Saifee: Angela Davis’s Transformative Perspective at the U

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By Zahra Saifee, Opinion Editor

 

This year, Dr. Angela Davis was the keynote speaker at the Conference on Diverse Excellence — an annual event planned and hosted by ASUU’s Diversity Board to initiate conversations around marginalized communities’ upliftment. CODE’s theme was “Transformative Voices.” For an hour and a half, Davis graced our computer screens, speaking about race, class, gender, activism and progress. She eloquently weaved in her life story with lessons of justice. Davis made a strong impact on our campus, and her talk was a springboard for positive change.

Davis has been a lifelong activist — but she emphasized that the term “activist” was not common when she first engaged in protesting the status quo. “I had no moment of epiphany. I grew up under conditions of segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Resistance was a necessity,” she said.

I found her explanation of activism inspiring. She noted that activism can take many different forms and is united through people’s experiences, identity and culture, adding that everyone is an expert on their own experience, and a diverse collection of experiences will bring change. Later on, when asked about unity, Davis brought up an interesting point. “I think that sometimes we have an abstract concept of unity,” she said. “We assume that unity can be created without doing really difficult work together. Instead, we need to center unity around issues that we deeply care about. Unity should come from similar visions of the future rather than only the virtue of one’s identity.” Originally, I thought that identity was an extremely important part of activism and progress, but now I realize it is one part of a larger puzzle. Change comes from struggle, hard work and a unified vision of the future.

Davis also acknowledged that change takes time and sometimes happens without recognition. She spoke to the frustrations of slow progress and provided students with some insight based on her personal experiences. “I have been calling for the abolition of the prison industrial complex and the carceral system for a while. I always imagined that abolition would come long after those of us who were fighting were gone. It was something we were doing for posterity,” she said. “However, I was excited and certainly shocked when abolition recently began to enter the mainstream discourse.” Her personal story shows that small things add up over time and that it is imperative to keep striving for justice, equity and inclusion even when there’s no end in sight. Davis also tied our society’s desire for instant progress to capitalism. We are so used to getting things immediately — from ordering a package to eating a meal. We apply that same mindset to social progress, expecting to see instant results. But Davis said, “Even when it appears that the work you do amounts to nothing, persist. If you persist, then the fruits of your labor will become visible, eventually.”

I was impressed by how often Davis spoke about the teachings and actions of other individuals. Davis herself is an amazing example of continual justice advocacy — it is easy to get caught up in her spotlight. However, she constantly reminded the audience of building upon the collective efforts of the past, and the importance of learning from your peers. She spoke about Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on the intersectionality of social issues. She highlighted the legacy and initiative of Black women like Adda Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell. And her message about importance of learning from our peers was brought to life in the comments and thoughtful questions presented by the audience. It was encouraging to see so many people thinking critically about race justice, intersectionality and progress at the U. We need to hold more spaces for these conversations to happen and bring us together.

Now it is essential to normalize conversations about dismantling systems of oppression on campus. We need to teach about intersectionality not only in classes that are designed to zero in on these issues, but classes that often overlook their importance. We need to continue working toward holding our administration accountable to create the campus on which we want to study, work and live. We want a campus that is safe, inclusive and serves its students. Davis said, “Change happens in informal conversations. Change happens when communities come together through grassroots organizing.” Our campus is a community of people with very different experiences, but we can find unity in our vision of the future.

These are just snippets of Davis’s wise words, filtered through my personal perspective. Luckily, this year’s CODE will be available to watch on the University of Utah’s YouTube channel. I encourage you to watch it if you weren’t able to attend, reflect upon the conversation and find ways to facilitate change in your life and on the campus we share.

 

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@ZahraSaifee