Students and Faculty Speak Out at Social Justice Teach-In with Angela Davis

Hundreds of students, faculty, and staff packed the ARC Pavilion on Thursday, February 23rd, to discuss “Social Justice in the Public University of California” with renowned scholar and activist Angela Davis. Organized by the Hart Hall Social Justice Initiative,* the teach-in was intended to provoke meaningful dialogue about the chaotic events surrounding November 18, 2011, when student protesters were pepper-sprayed by riot police on the UC Davis quad. The event continues to reverberate through our campus and to call into question the purpose of the public university.

In her opening remarks, Professor Halifu Osumare of the Program in African-American and African Studies pronounced that the university should be an environment that promotes ideals of justice and open dialogue. With this event, said Osumare, the Hart Hall Social Justice Initiative and its many supporters were “stepping up to the plate.” The protests, events, and discussion following November 18 call our attention to the fact that “democracy is not a spectator sport,” said Osumare as she invited the overflowing crowd to contribute to the process.

Angela Davis approached the podium to a standing ovation. She opened her speech by arguing that the terms “social justice” and “public university” should be so intertwined that we cannot separate them. Davis challenged the audience to consider the events of November 18 in the wider context of the international black freedom movement and past confrontations between protesters and police.

Davis emphasized that academics have a responsibility to recognize the ways in which we are all implicated in structures of oppression both in the university and beyond. Most emphatically, she connected the defunding of public education with the expansion of prisons and the privatization and corporatization of the prison system.

Davis exhorted the audience to create a non-hierarchical university that encourages community across many different lines, to break down the “inveterate individualism” of the scholarly process and to see ourselves as members of a community. She dreams of a university that teaches scholars to imagine their works as part of a public good, not as items to be bought and sold on a capitalist market. Davis closed by emphasizing that education and liberation are deeply intertwined, then invited audience members to challenge her and engage with her ideas.

The five student respondents answered her call with a critical enthusiasm that was the highlight of the event. Abigail Boggs, a Ph.D. candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Group, questioned how we can best introduce a more radical agenda for social justice into the administrative structures of the university. Her full response is available at the UC faculty supporting students blog.  Miguel Espinoza, Women and Gender Studies major, declared that his very presence on this campus as a queer chicana is a radical act and challenged fictions of equality of access to higher education. Yadira De La Cruz, Chicana/o Studies major, discussed how the public education system can serve as a tool for systematic socio-economic and gender stratification.

Two students reflected on the challenge of unacknowledged privilege within Occupy movements. Mitchell Faust, double major in English and African American and African studies, reflected on the power of language to reproduce privilege within the Occupy Wall Street movement. Based on her own experiences at Occupy Davis, Chelsea Jones, an American Studies major, questioned how we can work through these issues to find common ground within social movements. For more details on student responses, check out the UC Humanities Forum.

The faculty roundtable portion of the Teach-In, moderated by Halifu Osumare (African and African American Studies), featured faculty members from the Hart Hall departments and was intended to bring faculty expertise and autobiographical experience to bear on the questions of social justice, activism, and access to the public university.

Faculty shared their own experiences with activism both within their departments and beyond. Bruce Haynes (Sociology) spoke of his desire as a black man and as a sociologist to “bring the street into the University” and “bring the University into the street.” Inés Hernandez-Ávila (Native American Studies) and Angie Chabram (Chicana/o Studies) discussed the relationship between activism and their experiences as students and as faculty members, highlighting issues of social justice in admission and retention. Sunaina Maira (Asian American Studies), argued for vigilance against a shallow embrace of multiculturalism that amounts to mere recognition of difference without a call for social justice.

The stimulating event ended with a call for all faculty and administrators to create a place for community and a complex understanding of difference in their curricula and programming. They hope for a dialogue among the many community and social justice initiatives across the UC Davis campus.

*The Hart Hall Social Justice Initiative consists of faculty members from African American and African Studies, American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicana/o Studies, Cultural Studies, Native American Studies, and Women and Gender Studies.

The complete recording of Angela Davis’s talk and the student responses can be found here. The recording of the faculty roundtable can be found here.