Civil Rights Movement Remains Relevant

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A unique opportunity exists in the coming week and it will happen right before many of our eyes on Sunday October 18th when Dorothy Cotton, Civil Rights leader and former Education Director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses the crowd at the inaugural Finger Lakes Bioneers – We Make Our Future Conference.  In this keynote address, Ms. Cotton will speak to what the Civil Rights movement can teach the modern day Sustainability movement.  In this critical time for both people and the planet, the rare opportunity to hear the first hand lessons learned from an accomplished civic leader of Ms. Cotton’s stature marks a truly historic occasion.

For well over a decade Dorothy Cotton was an integral figure in the Civil Rights movement and a close colleague to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  As the highest-ranking female in the only organization that Dr. King ever founded in his lifetime, Ms. Cotton played a formative role in bringing many individuals into the nonviolent Civil Rights movement. Fulfilling the role of Education Director for the Citizenship Education Program, Dorothy helped thousands of African-Americans transform a debilitating view of themselves as “powerless victims” into an empowering appreciation of what “being a citizen” meant.  This profound transformative process enabled and inspired many to band together and take bold action, even to the extent of risking one’s life for the sake of significant and necessary social change.

The achievements of Dorothy Cotton and the U.S. Civil Rights movement as a whole offer an undeniably moving model for grassroots movements around the world.  While many causes continue in the tradition of marches on Washington and sit-ins, it is the subtle intricacies of developing and cultivating an informed populace that Ms. Cotton brings to bear.  It is this knowledge and know-how, which largely goes untold in the history books, that leads individuals to come together to form a movement and eventually find victory.  In the context of modern day circumstances, if we are truly to band together and form a global movement to save the planet, than an educated and informed citizenry is the beginning and end of that hope.

The sustainability movement in our community has been growing strongly in recent years, and Tompkins County has a national reputation for innovation and leadership in this arena.   But we are just a small part of an enormous global movement that is trying to redesign how we work and live, and to reconnect with each other across the barriers of geography, culture, race, and economic circumstance.  If we as a people are to succeed in stemming climate change, altering our consumption patterns, and ensuring equitable access to health care, education and justice, than it is crucial that we educate and affirm each and every citizen.  Mother Nature has sounded the bell loud and clear, but our response as inhabitants of this earth will largely hinge upon our own personal understanding of that call to action.

Ms. Cotton’s own call to action and her personal journey in refusing victim-hood and resentment, her stalwart rejection of injustice and second-class status, and her subsequent creation of a life and career firmly rooted in hope and personal transformation have led her to inhabit the vital role of gate keeper of knowledge for current and future generations of social change agents. It is the distinct honor of Finger Lakes Bioneers to host Ms. Dorothy Cotton on the closing day of the inaugural Beaming Bioneer conference in New York State.  Please join us as Ms. Cotton shares with us the intimate knowledge that can only be gleaned from a leader on the front lines.  To learn more about Dorothy Cotton and all of the speakers presenting at the Finger Lakes Bioneer Conference, please visit

Matt Riis is the Finger Lakes Bioneers Conference Coordinator for Sustainable Tompkins.

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