Inspired by Frederick Douglass, Western Mass College Pres eyes Irish contacts

The town of Westfield, and indeed the entire region of western Massachusetts, has long been known for its connection to Ireland, so perhaps it was only natural for the President of Westfield State University Linda Thompson to pay the country a visit.

Thompson made the journey last Thanksgiving along with a group of elected officials looking, as President Thompson told the Irish Echo, “to build bridges between the two countries.”

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“Last year,” Thompson explained, “I was in Washington, DC when they were celebrating the 25 year peace support for Ireland, I did meet with a person who runs the (Frederick) Douglass Institute which is really looking at this whole focus of building bridges between the African American and Irish population in the country, it’s not just Massachusetts.”

“So,” Thompson continued, “that was my first exposure to this whole way of trying to build bridges between those two.”

Perhaps the primary goal of Thompson’s visit to Ireland was the opportunity to meet with Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald and, the President said, “ask her if she would be our graduation speaker. And we offered her an honorary degree, and she accepted.”

McDonald will speak to Westfield students at the University’s May 17th graduation ceremony where she will receive an honorary degree. Thompson notes that “we’re hosting a meeting for her to meet with members of our Irish community and friends of Ireland the day before to begin a conversation encouraging our young people to come to Westfield to do a study abroad (program). And that’s one of the options to encourage our graduates to think about the global world as opposed to only thinking about the United States.”

Thompson cites McDonald and Sinn Féin’s focus on social justice, climate change, education, health care, and housing, as values that align with those of Westfield State.

President Thompson found it “fascinating” that the two leaders of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald in the Republic, and Michelle O’Neill in Belfast are both women.

“So many young people going to college today are women,” Thomson says, adding that McDonald and O’Neill “are wonderful role models for our students to be exposed to”.

“So it’s (honoring McDonald) a combination of the place that we live, where there’s a huge Irish population, and there is a strong interest in our elected officials in that part of the world. And, figuring out a way that I can develop a positive relationship is important to begin to think about how we can encourage our graduates to think about acting locally, but thinking globally as they pursue their chosen professions when they graduate.”

The Westfield President revealed that there were some eyebrows raised when she choose Teachta McDonald as graduation ceremony speaker. 

“I did get some pushback,” Thompson, the first African American President of Westfield State University continued, “some people asked, as a woman of color; why did I choose Ireland?”

And it was there that Thompson’s trip to Ireland came into play as the President invoked her trip where she gained a deeper appreciation for the work of Frederick Douglass and his relationship to Ireland.

Thompson explained, “I’ve been able to explain it pretty well, talking about the important legacy of Frederick Douglass, the importance of trying to build bridges between people who’ve been oppressed in the world, or people from the African diaspora, and the fact that so many people who’ve done 23 and me, and all of these tests to figure out their ancestry, that a large proportion of the people I know, that are African American have some Irish genetic links.”

Talking to people from all around the country who have found these links inspired President Thompson to test her own DNA and sure enough she says, “I discovered that I have some Irish in me.”

Although Thompson was there to meet with elected officials, she came away impressed by “the connection of Frederick Douglass to Ireland, and the influence that he had on the country, and the way that they celebrate his legacy, and the whole abolitionist movement, which I found fascinating.”

“And they’re interested,” President Thompson told the Irish Echo, “in developing relationships with the African American diaspora, or the African diaspora, and Ireland, to begin to develop relationships between those two populations.”

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