EFC alum (2018-19) Bernice Hightower is in her first year at Howard University and considering a career in advertising or marketing in entertainment. She has been involved in several theater productions and recently auditioned for a play about Eurydice. For spring break, she is participating in Howard’s Alternative Spring Break Program, which is targeting food insecurity, poverty and human rights in the Bronx, NY.
What did you learn at the Encampment? I learned that there are so many different forms of activism. It doesn’t need to look like a mainstream idea — we saw so many kinds of activism in both Mississippi and California. The idea of activism through art is the biggest takeaway I’ve learned and it’s something that I’m going to carry with me for the rest of my life. It’s a really powerful tool and I hope that it will always be a part of the Encampment. It’s something that I have started to use and it’s something I want to do with my life. I’m not a singer or a dancer, but if I can use theater or poetry or other art forms, any chance to bring awareness, a message, that’s what I want to do! This summer at the rallies [see below], I would perform a poem about police brutality — that’s something I learned through the Encampment — how to do that: how to convey that message.
Another thing that I loved that I didn’t expect was to hear the voices of the indigenous people, going to the (Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians) reservation and getting to meet Encampers who lived on the reservation. The EFC does a great job of thinking about intersectional beliefs. For instance, in 2018 we had voting rights and Black history, and then Indigenous history, and how they intersect.
How has the Encampment influenced your life? The EFC gave me a toolkit with community as a part of it — I learned to think of a group of people as a source of power. I participated in three rallies this summer. The third one was through a summer job experience. At the first rally, I heard a name — Maurice Gordon — and I didn’t know who that was, but he was a man who got killed by New Jersey state troopers, very similar to George Floyd, and I had had no idea. This was something that happened very close to where I lived and I had no clue about it. We were working with Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour of Until Freedom over Zoom and they were like, “Okay, we want you guys to host this rally — who do you want to do it for?” I said, ”Duh, let’s do Maurice Gordon. This is something that happened right here in our city.” And they said, “Who — who is that?” And it snowballed from there. We had a rally and his family’s lawyer came down, which was really great. It made the news and I’m really proud of that — we got more exposure because of that.
It’s played a role in my time at Lawrenceville [School] and how I think about the leadership positions I take on there and how I tackle them. As an RA in the dorm, I realize that not everything has to look like one way of reaching someone — it’s not like you have to be on the diversity council. As a prefect, I can have the difficult conversations in the common room on a day-to-day basis. The Encampment taught me that I don’t have to be in the status quo positions to create change.
Why is the EFC important now? I think the Encampment is so important because when you look back on different movements in history, whether or not explicitly stated, most of time teenagers have been influential in those movements. It’s important to give young people the tools to be change-makers and how to pick actionable steps; take a big problem and turn it into something that you can do something about on a day-to-day basis. I think that’s where a lot of people get stuck: having big visions or big dreams of how they want the world to look, and they get frustrated when it doesn’t happen immediately. The Encampment shows examples and you get to work with people who are doing the work on a daily basis.
What is your favorite memory or story from the Encampment? 2018: We were in Selma, Alabama, and we were at Selma Center for Nonviolence with Faya Ora Rose Touré (formerly Rose Sanders) so meeting people who are doing the work on a daily basis. I loved the energy — there were lots of children and it reminded me of my elementary school — and they came in playing the drums. It was afro-centric, which was awesome and cool.
In 2019, I was at my service learning site and I was on a different project than I had been before. I don’t like to get dirty, but that day, we were helping at a school garden and it was really hot and we were digging. Once I got over my attitude, it was nice to be there. We dug up the whole garden and replanted it, and we painted signs for the garden. And I thought: This is something that I created that will stay here. I was there with the service learning group, in the moment, and this was something that would be there for a while.
What motivated you to go to the Encampment? I had a friend who went in 2017 [Emily Shapcott] and she loved it. Then Michael Carter did a workshop at the Wight Foundation and I thought that something tells me that it’s not a coincidence. Over the summer, I was doing voter registration with my mom and a focus of the Encampment that summer was voting rights. I wanted to try something out in a new environment. It was a series of coincidences.
When you arrived, what was your first impression of the Encampment? When I first was at the Encampment in Mississippi, I was not happy. Michael asked me what was the matter and I said, “I hate all this singing, morning, noon and night. I am not a singer,” but by the end, I was crying along to “There Is a River.”
What topic did you spend the most time on at the Encampment(s) and what did you learn?
In 2018, it was voting rights — it wasn’t just about voting, in a sense; it was about the bigger picture. [Photo shows Encampers and staff with Cici Battle after a voting rights workshop.]
In 2019, it was immigration — I didn’t know anything about this topic, so it was really nice to get to go to the farms [where some immigrants work]. There was a helpful seminar [Climate Change] with Alex [Horton], where we explored ideas about “big agriculture” and saw how intertwined it is with immigration and labor rights.
The biggest takeaway was that I learned that I needed to do a lot more thinking about topics that didn’t directly affect me and less about issues that directly affect me.
What field trips do you remember? In 2018, I remember we didn’t stop on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but we were adjacent, and I posed for a picture with the bridge in the background. It’s something from the history books! We were also at the Equal Justice Museum, and that was my first time learning about mass incarceration. One of the men who was in the exhibits had spoken at Lawrenceville the previous year. He had been wrongfully imprisoned on death row for decades — Anthony Ray Hinton. Also, my service learning was at the Jackson Mayor’s Office, and that was really cool.
In 2019, my group went to Harry’s Berries — it’s a nice place [where] they [grow] gourmet strawberries. They told us how their workers get paid year-round and have sick time … that’s why their berries are so expensive. When we returned to campus, we heard the stories of the Encampers who had gone to the [worker-owned] The Abundant Table and one of the large agribusiness farms — that was really interesting. In addition, we heard from an Encamper and her parents who worked on the farms. That is an entirely different experience — they are doing back-breaking work for two dollars a day. I don’t understand why the range of options has to be so extreme.
What community service projects do you remember? In 2018, we were told the night before that we were going to do a project for Al White’s community of Duck Hill, MS. I remember I didn’t have suitable clothing for wood clearing, so I was a little peeved, but I pushed it aside as we all sang while moving wood. We had a really nice 4th of July party hosted by the local people of Duck Hill afterward!
In 2019, the day before our Compost Tea Party at Rio Lindo Elementary School, we made vegan tamales. I’ve never done anything like that. At the actual “tea party,” we helped build a garden and do all these fun sustainable activities with the community. [Photo shows Bernice in center at tamale-making party.]
It’s a really nice feeling of being in someone else’s community and being a part of it for a short amount of time — and doing something that has a lasting effect.
Anything we haven’t asked that you would like to say? Going to LA [Los Angeles] for that two-day experience — it was really cool to meet Ben Caldwell and visit his studio and culture center focused on Black art. Then we went to the ARC Center [Anti–Recidivism Coalition] and the Floricanto Center for the Performing Arts (history of the 1960s East L.A. Chicano movement). We had all those different cultural experiences in a two-day span. We got a whole melting pot of different communities and a history of how they all came to be there — that was really important to me. Really cool!