Co-founder of Black Lives Matter movement to speak at Penn State

Opal Tometi, a Nigerian-American writer, strategist, community organizer and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, will be the keynote speaker at an upcoming Penn State symposium.

The symposium, titled The Fire This Time: Citizenship, Civil Rights, and New Racisms in the 21st Century, will take place on Friday, March 25, in the Paterno Library’s Foster Auditorium on the University Park campus of Penn State. The daylong event is free and open to the public.

According to symposium coordinator Courtney Morris, assistant professor of African-American studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Penn State, the symposium seeks to bring activists and scholars together to discuss the origins, implications and social impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. As she explains, the creation of Black Lives Matter coincided with the 50th anniversary of several watershed events in the Civil Rights movement, including the Freedom Summer voter registration campaign (1964) and the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

“These milestones definitely should be commemorated and celebrated,” Morris said. "But the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement also demonstrates that the triumphant narrative of social progress that characterizes most contemporary mainstream racial discourse tends to obscure the work that remains to dismantle structural racism and inequality. Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, Black Lives Matter has emerged as a forceful political response to police killings of unarmed black civilians.

“I think what we are witnessing is the growth of a broad-based social movement unlike anything we’ve seen in the last 50 years,” she continued. “While this is exciting, it is critical that we cultivate a critical understanding of why so many people—across differences of race, age, gender, sexuality and class--are out in the streets declaring that Black Lives Matter. We also need to be educated about the past and the present in order to understand where this movement is going.”

In addition to co-founding Black Lives Matter, Tometi currently serves as executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration—a national organization that educates and advocates to further immigrant rights and racial justice together with African-American, Afro-Latino, African and Caribbean immigrant communities. She has also presented at the United Nations and has participated with the UN’s Global Forum on Migration and Commission on the Status of Women.

“We are delighted to be bringing Opal Tometi to Penn State,” Morris said. “It is exciting to have her on campus because her work, along with that of Black Lives Matter co-creators Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, is really changing the face of Black political leadership and forcing the nation to confront the issue of police abuse in a way we really have not done in a very long time.”

"The Fire This Time" is co-sponsored by the Africana Research Center; the Institute for the Arts & Humanities; the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center; the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts’ Office of Undergraduate Studies; and the University Libraries.  Additional speakers scheduled to attend include:

  • Vee Bravo, media activist and vice president of education programs for the Tribeca Film Institute;
  • Jasmine Burnett, sex educator and reproductive justice advocate;
  • Dianna Freelon Foster, founder of Activists with a Purpose and organizer for Southern Echo; and,
  • H. Lavar Pope, visiting assistant professor of political science, Ohio University.

Additional information can be found at or by emailing Courtney Morris at

Media Contacts: 

William Hessert

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College of the Liberal Arts

Last Updated March 11, 2016