“We should think about the struggle of American Americans in this country as the canaries in a coalmine. Which is to say, when miners enter a coal mine, they first send in a small bird called a canary to sense potential danger. If the bird returns in good health, they know they can enter. If the bird returns unsafely, they know that they can’t. Likewise, for African Americans and other people who are racially marginalized in this country, the question isn’t what’s wrong with them. The question is, what’s wrong with the mine?”

Austin Collage

On Thursday, activist Austin Thompson took part in a lunch panel in front of FSI participants titled Civil Resistance in the United States. Joined by fellow activists Nickie Sekera and Conrado Santos, Thompson opened the panel with an impassioned speech on the health of American democracy in light of widespread systemic racism, and a presentation titled Overcoming the Dictatorship of Fear: Nonviolent Action Against Systemic Racism, in which he discussed the ways civil resistance can be used to move America “towards a multi-racial democracy.”

Austin is an activist and civic leader based in Alexandria, Virginia. He has been an organizer in the most vibrant recent social movements in the United States including Occupy Wall Street and the movement for black lives. He is currently director of the Youth Engagement Fund (YEF) that works to engage young people in civic life, build their long-term power, and help secure long-term progressive change. YEF is housed at the Democracy Alliance (DA), a partnership of individual and institutional donors committed to building a stronger democracy and a more progressive America.

Austin comes to the YEF from America’s fastest growing labor union where he served as the union’s Millennial Program Coordinator. Austin led the launch and development of this program, which developed local infrastructure across the United States and Canada for youth and emerging worker leaders to take action in elections and on progressive issue campaigns. In 2014, Austin worked with veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer and supported the development of a next generation multi-racial youth network called Freedom Side. Prior to his work with the Millennial Program, Austin worked as a lead organizer for SEIU in Wisconsin and taught comparative democracy and civics to high school students in Senegal and India.

During the panel, Austin stated: “The big challenging question for the United States is, for all the millions of white people in the country, how do they in some way create a new form of identity, that is able to bridge the divide between themselves and this new emerging demographic of people in the country.”

Watch the full panel here