Schreyer Scholar Briana Adams translates passion into action

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge last March, Briana Adams was retracing steps in history. The Schreyer Honors College Scholar from the U.S. Virgin Islands had traveled a long way to come to Penn State University, and the steps she was taking as part of her Rhetoric and the Civic Rights Movement class took her even farther. She and her classmates may have been stepping back into history, but the lessons have helped Adams navigate the present and set her path for her future.

Adams was presented with the top 2014 Fannie Lou Hamer - W.E.B. Du Bois Service Scholarship award by Penn State’s Forum on Black Affairs in January of this year. The scholarship, named for civil rights leaders Fannie Lou Hamer and W.E.B. Du Bois, is awarded annually to students who show excellence in scholarship and are actively engaged in service to the African-American community. The award recognized her passion for service and civic engagement, and she has made it her life mission to translate that passion into action.

“Ever since I could say Martin Luther King, that is who I wanted to be like,” Adams, a Communication Arts and Sciences major, said. “I always have aspired to liberate people, and bring about justice and equality for all people, regardless of their skin color.”

One of the biggest events of the year at her parochial and elementary schools was the Black History Fair. When at 14 she moved to a school with an enrollment that was predominantly white, she felt there was a void in the student programming and teamed up with a friend to present a plan to the principal. Her impact at the Antilles School remains as the event continues annually.

“When we received the approval to have Black History events, I wanted to capture various aspects of black history and black culture,” recalled Adams. “We used ‘We are the Dream’ for the theme and had a jazz band perform, asked an instructor to speak about the steel pan and its importance to Caribbean music, had poetry readings with works by black writers and taught the Quadrille, our traditional dance.”

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech provides more than just a theme for Adams. While most individuals can quote some of the text’s key phrases, it is the entirety of his speech, the whole message that captivates and motivates Adams.

“Dr. King used symbolism and metaphors—talking about the bank of justice and justice rolling down like a mighty stream,” said Adams. “He made you want to believe in the American Dream again. I think that is maybe why the speech is so powerful. It was appealing not only to the black Americans, but to white Americans, to everyone.”

The recent movie “Selma,” which chronicled King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, helped Adams retrace the steps she took with her class the year before. During spring break in 2014, as part of her Rhetoric and Civil Rights Movement class, Adams and her classmates visited Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham. The typed itinerary hardly bespoke everything she would take in, including the site of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in, in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Atlanta to see the places King lived, attended school and worked, as well as his grave and his memorial.

“I cried when I watched Selma,” Adams said. “We walked over the bridge and we saw what took place on Bloody Sunday and how that it is remembered. It was a very powerful thing to think about. It is part of my history.”

Adams has also become an active member in history. She was part of the group that made the decision to hold “die-ins” on Penn State’s University Park campus to symbolize the 2014 death of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, with the goal of bringing awareness and showing that Black Lives Matter.

“The die-ins were moving experiences and people can debate the innocence or guilt of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, but the fact was that he (Brown) laid in the street for four and a half hours. That is something no human being should be subject to,” Adams said.  “At least someone should have had the decency to cover the body and move it somewhere else. It made me wonder if black lives really mattered in America. We took that moment to bring awareness to Penn State.”

One moment after a die-in gave Adams some reassurance.

After Adams and others, holding signs and shouting, marched from the cultural center over to Old Main, they listened to a spoken word piece and then laid on the ground for a die-in.

“We were all very emotional,” Adams recalled. “It was the first die-in that was outside, so we are laying on the ground, similar to the situation Michael Brown was in, and it started to drizzle. We were laying there in the rain, completely still for 45 minutes. Finally, when we opened our eyes, we saw President Barron, other administrators, Marcus Whitehurst, and thought, ‘Wow, we really did something, we got their attention!’”

Afterward, President Barron introduced himself to Adams and she asked him if he would take a photo with her. She then asked him if they could raise their hands to support the students and their cause of Black Lives Matter.

We did it and I felt so happy, this was such a great moment,” Adams said. “In January, I saw President Barron at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day banquet and I personally thanked him for standing by his students even though he received criticism. I really appreciated that.”

It was one of many moments for Adams during her time at Penn State, reinforcing King’s lessons on the power of words and the impact of action. She also witnessed a moment that would illustrate the power of civil dialogue to promote understanding.

While the students assembled and laid on the floor in the library, a white male student stood with a sign that said, “I support Darren Wilson.” One of Adams’ friends, a black male student, approached him, began speaking with him and asked him if he would join them in laying on the floor. The conversation continued as each individual expressed their thoughts, one with his support of Wilson and the other trying to show the need for creating awareness. Another black male student approached them both with a sign that said, “I support Michael Brown.”

Adams was nervous. A million possible endings went through her mind. She thought the discussion could end in the students being upset, hurt or angry, but instead, they made it an educational moment, even for her.

Adams’ friend got a piece of paper and made another sign. He stood between the other two men with his sign that said “Black Lives Matter” and had each of the other two men hold a side of his sign.

Not long afterward, Schreyer Honors College hosted a town hall meeting that provided an open forum for the campus and local community to discuss the movement. A student spoke before the group and said he wanted to thank that young man who spoke to him in the library. He told everyone that he went to the die-in with a ‘I support Darren Wilson’ poster, but that young man made him understand that the point of the protest was that black lives matter.

“The link in that is ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Adams stated. “I watched that happen, the power of words and love, unfolding, right there. That is what Dr. King was all about. I felt like that was powerful, that was real. You don’t forget something like that.”

While words have tremendous power to change people’s believes, Adams knows that changing beliefs and prejudices will take time.

“I have asked myself what I would have done if I was alive when the Civil Rights Movement started, would I have marched with Dr. King or sat at home and watched? There was risk, threats were real, and these people just wanted voting rights, they just wanted a say in what happened to them.”

These moments, her reflections on history, and her contributions to the Penn State community are just the beginning for Adams. She wants to be a civil rights attorney with the ability and the passion to make a difference and make someone’s life better.

“I feel like we all have a responsibility to leave the world a little better than how we found it,” Adams said. “I don’t think I’m going to be the next Dr. King who is going to get legislation passed, but in my everyday life, anything I can do to stop racial injustice or oppression, I will do. I hope that if we all have that mentality, it will eventually make a ripple, will make the change, and become the stream he spoke about.”

Last Updated April 27, 2015