“I think we need to hate injustice and love people,” said activist Heather Booth in an intergenerational conversation about the past, present and future of community-level social activism Thursday night.
The event was part of a national series of conversations hosted by Booth and Tufts University senior Wylie Chang for Chang’s thesis project entitled “Only If We Organize: Conversations On Social Change.”
Booth and Chang are currently co-writing a book that will draw from the event and similar discussions at other institutions such as Harvard and Tufts, as well as in local forums in Washington D.C. and New York City. Each conversation features a different group of panelists — in Thursday’s conversation, panelists included Booth, Classical High School senior Ahmed Sesay, Kavelle Christie of Planned Parenthood, Tiara Mack ’16 of the Women’s Health & Education Fund and Victoria Strang of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition.
After meeting Booth three years ago, Chang was inspired by her social activism in the conception of his thesis project. Booth participated in the civil rights movement during her time at the University of Chicago, and she also fought for women’s rights before the Roe v. Wade decision.
The 2016 election further compelled Chang to shed light on conversations surrounding activism, Chang said in an interview with The Herald. “We had the idea of putting these stories in conversation with one another and bringing new lessons to the surface,” he said.
The discussion was moderated by Adjunct Lecturer in International and Public Affairs Marti Rosenberg ’97, who prompted panelists to consider factors that may complicate their roles as community activists, such as the power of storytelling and making space for underrepresented voices in social justice.
Rosenberg began the discussion by asking panelists what prompted their activism. Sesay, who is part of the Providence Student Union, said that as an immigrant and a queer person of color, he was inspired by his own history to uplift stories of others. “My story is where my organizing drive comes from,” Sesay said.
Mack described coming to the University as a “culture shock” due to the overwhelming amount of sexual education she received here compared to her conservative southern upbringing. In her sophomore year, Mack began teaching sex-ed to local high school students. “Nobody in my community was talking about (sexual education),” Mack said. “I didn’t realize that that was the voice I needed to understand the world of social justice. It’s about giving people the agency to talk about things that they need to grapple with in their everyday lives.”
Sharing the stories of those who do not have the power to do so themselves is vital to activism when done correctly, the panelists agreed. “A key part of organizing is giving people confidence in themselves to take that first step of action,” Booth said. “It’s not just the telling of the story, it’s the power you bring to it.”
Christie emphasized that a balance between storytelling and lobbying is key to her work with Planned Parenthood. She stressed that alongside storytelling, there is even more power in giving people the platform to share their own.
Activists also touched upon the issue of intersectionality and representation in their work, highlighting the importance of “minding the empty chair,” or acknowledging notable absences in conversations about community organization. Activists in positions of privilege must assure that they are always serving the needs of those they intend to serve, Booth said.
In spite of the faults of the current presidential administration, Booth said in an interview with The Herald, “sometimes an opponent of a better society can be one of the major sparks to creating a movement for justice. In some ways, Donald Trump has been one of the best sparks and organizers for that change.”
Nicole Gehret ’21 was particularly interested in learning more about ways to make social change more accessible, especially in Providence. “I’m really interested in how we reach out in a way that is equalized and individual,” Gehret said.
In an interview with The Herald, Booth offered advice to young activists, urging them to “follow your passion, find an area that you care about, look for organizations that are working on it that you feel are effective and have a theory of how they are going to win. And if you don’t find an organization, you can go out and create one. Look for the connections between the issues, because we are stronger together,” Booth said.
Through these discussions, Chang hopes “to show that organizing works, and organizing is important, and organizers really like each other, and it’s a joy to be in this work.”