‘Not ivory towers’: HBCU activist-in-residence nurtures hope, activism

The Center for Race and Justice at Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black school, announced this month that Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles organizer Melina Abdullah would be its inaugural activist-in-residence. Professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University Los Angeles, Dr. Abdullah, will initially work virtually with students.

Prairie View have been involved in voting rights activism for many decades. However, Melanye Price (director of the Center for Race and Justice) stated in an email interview that there was a need to “stop the tide of growing dismay among young people regarding the state of racial politics and what their future holds once they move off our campus.” It seemed like an easy step .”

to have someone spend time with them to… discuss what it means for one to give their life in service to others.

Why This

Was Written

After months of unrest and social discord, there is a renewed interest in historically Black universities and colleges. A HBCU is offering a unique way for students to become leaders in fighting justice well beyond graduation.

Dr. Abdullah desires to “encourage students to deeply analyse the spaces that are called to .”

For example, she asks: “If they’re majoring in health care, what’s their role in making Black Liberation central to their work? How can they make Black liberation central in their teaching? Black liberation must be the struggle in every space .”

Ruth J. Simmons (president of Prairie View A&M University, Texas) made it a point to help students understand discrimination in America after George Floyd was murdered. That pledge included the creation of a Center for Race and Justice – which opened in March – and a new post for an activist-in-residence, modeled after the more familiar artist-in-residence.

Students from Prairie View have a long history of activism. For example, they have been active in the voting rights movement for a long time. Melanye Price is the Center for Race and Justice director. She notes, however, that many students seek support in these areas. In an email interview she wrote, “We wanted the university to recognize the efforts of student activists. We also want to formalize its role as an intellectual forum where activism and protest can be discussed and studied as part of our scholarly work .”

. She mentions the importance of offering students hope and providing a model to support them in their activism.

Why This

Was Written

After months of unrest and social discord, there is a renewed interest in historically Black universities and colleges. A HBCU is offering a unique way for students to become leaders in fighting justice well beyond graduation.

The center announced this month that Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles organizer Melina Abdullah would be its inaugural activist-in-residence. At California State University Los Angeles, Dr. Abdullah is a professor of Pan-African Studies. He will initially work remotely with students.

The Monitor also spoke to Dr. Abdullah via email. These exchanges were edited for clarity and length.

Why is it important to have an activist-in-residence at Prairie View right now?

Dr. Price: Our campus has been involved in a now 50-year fight against voter suppression that led to a Supreme Court decision, Symm v. US (1979), that established the rights of college students across the nation to vote where they go to school even if they live in dormitories. This is… 2018, We have yet to receive a ruling on our second suit against the county regarding voter suppression. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is currently handling this case.

We know that activism is important in the area of voting rights. However, we need to stop the growing disillusionment among students about current racial politics as well as their future after they move off campus. It was a natural thing to have someone spend time with them, to discuss their experiences as activists, and to talk about the meaning of giving one’s entire life in service to others.

How does this new role align with a younger generation demanding social justice reform?

Dr. Price: Melina Abdullah was chosen because of her leadership in Black Lives Matter, the largest social movement that our students have ever experienced. This movement has been around a decade, which means people have marched in the streets calling for an end to vigilante and police violence against Black bodies ever since elementary school. The political moment in which our students find themselves is being addressed by Dr. Abdullah, whose work speaks directly to that.

How have the experiences you’ve had so far, Dr. Abdullah, prepared you for this moment?

Dr. Abdullah: I have been organizing my whole life. My parents were from Texas and I was born and raised in Oakland. It was during the 1970s that activism and organizing reached their peak and where Black radical organizing took shape. My entire life was spent preparing for this position. Then, I am also prepared because I was one of the founding members of Black Lives Matter. This is my primary organizing space.

What knowledge do you think students need to have going into the world? What is it that you want to provide them?

Dr. Abdullah: It’s been a tradition at historically Black colleges – I am an alumnae of Howard University and another HBCU – to remind ourselves that we’re not ivory towers. We are not looking to become ivory towers. Our goal is to create spaces that empower all our citizens. Prairie View is my mission: To help Black students develop tools for liberation.

It also means debunking, reeducating people about activism, organizing, transformation, and the process of it taking place. This means rejecting mainstream education’s notions of a leader or a leader who can direct everyone, such as Martin Luther King. Instead, it is about walking arm-in-arm with people, and building a chorus of liberation fighters. This is really, really crucial. It awakens them to the importance of their role in creating positive change.

Think back to the Black Power movement and Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Bobby Seale [Black Panther Party founders], and Huey P. Newton [Black Panther Party founders] were community college students that came up with the idea for this movement. They then returned to their communities and asked, “What do you need?” They set out to do that.

When you think of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), these were college students that would analyze and discuss the world and envision what freedom looks like. Then they would work to achieve it, boldly.

Are there any issues that students on campus care about, Dr. Price, that differ from the social justice struggles of the past?

Dr. Price: Our students are particularly attuned to contemporary political movements because they see the current slate of regressive laws being passed in Texas, and they are worried. The students are seeking advice from adults about how they can counter the growing backlash against civil right. We must also provide examples historical and scholarly of social change that has been successful. They are asking us to tell them more about their history and how it can inform the work of their future, which is to build what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.”

As a journalist, I’ve talked to different people with different views of what activism looks like and what Black Lives Matter stands for. It’s up to you to identify the top issues or groups of issues which should be our focus.

Dr. Abdullah: I think that Black Lives Matter is recognizing that we have to fight for Black liberation in every space. Black Lives Matter was founded out of the struggle to end state sanctioned violence against Blacks, and in particular how it is carried out through police. When we use the term Black Lives Matter, and not state that we want to end state-sanctioned violent acts, it is also possible to refer unhoused communities which are disproportionately Black as state sanctioned violence. We can consider the abuses that schools inflict on Black students to be state-sanctioned violent. While my primary focus is on reimagining public safety and ending state-sanctioned violence such as policing in particular, it’s important to also encourage students to critically examine the places they are called to. Which role do they play?

If they are health-care majors, how do they make Black liberation central in their work as healthcare providers? How can they make Black liberation central in their teaching? So I believe there’s no one space. Because we are not all about the same issue, there is no one single issue. Black liberation must be the struggle in all spaces.

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