Civil rights activist Angela Davis keynoted the two-day series of seminars, workshops and other consciousness-building sessions.
By Ruth Steinhardt
Angela Davis has advice for progressive activists feeling discouraged by recent waves of right-wing legislative pushback—advice that may seem facile, but that is given weight by her six decades as a civil rights activist, educator and author.
“My advice would be simple: Don’t give up,” said Dr. Davis, who is Distinguished Professor Emerita in the history of consciousness and feminist studies departments at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “There are always going to be moments when we think that we’ve been pushed back, when we think that we failed. But that’s no reason to stop.”
Dr. Davis was the keynote speaker in conversation with Associate Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement Jordan West at the George Washington University’s seventh annual Diversity Summit Thursday.
The two-day conference, themed around “The Audacity of Hope, The Power in Community,” featured a series of workshops, discussions and other sessions designed to help attendees understand the value and impact of diversity, to commit to striving for equity and to replenish and build community during a challenging time. Topics included building antiracist classrooms, making change as a student leader and addressing antisemitism on campus.
“So much has happened in our country and the world since the last Diversity Summit,” Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement Caroline Laguerre-Brown said in her introduction, emphasizing the Jan. 6 insurrection, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and the continuing struggle against racial and other oppression. “Hearts, minds and behaviors need to change for us to plant the seeds for true inclusion and justice on our campus and in the world.”
Despite the many challenges facing society today, Dr. Davis said, from her perspective these are extraordinarily hopeful times. Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, “the Johannesburg of America,” Dr. Davis experienced a society so rigidly segregated that it was illegal for Black people to interact socially with their white neighbors—although they could work for them.
“I’m actually very grateful for the fact that I had the opportunity to grow up and go to school in that kind of a segregated environment, because I have brought those lessons with me,” Dr. Davis said.
As a teenager, Dr. Davis organized interracial study groups that frequently were broken up by the police. As an adult, she made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for crimes of which she was later acquitted. Given the reach and power of the oppressive systems she has faced, Dr. Davis said the changes she’s now seeing—including mainstream public discourse about abolition and large numbers of white people protesting police violence alongside Black and brown activists—were once unimaginable. To be able to participate in those conversations and movements during her lifetime is a privilege she said she did not expect.
“Like so many of my comrades, I was involved in efforts to create the possibility for conversation in the future,” Dr. Davis said. “This is a really important time to be alive, and I’m so thankful that I’m still here to be able to witness the consciousness that [has] emerged.”
In the wide-ranging conversation, Dr. Davis also discussed the limited vocabulary available to the revolutionary movements of her youth, including widespread ignorance around issues of homophobia and transphobia.
“Oftentimes, the mistakes that we make are the things that push us forward, and I actually am happy that I persisted long enough to reach the point where I can say that that was wrong,” she said.
In today’s progressive movement, she said, there is a much more nuanced understanding of the ways oppression is structured. Dr. Davis believes that understanding has grown and will grow deeper with every generation.
“I look at the way young people have developed a facility of thinking and talking about very complex issues, and that makes me very happy,” she said. “It makes me recognize that the work we did was worthwhile."
“I’m so happy to be alive and to recognize the fact that we have come a long way,” Dr. Davis said. “But that does not mean that we don’t have a long way to go.”