BREMERTON — “Oftentimes, such terms as diversity and inclusion, equity, are designed to deflect our attention away from the pressing issues of forging justice for communities that are persistently marginalized on the grounds of race and gender and sexuality and ability and other categories of social oppression,” said Dr. Angela Davis, an American political activist, academic scholar and author, as she opened her speech Jan. 11 at Olympic College.
Davis has been involved in the civil rights movement and co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish what she labels as the prison-industrial complex. A prominent social figure in the 1970s, she is a retired professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in its History of Consciousness Department and former director of the university’s Feminist Studies department.
Davis headlined the first lecture in Olympic College’s Presidential Equity and Excellence Lecture Series. Her speech was focused on educational equity.
“We often tend to think about education and activism as distinct and separate,” Davis said. “(But) significant social transformation is always grounded in education. And the overarching purpose of knowledge is indeed to make a crucial difference in our social world. So I say this, recognizing education as we know it does not always enlighten. Education as we know it is designed to be accessible primarily to those who can afford it.
“And so to make such a claim (for educational equity) would be, in the very beginning, to demand accessible education for all. And as far as we’re concerned, what that means is free public education.”
Davis spoke for an hour to a rapt audience of hundreds at the Bremerton High School Performing Arts Center. She addressed topics ranging from historical roles women of color have played in fighting for equal rights to the negative impact the criminal justice system has on equal opportunities for minorities in the United States.
These things, Davis said, are all connected.
“Sometimes you have to struggle to understand the interrelationships and connectedness of things that are clearly connected,” she said, referring specifically to education and activism.
“I can remember how long we struggled to be able to think of racism and patriarchy together, because the assumption was that you could only think of racism as a distinct phenomenon; You couldn’t think of it in its intersectional connection with a whole host of issues.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Well, what are you? Are you black or are you a woman?’”
Just as racism and sexism are often intersectional, education and activism should also be considered “organically related,” Davis said.
“Education should spur people toward activism,” she said. “Education is indeed an indispensable form of activism. Education drives us to ask questions.”
Davis said she comes from a family of educators who “understood that without education, there would be no future.” But to talk of the future, she said, you have to understand the past.
Davis said that before slavery was abolished, skilled female slaves who were required to know how to read and write would sometimes hold night school for the other slaves, teaching them to read and write while the masters were asleep, under threat of the death penalty.
“Historically, you might argue that black people in this country value education more than anything else, precisely because they understood its connection with freedom,” Davis said.
“There can be no liberation without education,” she explained. “Education that fails to steer us in the direction of liberation is not truly education. It may be training, it may be knowledge, but it is not truly education. Education, it seems to me, is about the collective cultivation of the mind, the spirit and the body.”
Davis also addressed the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There’s a tendency for people to assume that whenever someone talks about ‘black issues’ or black lives, that one is talking about something that is very narrow,” she said. “There have been those who suggested that we not say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but rather we say, ‘All Lives Matter.’
“But the point is, all lives can matter, and black lives and Native American lives and latino lives don’t matter. ‘All men are created equal,’ right? But on the other hand, if black lives matter, that truly means that all lives matter.
“And the education we require and should desire, it’s precisely an education that allows us to make such connections. What is it? I would define education as the capacity to raise questions about the world.”
Many in the audience found Davis’ lecture to be inspirational and motivational. Some people made the trip to the lecture simply out of admiration for the famous activist.
“The opportunity to get a chance to see her live and in person … I wanted to see what she had to say,” said Chandra B. after the lecture. “She made some pretty good points. A lot of critical thinking.”
Alexis Jones said she was “inspired to learn more about the black culture and what’s going on in the world.”
“It really motivated me,” Jones said.
Tony Frederick heard about the event via Facebook, and also attended for the chance to see Angela Davis. “She said a lot of things that needed to be said, that a lot of people don’t talk about,” he said.
After the lecture, Frederick waited in line with his newly purchased book authored by Angela Davis for the chance to meet her and get her to sign the book.
Pamela Williams attended the event with Marilyn Nathan, both of whom heard about the event from a friend.
“I wanted to see an idol,” Williams said. “I wanted to hear what she had to say, get her perspective on just life and, even though it was about equity, I wanted to see what her take was.”
Williams said she works in the nonprofit sector helping marginalized families and immigrants, and is particularly interested in OC’s Equity and Excellence series and where it may go in the future.
“There’s always the fight over the term ‘equity,’” Williams said. “Whether it should be ‘racial equity’ or just ‘equity.’ Equity is a nice, easier term to say. People feel more included. But again, the people that we’re really fighting for a lot of the time are people who are racially profiled … for education, normally people of color are marginalized.”
She added, “I’m really impressed with Olympic College for being this progressive in what I consider a conservative community. I just say, ‘keep up the good work, and push the community to think differently and live together.’”
“This is going to be a hard period,” Davis said, closing her lecture by talking about incoming President Donald Trump. “When we all learned (the election results) … we couldn’t believe. We were in utter disbelief about what we were hearing from the news people. It was a very sad night.
“(But) Joe Hill said, ‘Don’t mourn, organize.’ This can be a very exciting period.
“Let us get ready for the coming time by building and rebuilding and consolidating community, by recognizing that we will have to struggle over the coming period as we have never struggled before. This is the way we will get through the next four years. Freedom, after all, is a constant struggle.”