To commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Thacher hosted a town hall-style panel featuring academics, activists, artists, and thought leaders. The panel was moderated by Bakari Kitwana, a journalist, activist, and political analyst, and included Yusef Salaam, an activist and exonerated member of the “Central Park Five”; Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson, a professor at UCLA who teaches and writes on race and racism and cultural history; Liz Havstad, the chief operating officer and executive director of Hip Hop Caucus, an organization that builds movements for civil rights and environmental justice, and Jasiri X, a hip hop artist and activist.
Afterward, senior Mary Yan sat down with the panelists to ask them a few questions about their work and their vision for the future.
How did you get involved in social justice and what inspired you to become an activist?
Yusef Salaam (YS): Well for me, it was the Central Park jogger case, and what happened was when I came home from prison, I realized that not only was the experience of what I’d gone through valuable to be able to share that with other people, but the fact that I survived it, my voice now could be used for a greater purpose.
Liz Havstad (LH): I came to this work just by following the steps that made the most sense to me. Being raised with a set of values and following through with that set of values and looking to become a part of the solution. So I ended up in sort of a non-traditional place. I never would’ve thought that this was the job that I’d have, but it was also just an honest exploration starting from when I was 17, 18, looking for answers to questions about why things were the way they were.
Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson (GTJ): I grew up not knowing a lot of history in my own family but the sensibilities were always there. Recently I just found out that my grandfather who worked for AMP in Chicago was the one who gave Wanda, the lady who did the free breakfast program in Chicago, all the contacts from the vendors to supply all the food, and he didn’t really tell anybody. The only reason I came to know this was because I read about it in her book. So there was a kind of sensibility around this. My parents were very politicized. So all those things I grew up witnessing like trans Africa really impacted me. I also grew up in a rather remarkable time, so I saw a lot.
Bakari Kitwana (KB): Well, my parents were pretty deep into the church when I was growing up, and black churches really teach you about justice. I heard a lot of stories about right and wrong, making peace. It was something that was kind of ingrained in me. When I was a student, I started off majoring in mechanical engineering and I read a book over the summer, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and this was 1985, and I just wanted to write like that. As a student, I was involved in the Black Student Union, and there was an issue blowing up on campus which was the apartheid, so that was one of the first issues I got involved in. That’s how I got started with social justice.
Jasiri X (JX): When we started our organization One Hood, it was a group of us that came out of the hip hop generation. We didn’t really agree with the established black leadership because to us they were operating with a lot of old attitudes, so we began to use hip hop as a way to bring our community together. My music came out of my activism. It was a natural extension of my activism. I began to rap about issues I was really caring about. I just started to do music out of the things I cared about and that’s why I think I was able to make a connection, because it was an organic thing.
Jasiri X, why do you think that hip hop is a good way to push for social justice?
JX: Well, I think it’s because we’re kind of talking, so I think that using hip hop you can be a lot clearer getting the message out. You’re telling a story. The soundtrack of this generation has been hip hop. Particularly around revolution, from Public Enemy to Wu-Tang to Kanye, now we have Kendrick and Cole. Our messengers are rappers, our leaders are rappers in many ways. It’s a universal language of revolution.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment since becoming an activist?
KB: Being a parent! I think that being a parent has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I think that being a parent gives you a perspective. We learn how to be self-absorbed, being in this country, but you can’t be a parent and be self-absorbed. You’re putting your experiences and your love into this human being that you hope will have a positive impact on the world. Activism wise, it’s been so many things, but one of the biggest ones was the national hip hop convention. In 2002, I wrote a book called The Hip Hop Generation, in late 2002 I did a panel discussion at Harvard on hip hop and in the comments I wrote that we should have a hip hop convention. It was something that brought together so many young activists, it showed me that sometimes an idea can be so much bigger than you.
GTJ: I would say that yes, being a parent and being afraid of the political movement is hard, but it is also transforming. It’s a beautiful gift. I’d say that there’ve been a lot of amazing accomplishments and they’ve all been done in collaboration with other people. I feel like over the years I’ve gained an amazing network, so I like to connect people, I like to bring people together, I bring who I know to places where people need it the most. Then, as a teacher, I had a moment about 10 years ago where I went to speak to a school in south LA that was one of the bottom schools and two of their students applied to where I was at at the time, UCSB, and one of them was close to getting in but she had one F from her freshman year. She was valedictorian. She had the highest GPA ever but in the University of California system, it doesn’t matter what your story was if you had an F. So her teacher called me and said, you came and spoke at the school and you met the student, is there anything you can do? So I thought about it and asked myself, what am I here for if I can’t help people like this? So I called the student and asked about the F and she told me that her brother was incarcerated and would go back in and come back out and could never catch a break, and she was fourteen. So it was this period of time when she gets an F. So I wrote a letter for her, the most incredible letter I’ve ever written for anyone, I put everything I had in it. She got in and she graduated and went on to graduate school. That, for me, is one of my greatest accomplishments.
Do you think that your views on race relations in America have changed since you’ve become more involved in the field of social justice?
YS: I think mine have certainly changed. I think it would be very easy for me to fit everyone white into this one category but then I found out that a lot of people who were very aware and woke were people who were white. So I think that my views changed in that I think it takes all of us to change the situation.
LH: I wouldn’t say that my views have changed but they’ve definitely expanded and grown. I didn’t start off with a ton of really clear views. I had a sense that stuff wasn’t really right but didn’t have a lot of places to talk about it and there wasn’t a lot of depth to it. So for me, it was definitely a process of learning more and experiencing more, listening and hearing more. In that way, I now have a way bigger set of ideas about race relations in this country.
What do you think Thacher students can do to support the cause and help with the situation at hand?
LH: Thacher as a community can continue the dialogue we started tonight. The dialogue can be brought into all aspects of education. It belongs in the science curriculum, it belongs in English, it belongs in history, it belongs in political science. So, bringing this dialogue into all aspects of all subjects is one thing. Another thing is you can donate to and engage with organizations all across the country that are fighting this fight.
YS: I think Liz said that very well. In terms of keeping a conversation alive and well, also realizing that every student has the charge in them that says that they are worthy. That there is specialness in them and in everyone. The great thing I think about the Thacher community is that this community is made a community as a model for a better society. That society can then lend its resources to the rest of the world. And that, I think, is a tremendous thing.
KB: I think that we are teaching young people to be afraid, and I think that people should not be afraid and they should believe in themselves. Do those things and study. Once you can think on your own and you’re not afraid and you believe in yourself, there’s not a whole lot that can stop you at that point. Also, listen to people from all walks of life.
GTJ: Everybody’s role is important and everybody has something to contribute. If you’re excited and animated about these topics then we need you. We need everybody: activists, intellectuals, people who never say a word but in a moment in their dorm room say, you know, I don’t tolerate that kind of language about queer folks or women. We need brave souls who are conscious people.
JX: I always encourage people to do activism through what they love. To understand that there’s no one way of activism. I love hip hop, so my activism comes through my music. If you’re a journalist, you can be an activist journalist. You can do activism if you’re a tech person, you can do tech activism. So I would say find what you love to do and do your activism through that. A friend of mine is a lawyer and she started organizing legally to assist the movement right now. So that’s what I’m encouraging students to do now. So if you come across resistance, you’re going to keep moving because you’re ultimately doing what you love.