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  May 15, 2000

Knowledge of History a Compass
for the Future, Dyson Tells Students

Just days after completing the year's legislative session, state Rep. William Dyson challenged UConn students to get involved in the pressing issues of the day - anywhere from Sierra Leone and Kosovo to the Hartford school system or right here at the University:

"If not you, who? If not now, when? Who's going to make the world a better place? Where do you start?" he asked, during an address to African American graduating seniors, their families and friends at the African American Cultural Center May 7.

Dyson - chair of the General Assembly's Appropriations Committee and one of the leading public figures in the state - started his address by reflecting on the importance of history.

"I love history," he said, with great emphasis. "It serves as a resource of information to give us directions for the future. Some are familiar with it, others are not. But he who does not look is subject to being told - from another's point of view."

Dyson illustrated his talk with historical facts from his own life. "When you hear that Bill Dyson was in school in South Carolina," he said, "let your mind click real fast. How long ago was that? If you associate something with that, you get a sense of what motivates me."

He said black students at UConn are fortunate to have a cultural center. But they should be aware, he said, that such cultural centers were founded at UConn and elsewhere across the country as a result of the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 60s.

It was a time of activism, Dyson said. In 1960, he was arrested because he "had the audacity to go and sit at a lunch counter." He was arrested again some years later for demonstrating against corporate investment in apartheid South Africa.

Also during the early 60s, Dyson went to college. "My mom gave me $100 and put me on a bus to South Carolina," he said. "I thought I was going north. From Georgia to South Carolina was 300 miles north."

Thanks to the president of the college, who knew his father and gave the young man jobs to do, Dyson was able to work his way through school, feeding hogs, cooking meals, shoveling coal and cutting grass. "I never paid a dime to go to school," he said. "But I didn't make it this far alone.

"Do you think you've come through this place all by yourselves with nobody's help?" he asked the UConn students. "OK, then you can get through life all by yourself."

Without making a concerted effort, however, the problems facing African Americans will continue, he said. "Ultimately your kids are going to be in a school system like Hartford's, or you have to make sure they're not. You need to network," he told the students.

Glancing back at the recent legislative session, Dyson said, "We voted for Adriaen's Landing that's going to result in UConn getting a football stadium yet we couldn't get legislation passed for the prisoners in our prison system to get any relief at all."

He said African Americans should be concerned about the prisons. "Take a gander at who's there. There are over two million locked away now and the bulk of them look a whole lot like you," said Dyson, who told the audience he has had a son in jail. "If statistics do me any justice, somebody in here is going to find their way in there.

"If we all walk away, we only guarantee that it will continue," he said. "There are a lot of things out there we need to be working on, and the solutions are going to come from you."

But in order to be successful and make changes for the better, he said, young people must be assertive: "It ain't gonna happen because you wish it so, it's gonna happen because you work it so."

Starting next year, there will be more opportunities for minority alumni to work at the University, said Fred Maryanski, interim chancellor, who introduced Dyson. He announced a new program in which the administration will work with the cultural centers to recruit minority graduates of the University as entry-level professional staff.

Brian Mealy, a graduating senior majoring in history, said he appreciated Dyson's historical perspective: "Sometimes we close our eyes to what those who've gone before us went through," he said. "God has kept us from oppression to a degree, but still we've got a ways to go."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu