Professor of African American studies Halifu Osumare opened a Feminist Studies Seminar sponsored by the Mellon Social Justice Initiative on Friday, Nov. 1, with a traditional African prayer invoking the ancestors as a reminder that “community includes those that came before us.” Osumare asked that everyone “think about the ancestor that you want here in order to share their positive energy.” She followed the prayer with her poem “America We Came” about returning to the United States after a year living in Africa. Osumare’s dedication reflected the aim of the seminar: to engage both participants and audience on the impact of feminist issues and social justice concerns in each individual’s personal and professional lives.
The seminar was moderated by Professor Amina Mama who introduced speakers Charlotte Bunch and Margo Okazawa-Rey and began the discussion by asking how each of them “became politicized.” Charlotte Bunch is the Founding Director and Senior Scholar at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University and was honored in 2002 by Women’s eNews as one of the “21 Leaders for the 21st Century.” Margo Okazawa-Rey is professor at the School of Human and Organizational Development at the Fielding Graduate University and consultant at the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling in Ramallah, Palestine.
Both Bunch and Okazawa-Rey discussed the formative events of their young lives that led to a life of activism. The stories were a follow-up to many of the themes addressed in the film Passionate Politics, a documentary charting the life and career of feminist activist Charlotte Bunch that was screened to the public earlier in the week.
“I was inspired by these stories of life outside the academy,” said one first-year cultural studies graduate student. “It is refreshing to hear of life outside the university for academics engaging with their local and global communities.” The seminar encouraged discussion and participation with surveys asking everyone to consider the impact of social justice and feminist issues in their own lives.
Bunch, an activist, writer and organizer in the feminist, LGBT, and human rights movements for over four decades, discussed the foundational experience of growing up in North Carolina and attending a University integrated the year she arrived. “I had the good fortune of growing up in a family that believed in the idea of fairness, but I just was not seeing this in practice in my local community,” said Bunch, whose first political act was a sit-in at a segregated local church.
Margo Okazawa-Rey echoed the power of these foundational experiences as she spoke of her disturbing realization concerning a politics of identity in which she “was not supposed to exist.” Okazawa-Rey discussed the impact of growing up the daughter of parents “that were not supposed to be together.” Her parents met when her father, an African American in the United States Army, was stationed in Japan. “I am half Japanese, but I was just considered black by the community,” said Okazawa-Rey of her first encounters after moving to a small town in Utah at the age of ten.
There was an atmosphere of excitement as Bunch and Okazawa-Rey discussed their experiences as political organizers, their responsibilities as academics and activists, and the relationship of critical theory and an identity outside the academy.
“Theory has to be grounded in real experience in order to be effective in practice,” said Okazawa-Rey. “It is important to be part of the community and to be multilingual in order to do high theory and talk to the people.”
Friday’s event was just the start of a three-year Social Justice Initiative funded through the Mellon Research Initiatives in the Humanities. The Social Justice Initiative was born in 2012 following widely and diversely expressed social justice concerns arising from the UC Davis pepper spray incident of November 2011. The vision of this interdisciplinary project, co-directed by Professor of Women and Gender studies Amina Mama, Professor of Native American studies Inés Hernández-Avila, and Professor of Chicana Chicano studies Yvette Flores, with the assistance of Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor Susy Zepeda, is to create intellectual dialogue across multiple contexts and communities with a focus on social justice work.
This was the second event following the Social Justice Mellon Research Initiative Launch, “Without the Right to Exist: Rethinking Security,” featuring Professor Andrea Smith. Information on upcoming events and activities can be found at the official Social Justice, Culture, and (In)Security website.