she kept of her experience has inspired social justice across the world. June would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday.

"Social Justice means equity. It means that there should be equitable distribution for all," he said. "We're really training activists to be activists in their own life and to be activists in the worlds that they touch and connect to. It's not just talk, it's doing. So if it's a presenter talking about the power of writing, then participants will be writing and creating their narrative. If it's about social change and dance, they will be dancing and sweating."

Kahn called it "tangible" and "kinesthetic."

"One of the things we always wanted with the Anne Frank Project and our Social Justice Festival is that students didn't walk away and say, 'Someday I'll apply myself to the peace process.' We want them to say, 'I've already had experience and now I have to take my experience and apply it to my communities,'" he said.

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Credit Social Justice Festival
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The free Social Justice Festival is open to the public at being held in the Buffalo State Social Hall, Campbell Student Union.

Kahn said the featured speaker will be Alexis De Veaux, winner of the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction and a protege of the late Tony Morrison, the Nobel laureate in literature whose work explored the black identity in America.

"She grew up as one of eight children in Harlem and she was told my her mother, 'You got three strikes against you. You poor, you black and you female.' Well, it seems to me if you look at her life since that moment, she has done nothing but defy those and actually used those as springboards for incredible success. She was told 'no' a lot in her life."

De Veaux will speak Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Burchfield Penney Art Center Auditorium.

"So what Alexis De Veaux brings to Buffalo State and to the Anne Frank Project this year is this really strong, unapologetic voice about, 'Yes, I can. Yes, you can. Here's what I did. Let's put it on you for a workshop, so you can understand that your dreams are important, that you realize your potential and that it's not some sort of distant, abstract idea, your success, your personal fight for success.'"

Where would he rank Western New York on a social justice scale of 1-10? Kahn said there are pockets of "wonderful activity," and pockets where "much learning needs to happen."

"As far as the passion, the will and the desire to do it, I would give Western New York an 8, a 9, a 10. Making sure that the classic obstacles to equality are pushed aside and social justice can really happen, I'd say we're about a 5 or a 6," Kahn said. "I think we're better than most, but I would never want anyone listening to this to think we're done with our work. I mean, we need to wake up a little angry each morning and do the good work that is included in social justice."

He suggested that perhaps the theme of this year's festival, "Engage for Change," should be "Enraged for Change." He also recognized Western New York's new, growing "library" of social justice from which to learn and apply lessons of change.

"You know, we have 18,000 refugees, new Americans, immigrants, coming from disastrous, incredibly hard places and they live in Buffalo. To me, that's 18,000 Anne Franks," he said. 

"These people have come from countries where their cultures are all about 'we' before 'me.' Where they understand adversity. Some of these stories and how they came to Western New York would shock people, and their ability to withstand those obstacles - come to Western New York and completely flip-flop their lives and dedicate themselves to the work of building the city," Kahn said. "We do need to sit with our new refugee community and extract as much wisdom and knowledge and experience from them, because they've done a lot of the things we're trying to do."