KGOU

Domestic And International Activists Reflect On Their Causes, Inspiration

Jul 15, 2016

From South Africa, to Palestine, to Haiti, to a small college town in the middle of the United States, you’ll find injustice everywhere.

Clemson University women’s leadership lecturer Saadiqa Lundy has created empowerment and development programs in Africa and the Caribbean, But when Lundy met her husband Chenjerai Kumanyika, she became more of an activist and a protester. She says teaching a subject like that is completely different than actually being there.

“I had a lot of fear, initially, that I had to overcome,” Lundy told KGOU’s World Views. “So I’ve grown a lot throughout the process. I’m still growing and trying to figure out my role in this space.”

Kumanyika grew up around activism. His father was a civil rights activist who led the Bronx chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and his mother works in public health with a focus on racial disparities. He says the type of poverty and debt that contribute to racial tension in the U.S. are actually issues everywhere.

“There’s also a different kind of populism that’s at work globally, and that is the xenophobia aspect, where you have people who are maybe not as educated on some of these dynamics, or for different reasons vulnerable to thinking that the cause of their problem is other people who often tend to be brown people, or people who are Muslim,” Kumyanika said. “Even in  a place that you tend to often idolize or fantasize about – when we look at Scandinavia as a socialist utopia – but the reality is even there, this problem of xenophobia is still there for folks who feel like they’re not getting their fair shake.”

Ayanna Poole was a student at the University of Missouri in 2014 when police in Ferguson shot and killed Michael Brown, spawning riots and protests in the St. Louis suburb. That energy spread to Columbia, where students started the activist group “MU for Mike Brown.”

“How do you use that energy in order to actually fight an institution? Poole asked. “At the end of the day we’re all fighting different institutions within the same system, which I reiterate a lot.”

That work evolved into the group Concerned Student 1950, a nod to the year Mizzou integrated its undergraduate courses. A boycott by the football team eventually led to the president’s ousting. But Poole says while derogatory statements and racial tension between students is unfortunate, she’s more concerned with the institutional culture that allows these things to happen. She uses poetry to convey that message.

“It’s actually one of my only ways of engaging that conversation, and having these people actually understand where I’m coming from and seeing my pain as a black woman,” Poole said. “I’ve had many people walk up to me afterwards and say, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know it was that bad.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, it was that bad before the poem.’ So art has been my way of starting these conversations with other people, and also introducing new concepts to people that they’re unfamiliar with.”

Chenjerai Kumanyika on the idea of “incidents” and apology

Incidents are useful in some ways for organizers to illustrate, to take that incident and be able to tell a story about a larger pattern. But you know, they're also sometimes used in different ways by administrations to try to characterize what really is a deep structural problem embedded in policy, embedded in years of culture as an isolated incident. And then to propose as a strategy as a solution to that - scapegoating a few individuals, apologies. I mean, an apology is an interesting thing. And I think this applies to a context beyond, obviously, campus activism. But these apologies with racial incidents, right? I mean sometimes I don't necessarily want a quick...like a crucial part of the apology is always, 'I wasn't acting out of my own...it was just a bad moment.' And I'm like, no, these things aren't bad moments. It's like, in a way, before the apology, I really would like to see a prolonged discussion as to where this came from, and a prolonged introspection and sort-of "outrospection" collective reflection on what this is.

Saadiqa Lundy her experience in the Peace Corps as a youth leadership activist

One of the things that I noticed immediately was that the population that we served was very diverse, but it was mainly youth from middle- to upper-class families. So I talked to the director and tried to see if there was a way that we can extend our participant base to reach to youth in the rural communities. Especially having lived the host family in the village somewhere, and I recognize all of the problems my host sister was experiencing in a community, and just a lack of resources and opportunities to do different things. There were no after-school programs and things like that. So I wanted to see more people like my host sister take part in this leadership work that we were providing the more, I guess wealthier student population.

Ayanna Poole on her first experience with activism

I actually entered the NAACP unit in my hometown. My great-grandfather was the president. And at the age of, I believe actually I was five when he was like, "I want you to do a program. Start working on it." And I was like, "What is a program?" And so actually what I did was I was basically an educator for the little girls and little boys around me because I had that background knowledge living with him. He was an activist, and I read books that I had no idea what the words were. He consistently educated me on the state of blacks across America. Because in my hometown you don't really see the issues. So I was educated at a young age, and I started a program where it's basically peer education for youth. So the children that are deeply involved actually do that program. I have a little girl who's eight years old who educates children around her. She basically has a class every Thursday, which is the cutest thing ever. So that was actually my first step into organization, being a peer educator at the age of six. Crazy to think about.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Well I'm joined in the studio by three really impressive activists. A husband and wife and then a young activist here. So let me talk with you Chenjerai and Saadiqa. You guys are a married couple. You have spent your life really devoted to bringing awareness to a variety of issues, to empowerment, and have been lifelong activists. Can you talk a little bit about your path?

CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: Well, I would say I got a got a lot from my parents in terms of a commitment to service, which is kind of how I think they understood it. My father was a civil rights organizer who actually led the Bronx chapter of CORE - the Congress of Racial Equality. And my mother does really important work in terms of health and public health that focuses on some of the cultural aspects of those problems and racial disparities. So I got to see at a young age those different ways of intervening. And it was sort of an unspoken agreement in my family that you can do whatever you want as long as you're helping people. So I got introduced that way.

SAADIQA LUNDY: And for me, my path was a little different. I've always been involved in the community in many different ways. As a Peace Corps volunteer I've traveled to many different countries in Africa and have been to Palestine and stayed in a refugee camp and been to Haiti and seen a lot of injustice. In the past I've done a lot of work to create programs. I developed the Women's Empowerment Program in South Africa. I did leadership development work in Haiti. But doing the protesting work that we've been doing recently, that's been a little bit different. Since I've been with Chenjerai I've moved more into that space. I mean, just learning about the issues we just felt called to go out to Ferguson, for example, after just seeing all that the young people were enduring. The tear gas and all that. So we felt like we needed to go and be in solidarity with them. For me, I realized after we did our first protest, it takes a lot more to...it's a different thing teaching about the subject matter than being there. Because I had a lot of fear, initially, that I had to overcome. So I've grown a lot throughout the process. I'm still growing and trying to figure out my role in this space. So all of this is actually quite new for me too. I'm learning as I'm going.

CRUISE: Well, it's really interesting, you both have focused on youth, and obviously that's how we get cultural changes, is we develop programs for youth, change the process, empowerment. And I love that you mentioned your work in South Africa, Haiti, and Palestine. Can you maybe talk about what you were doing with the women there?

LUNDY: So as a Peace Corps volunteer I worked at a youth leadership center in Rustenburg a northwest province of South Africa. And one of the things that I noticed immediately was that the population that we served was very diverse, but it was mainly youth from middle- to upper-class families. So I talked to the director and tried to see if there was a way that we can extend our participant base to reach to youth in the rural communities. Especially having lived the host family in the village somewhere, and I recognize all of the problems my host sister was experiencing in a community, and just a lack of resources and opportunities to do different things. There were no after-school programs and things like that. So I wanted to see more people like my host sister take part in this leadership work that we were providing the more, I guess wealthier student population.

CRUISE: And I'm curious, you have this international experience, and the experience of women abroad and youth abroad. How do you relate that to youths here? The situation domestically? Are there similarities?

KUMYANIKA: Yeah, one things I would say is if you look at the situation that just happened with the Panama Papers, this is really confirming something that, in its particular kind of way with a particular kind of information about the practices of this bank and people avoiding paying taxes. I think, even from a storytelling perspective we need to really be clear what we mean when we talk about people avoiding taxes. We're talking about tremendous - trillions of dollars of, public resources - that could've gone to solving some of our most pressing problems. And in the debate, when we talk about not having money, it really, in some ways, should destabilize the whole conversation about debt and not having money and austerity and all these other things, right? So I think that that's a global problem, and people are responding to it in a variety of different ways. I think that so many of the problems that we see here, when you see people uprising, if you look at problems of what's happening in...I hate to even play into the idea of urban crime as though crime is only in urban areas, but if you talk about poverty like the kind of things that you saw in Freddie Gray's neighborhood in Baltimore or in Ferguson, there's a way in which you can look at that as deeply connected to the things we're seeing in the Panama Papers, but also if you look at the situation people are dealing with in Greece. They've been the victim of policies of austerity. So I think people are rising up all around the world in response to that. But one other thing I want to say that's dangerous is there's also a different kind of populism that's at work globally, and that is the xenophobia aspect, where you have people who are maybe not as educated on some of these dynamics, or for different reasons vulnerable to thinking that the cause of their problem is other people who often tend to be brown people, or people who are Muslim or something like that. So you see that. I mean, even in a place that you tend to often idolize or fantasize about when we look at Scandinavia as a socialist utopia. But the reality is even there, this problem of xenophobia is still there for folks who feel like they're not getting their fair shake. So all those kinds of populism I think are present. In a lot of ways, our election is like a sort-of petri dish where you can see all those things going on, but they definitely connect to global trends.

CRUISE: Absolutely, and speaking of protest and getting on the ground this last fall, we of course all heard about the situation in Missouri at the university there. And so we are joined by Ayanna here who is one of the leaders of, motivators of, mobilizers there. If you could maybe tell us a little bit about your story and your call to action, and exactly what you did.

AYANNA POOLE: Our call to action, or my personal call to action, was long before university. I've been around of awhile. I've been a member of NAACP since the age of two. Started organizing at the age of six. And I've been organizing since.

CRUISE: At the age of six. That's incredibly impressive. What were you doing?

KUMYANIKA: Organizing Legos?

POOLE: (Laughs) So I actually entered the NAACP unit in my hometown. My great-grandfather was the president. And at the age of, I believe actually I was five when he was like, "I want you to do a program. Start working on it." And I was like, "What is a program?" And so actually what I did was I was basically an educator for the little girls and little boys around me because I had that background knowledge living with him. He was an activist, and I read books that I had no idea what the words were. He consistently educated me on the state of blacks across America. Because in my hometown you don't really see the issues. So I was educated at a young age, and I started a program where it's basically peer education for youth. So the children that are deeply involved actually do that program. I have a little girl who's eight years old who educates children around her. She basically has a class every Thursday, which is the cutest thing ever. So that was actually my first step into organization, being a peer educator at the age of six. Crazy to think about. And then you go through the stage where you're in your teenage years where you don't really know what you want to do. So I kind of backed away from organizing. I was still active in the community, still doing a lot of work with Boys & Girls clubs, the local ones. But then it wasn't until I got to college that I moved back into activism, and I actually started doing activism through art, the art of poetry. So discussing all of these issues across the nation through poetics. And then you have Ferguson happening, and Ferguson is an hour-and-a-half away from the University of Missouri's campus. And then you kind of have this post-Ferguson effect that begins happening. And that was my step back into the realm of actually organizing. So you have four queer, black women at the University of Missouri's campus begin MU for Mike Brown. So basically it was a transformation of that energy from Ferguson to the University of Missouri's campus. And how do you use that energy in order to actually fight an institution? At the end of the day we're all fighting different institutions within the same system, which I will reiterate a lot. So how do we do that in an educational institution? And then that's when the fight began at the University of Missouri and we've been active in MU for Mike Brown. All of the women actually graduated and that's where Concerned Student 1950 began, even though all of us were active organizers for MU for Mike Brown.

CRUISE: And just to remind folks that may not remember the details, we're talking about the situation at the University of Missouri where racial comments were made, threatening comments were made, and the administration appeared to not act appropriately, and this led to a number of protests and eventually the ouster of the president following the boycott by the football team, I believe it was. So that entire process you're involved in, you're getting people out, you're noticing the injustice of the institution there as it related to Ferguson, which really called you back to action.

POOLE: I think the most important part of the callback to action, or the call to action for - especially for a lot of campus - is actually not what happens from student to student. It's not about being called derogatory statements. It's about what policies are in place that allows these things to happen. And if you look at universities, the head controls the body. So if you have a president who is incompetent, he allows his administration to be incompetent. And then you have faculty and staff who reproduce these systems of oppression. And then the students are allowed to do it, and they get smacks on the wrist. So what is it that allows people to do that? Why do students have the goal to do that? And they feel protected if they do call students these names, or if they draw a swastika on the restroom wall as you see happen at the University of Missouri. What's in place to make them feel comfortable and feel like that's okay? It's usually not actually what's happening from student to student, it's what else is there. What else is going on the university's campus? And those are campuses across the nation. They reproduce these systems of oppression.

KUMYANIKA: If I could just say one thing...

CRUISE: Of course.

KUMYANIKA: ...one thing that I've noticed, and Ayanna brings up a really good point, is that the focus on incidents. Incidents are useful in some ways for organizers to illustrate, to take that incident and be able to tell a story about a larger pattern. But you know, they're also sometimes used in different ways by administrations to try to characterize what really is a deep structural problem embedded in policy, embedded in years of culture as an isolated incident. And then to propose as a strategy as a solution to that - scapegoating a few individuals, apologies. I mean, an apology is an interesting thing. And I think this applies to a context beyond, obviously, campus activism. But these apologies with racial incidents, right? I mean sometimes I don't necessarily want a quick...like a crucial part of the apology is always, 'I wasn't acting out of my own...it was just a bad moment.' And I'm like, no, these things aren't bad moments. It's like, in a way, before the apology, I really would like to see a prolonged discussion as to where this came from, and a prolonged introspection and sort-of "outrospection" collective reflection on what this is. So the move to a rush for an apology I think is interesting. And then that is connected to surface kind of solution.

CRUISE: And we aren't hearing that much about what's going on there now. Can you maybe give us an update of what's happened since?

POOLE: Since then you have the state of Missouri defunding the University of Missouri systems. Actually in the last month they agreed to fund the other universities and not fund the University of Missouri. So now we have a lot of issues with budget that are happening. Where to place money. Allocation of funds. Where are we getting the funds? And then you have a lot of boosters who are also taking funds away from the university. You have boosters who are taking funds because they're not protecting black students. And then you have boosters taking funds because, 'Why did you let the black students protest?' So they have people coming from every way. And then you have a 30 percent decrease in admissions. You have two dormitories that will not open in the fall. You have a lot of students transferring out of the university. You have them putting in place programs or putting in place positions, but it's actually like pacifying the students to say, 'Hey, look what we're doing.' And they're actually not doing anything. They have this thing called The Working Group for students to come to. And the way that it was explained originally was The Working Group would be so we could get a collective of ideas. People from all backgrounds, all cultures from a lot of different organizations across campus, where we could express ideas together. But now, actually, what you see in the working group is them telling us, 'Well, this is what's in place. And this is what you can and cannot do.' And I'm pretty sure that the students aren't the people that need a working group. I'm pretty sure it's administrators that need the working group. So you have a lot of that. And you have a lot of blaming us for everything. Actually every issue that's happened at the University of Missouri is being blamed on Concerned Student 1950. But the issues are still there. So we're still working.

KUMYANIKA: And faculty.

POOLE: And faculty. Our faculty is phenomenal, especially our black faculty. But we have some faculty that need a working group, also. (Laughs).

KUMYANIKA: And I was thinking about Melissa Click.

POOLE: Like Melissa, who is actually no longer faculty? Melissa was actually fired this year. Actually, the University of Missouri is actually allowing legislators to have like a big hand in everything that's happening where they don't have a hand. Our governing body, the Board of Curators, who basically oversee most of the things that happen within the university system, they are actually all legislators. So they go back and they listen to their friends, and they come back and they say, 'Well, this is what we're going to do for the university.' But none of these people have an educational background.

CRUISE: So it's those larger structural issues that you're talking about, and more and more attempts at quick fixes that aren't quick fixes. And it sounds like your work continues. One thing that you mentioned that I also wanted to ask Chenjerai about is the use of art in activism. You were actually a member of a hip-hop band back in the day. And I know all of you have used art to spread messages, and I just wonder if you could talk a little bit about the power of art and hip-hop perhaps in particular to really talk to certain experiences. One thing that I think is particularly interesting, Chenjerai, is your popularity was actually first in Europe. It grew in a European context and a global context, and then gained momentum here. So something that you're espousing through your art is resonating in a very broad scale.

KUMYANIKA: Yeah, and I mean I think it's always...that is a little bit of a dialogue and conversation. Many of the groups that my hip-hop group, The Spooks, were influenced by were, we were influenced by a wide range. I'm very into West African, Afro-Cuban music, so those influences were in our music. And then I was also...at the time we were kind of a weird hip-hop group. One of my favorite groups was a group called Portishead, who was from the UK. We had a singer who was able to kind of channel some of that trip-hoppy vibe. But I think art is absolutely necessary, and the power of aesthetic. In fact, recently we had iconic philosopher and feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins came to our campus, and she was talking about the importance of the black aesthetic tradition as one of the many parts of black activism and black organizing. So there's a way in which art - not to go all scholarly on you, but there's a sort-of symbolic efficiency that art has where you can just articulate things in art. In language, we have a lot of words in the English language, but words can't capture everything. And sometimes using words according to the traditional rules of prose can't capture everything. You've got to put them together in ways that don't seem like they make sense, but then they wind up making much deeper sense. I just want to give a concrete example, and I know Ayanna started as a poet. She mentioned in some ways. But on Clemson's campus a graduate student named A.D. Carson wrote a poem and made a video called "See the Stripes." And he was basically using that poem, he was thinking about the Tiger as being a metaphor. Everybody talks about the Tiger, but then also Clemson has these other slogans about being solid orange. And A.D. and I joked that what animal is solid orange? Maybe like a corn snake or something (Laughs). Not a tiger. Tigers have stripes. And he used that poem to unveil a really deep engagement with Clemson's history. Clemson is situated on a plantation of John C. Calhoun, who was one of the foremost leaders of the Confederacy and the creator and signer of the Fugitive Slave Act and things like this. And then also Clemson's icons are people like Strom Thurmond and Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman. So there's like this crazy history, and in some ways you can look and see a line of continuity. Clemson integrated after being sued, although Clemson says they integrated with dignity. But "integrated with dignity" is really like, Harvey Gantt to sue Clemson to get in. And so there are certain lines of continuity, and his poem was really the thing that set that off, to see the stripes. And then from there they made t-shirts and it really became a sort-of counter way. And I think they created more room for a lot of people at Clemson who didn't see themselves in that "solid orange" metaphor, "solid orange" family. And they were able to come in through the "see the stripes" thing.
CRUISE: And Ayanna, you said you were a poet and that's how you've been able to articulate some of these issues as well.
POOLE: So my quote for most of my poetry is "I wrote for you so you live forever, even if I don't." And I think that's the biggest thing when it comes to art forms. Because many art forms last forever. Essentially you create a legacy for someone and also for yourself. But I'm more intrigued by what the actual work says and what the actual work does for other people. People take from art what they want to. You can have a million messages within it, but what someone needs in that moment is what they're going to take. So I find myself in a lot of spaces that I normally wouldn't feel comfortable in. But releasing this poetry, which I don't do often anymore, but releasing this poetry to people that don't look like me because it's actually one of my only ways of engaging that conversation. And having these people actually understand where I'm coming from and seeing my pain as a black woman. Because when I say it in a classroom it's just like, 'OK, I've heard it. I've seen it in books. I know you went through slavery. I know all of this.' But once they actually hear me expressing these things and showing the pain of the black community and showing the pain of marginalized communities, I've had many people walk up to me afterwards and say, 'Oh my God, I didn't know it was that bad.' And it's like, 'Yeah, it was that bad before the poem.' So art has been my way of starting these conversations with other people, and also introducing new concepts to people that they're unfamiliar with or introducing incidents. Like I talk about Aiyana Jones a lot. Aiyana Jones was a nine-year-old child who was killed by police brutality. And I talk about her a lot. She's like my spirit child. And I introduce how this is a problem through incidents such as that, or talking about what happened in Charleston.
KUMYANIKA: Yeah.
POOLE: And actually digging into like, you have these people who die, but nobody knows who they are. Nobody knows their stories, so what I try to do through my poetry when it comes to activism is actually show that story of that individual.
CRUISE: To humanize.
POOLE: To humanize them.
CRUISE: Those are all very, very good messages I think for activists here domestically and maybe even more so when you're dealing internationally, getting involved in non-profits and NGOs. Well, I really hate to break this up, but we are unfortunately coming to the end of our time. But this has just been a fantastic discussion and I wish we could stay longer, but I really want to thank you, all three of you for joining us today and sharing your stories, experiences, and insights. Thank you very much.
ALL: Thank you.

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