When Michael Skolnik was only 14 years old, he moved into a friend’s vacant spacious apartment in the upper east side of New York City – alone. He told the audience at Castleton State College how he met lot of multi-racial friends in New York and how one evening he was at a party with his black friend, Omar.
He said later that night, Omar was trying to hail a taxicab to get home safe. Attempt after attempt, the cabs drove past him.
Skolnik, who is white, decided to stick his hand out to help – and a taxi immediately stopped.
“At the moment, I won the jackpot,” said Skolnik, explaining how that moment charted his future.
Skolnik, a 21st century civil rights activist, website editor and film producer, came to Castleton Monday to speak to students and staff and to ask a loaded question: “What is going to be your purpose? How far are you willing to go to be happy?”
For him, the light for his future turned on that night with Omar, he said.
“I fight for the other because I know what I have,” Skolnik said. “The more you give the more you get … my job is to give.”
Skolnik gripped the audience’s attention at both of his sessions; once in the afternoon at a more casual forum in the cozy Herrick Auditorium, and again in a more formal talk later that evening with a gripping slideshow in the spacious Casella Theater.
Through both talks he touched on numerous issues including inequality on how murdered white and black children are treated in the media, gender inequality, privilege, misogyny in the hip-hop world, police brutality and how mandatory minimum drug sentences are racist.
In the evening event, he shared stories and photos of murdered black youth, and told how after writing one story to shed light on a murdered teen, he became flooded with requests by parents of other murdered black kids to write about their children, leading to the “He/She Has a Name” campaign on Globalgrind.com.
He teared up looking at one slide of a murdered 7-year-old girl, caught in crossfire of gunshots while selling candy, saying it brought him back to her funeral.
He also talked about fielding death threats for supporting the mourning family of murdered teen Trayvon Martin at the trial of his killer.
Although most students and professors seemed inspired by his energy and message, during the afternoon session professors Linda Olson and Sanjukta Ghosh, challenged his expertise on race and gender and criticized him for “making money off of hip-hop,” and “supporting misogynistic behavior in the hip-hop world,” saying hip hop degrades women and hinders racial equality. The owner of Globalgrind.com, Russell Simmons, is the founder of hip hop label Def Jam.
Skolnik rebutted saying that hip-hop is a reflection of black life – just like sex, drugs and rock n roll is a reflection of white life. He also said he doesn’t make money off hip-hop and that Simmons sold Def Jam.
The professors controlled a portion of the talk with pointed follow-up questions including Olson at one point saying he should know more about privilege if he is to be “an expert on race,” to which Skolnik said he never claimed to be, just a man who feels the need to try to improve the lives of underprivileged.
“It seemed as though they didn’t care what he had to say. They constantly tried to change the subject,” said junior Jed Zawisza, a student who had attended the afternoon event.
Although race and gender professor Melinda Mills questioned him about his “privilege” as a white male and how he can use it for racial and gender equality, she also said she was glad he came.
“I'm encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response to Michael Skolnik's visit to campus. His storytelling invites people into conversation about difficult topics, and seems to have resonated with many students. I hope his impact extends beyond the scope of his visit, motivating students to mobilize in their efforts to improve lives,” said Mills.
Students attending the evening talk seemed mesmerized, and lined up to meet Skolnik after the event.
“It’s really inspiring to see a white male (doing this), it makes you realize there are people to fight for our rights,” said sophomore Adan Osman, a student from Kenya.
Other black students had positive comments too.
“I think he hit the points exactly,” said freshman Joel Antoine.
“I think more events like this would be really good,” said junior Riziki Kassim.
Skolnik, a man who admittedly makes a lot of money now and knows about being privileged and yet showed up wearing a “$19 sweater and $60 jeans his girlfriend made him buy, humbly said you don’t have to feel guilty for being privileged, but how you use your privilege is what matters.
“He made me understand white privilege; I was like ‘Wow I get it now,” said junior Andrew Breting.
Professor Monica McEnerny, who attended the evening session, said she was pleased to have him visit.
“I especially appreciate the way he has brought humanity and attention to the meaningless deaths of many students of color in our country and has researched and challenged our criminal justice system. Castleton students filled the Fine Arts Center and shared highly relevant comments and questions after the presentation,” she said.
Journalism professor David Blow, who had seen Skolnik speak in New York City last year and organized his visit, said Skolnik did exactly what he had hoped for.
“He made students think about race and gender inequality and I love how he challenged them, especially in the evening session, to find their purpose or mission to help others,” Blow said.
When the line had ended and Skolnik was ready to leave, he reflected on his brief time at Castleton.
“Everyone is so kind and I think it was an amazing turnout. I hope those who did come have some good conversations tonight,” he said. “Folks in this room have some of the greatest ideas in the world.”