WWS Blog

From Ferguson to Princeton - A Call to Activism

Apr 10, 2015
Published by:
Vanesa Sanchez, MPA2, Co-Chair of SAOC's Diversity & Inclusion Committee
Photo by John Houston

The student-led organization, Students & Alumni of Color (SAOC), held its 19th annual Symposium on March 28-29, 2015. SAOC's mission is to bring together Woodrow Wilson School students, alumni, and faculty to promote diversity, establish mentoring relationships, discuss issues relevant to the social, political and professional development of students of color, and support the social and political development of communities of color.

Photo - Damon Davis speaking on the SAOC Symposium panel "Black Lives Matter: From a Moment to a Movement." Damon is an activist-artist from St. Louis, Missouri. He is currently making a documentary about Ferguson, MO, called Whose Streets.

“Ferguson was a long time coming—it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” So began Damon Davis’ opening speech for the activism and public policy panel. In just fifteen words, he summed up so many of the emotions and feelings that I—and many fellow classmates— have been experiencing. It echoed the feeling that too much injustice has taken place over the past few weeks, years, and generations. Sometimes, it just feels like too much.

His words transported me back to the day I found out that my classmate’s cousin was shot, unarmed, just a month before Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. They took me back to the night I watched the news in shock as the Ferguson prosecutor announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted. And they took me back to that cold Thursday when hundreds of students walked out of class and protested the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner. Straws had piled up on all of our backs; on that clear December day, I fought back tears unsuccessfully, listening to students chant in unison that “black lives matter.” The rhythmic cries were broken only by the sobs of the singers themselves, their heartbreak borne open wide. These memories, conjured back by Damon, reminded me that we each carry our own burdens.

But Damon continued on, reminding us that when our backs break under the same load, we find comfort and strength in our common struggle. Damon argued that it was the community organization and activism elements, triggered by Michael Brown’s death, which made Ferguson so different from other events. Ferguson was different because people came together and went out to the streets, he said, and they didn’t just go back home: “The people came outside and they stayed outside. They are still there…” He exclaimed: “Courage is contagious!”

Each of the panelists in turn urged the audience to “do something.” They pleaded that we not wait for the civil rights movement of the ‘60s because it’s here, now. Ferguson is our Selma, they said. Silence is complicity. They gave heartening examples of how community organizing and activism has led to real political and policy change. They impressed upon me that the need for activism is truly timeless, and it is supremely important.

Being in public policy school and living in an academic community, it often feels tempting to seek out a technocratic or analytical solution to society’s problems instead. To develop a sophisticated strategy, or data, or something – anything – that heavily relies on the left brain. Increase representation, for example, and let the rest follow.  But the panelists reminded us that what influences behavior is a moral commitment to change, and a moral pressure to reform systems of oppression. Dismantling institutional and incentive structures that buttress systems of oppression is the only meaningful change.

The panelists also spoke of a power of the people that is often forgotten. Emotions and real human experiences are the currency in which artists trade, explained Damon. This is the language with which we speak. I am used to a generation of political apathy and of disengagement; of banalised human interactions (via the internet) and of commoditized cultural stereotypes. Those who would discourage activism focus on the inconvenience of it, the power of money, and the triviality of individual moral commitments. Yet it strikes me that activism is precisely the antidote to these same obstacles. Activism says that being complicit in injustice is more inconvenient than it is to protest. Activism says that the human experience – art, if you will – is more powerful than money. And it says that I, as an individual, will not be overlooked. By definition, activism says I am not trivial because I refuse to be trivial. And just as we expose our emotions and our vulnerabilities by protesting, organizing, and advocating, we build strength and toughness in our hearts as we live our lives in the direction that our moral compass points us.

Damon said that we would need toughness to be activists. That with activism, you lose friends. They might be fake friends, he said, but be ready to be tested in ways you do not expect. Even our faith in our leaders may be tested, warned the panelists. They cautioned not to overlook the human face of change, stressing that protesting is not romantic, it’s practical. In our desire for a solution, we may forget that leaders are flawed, or conveniently overlook that one leader may not suffice to carry an entire movement. It is not helpful to put leaders on a pedestal. We must see the humanity in each other, and we must develop and encourage a multitude of leaders whenever we can.  

As I reflect back on the past year with SAOC, I think about what it’s been like trying to advocate change at Woodrow Wilson and at Princeton. Sometimes trying to go up against “the establishment” or “society” makes me feel like I must be a little crazy. It can be simultaneously exciting and inspiring while also being tiring and emotionally draining. Yet days like the SAOC Symposium make me glad that I’m a little crazy. Maybe it’s because there’s a room full of like-minded people trying to make a difference. But I also found comfort because of the familiarity of the picture painted by the panelists. They spoke of a world in which activism can strengthen us just as the injustice around us drains us. They spoke of a reality where our struggles and emotions unite us, just as our individual moral compass guides us through life. They spoke of a truth where human experience is art, and where art is the only thing left behind once we are gone. And if we remember these truths with which we might paint our canvas, we will always keep hope. And we will always keep fighting.



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