Start the Conversation, Let Freedom Ring

Johnni Medina
December 6, 2022
A brass bell with a wooden handle stands on a surface, in front of a dark background

During Pace’s third annual Social Justice Week, 50 students gathered in Alumni Hall to paint bells inspired by three words Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. repeated over and over during his historic “I Have a Dream” speech—‘let freedom ring.’

The event was conceptualized by Mikaylah Mgbako ’25, second-year nursing student and current Resident Assistant on the Westchester Campus. For a while, something had been missing for Mikaylah—an outlet for her love of advocacy and volunteerism. “My high school was so small I was able to do so much for them,” she explains. “Pace isn’t super big but in comparison I felt so small and like I couldn’t help anyone. When my Honors advisor sent an email out about the Social Justice Week events, it felt like divine inspiration. Here was a way I could get back to helping people.”

When my Honors advisor sent an email out about the Social Justice Week events, it felt like divine inspiration. Here was a way I could get back to helping people.

Soon, an idea took shape. She would facilitate an event where fellow students could paint bells, evoking King’s famous words, and she would put them on display for Pace Community. But she wanted to do more than create a static exhibit, she wanted to dig deeper. “My event allowed people to come and discuss topics related to race, ethnicity, and social injustice and inequality in a common space, while painting bells and enjoying light refreshments,” she says.

50 colorfully painted bells strung together on string, pinned to a blue background

Advisors for Social Justice Week were concerned that she did not have the backing of a student club or org, but that wasn’t what worried her. “I knew I could do it on my own,” says Mikaylah. It wasn’t the event itself that pushed her out of her comfort zone, but the conversations had while she and nearly 50 other students painted bells and spoke on sensitive topics of race and inequality.

“I’ve done more ‘backseat advocacy’ through marches or fundraising, so I was never the type of person to sit in a room and have conversations with people. And I was actually really uncomfortable,” she admits. “As an RA, many of my residents look up to me. But as a woman of color, many of my residents don’t have my experience facing the same injustices, either based on race or gender. Both facts made me feel nervous about participating. Then I realized if I was uncomfortable, I can only imagine how the people who just stopped by might feel.”

Why not have these conversations and understand where your peers and friends come from?”

She explains that the discomfort seemed to come from the wide mix of students present, and the uncertainty of how people might respond to difficult topics. On one hand, she said she found this challenging, and a little sad. “I feel that if I was speaking with peers who looked like me, other people of color, I’d feel like I was in a safe space to share. It showed me that we’re not having these conversations as often, and experiences like this need to happen more.” On the other hand, despite the discomfort, students stuck around for the painting, and for the conversations. “Everyone was really respectful. My friend who came with me shared a lot of her feelings. Sharing in a student-setting kept it casual and very respectful.”

The sign under the Let Freedom Ring Exhibit, explaining its purpose and inviting people to ring the bell

Mikaylah purchased 50 bells for the event (with funding granted by the Social Justice Week Committee) and all 50 were painted and are now proudly displayed in the Kessel Student Center, alongside a large bell students can ring. “The message when people see it is that all these people from the Pace Community were able to come together and do something where they bonded, where they could listen and have these conversations,” Mikaylah explains. And even though the conversations were difficult, she hopes for more of them. “It’s how we can understand our neighbors. At Pace, we’re living in these communal-style homes and residence halls. Why not have these conversations and understand where your peers and friends come from?”

It’s a loud reminder—don’t forget about this!”

As for that large bell next to the exhibit, Mikaylah wants you to ring it, and ring it loud. “I hope when people ring the bell it’s really loud,” she says with a laugh. “I hope it makes people wonder what the noise is, so they come look at the exhibit. They can think about how far we’ve come, and hopefully it’ll inspire the next person. It’s a loud reminder—don’t forget about this!”

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