The WGS Center for Social Justice held a discussion panel on Monday in the Oklahoma Memorial Union's Meacham Auditorium about various forms of 21st century activism and how to balance consistent activism and mental health.
Rodney Bates, director of OU graduate students and postdoctoral retention and support for the Graduate College, moderated the Modern Day Activism discussion panel.
The panelists were Director for the Gender + Equality Center and Assistant Dean of Students Erin Simpson; Director of the Henderson Scholars Program Miles Kelly; Nayifa Nihad — a fellow for the OU Center for Peace and Development and founder of Eco Baddies, an eco-activism platform — and D’India Brown, a director of the OU Black Emergency Response Team and peer educator at the Gender + Equality Center.
The panelists answered moderator questions about their roles in campus-related activism in the first thirty minutes, with audience questions filling the rest of the time.
Simpson and Kelly talked about how, as OU staff members, they try to support, boost and create a safe space for student activists like Nihad and Brown, who felt like they “didn’t have a choice”, to represent themselves and their communities.
Nihad pointed out that Greta Thunberg gets credit for being the first climate activist, even though the Maldives, where Nihad is from, has been involved in climate talks since the 1970s and got global exposure by holding the World’s first underwater cabinet meeting in 2009.
“That’s one disconnection between other things happening in other parts of the world in terms of the climate crisis and what is reflected in the broader global climate space,” Nihad said. “I think that is where I really understood the importance of continuing to talk about the issue that is facing me and my people on a very, very personal level.”
Kelly described student activism as a football game with the clock being a student’s time on campus. He said administrators often play “the long game,” as they know a student will leave eventually. He also said it’s hard to watch physically exhausted students realize “it’s too late.”
Simpson said she feels like she has a right to criticize OU because she cares about it deeply, referencing a James Baldwin quote. She said she agrees with Kelly’s “game clock” analogy, as she feels she gets put “back to square one” repeatedly.
“Every four years, I'm teaching someone what whiteness means, or I’m teaching anyone that that actually is a super homophobic thing you just said,” Simpson said. “That feels like a really Sisyphean task, right? Like I’m never gonna get the boulder to roll down the other side of the mountain.”
The panelists discussed self care and mental health in relation to advocacy, stressing that people must first take care of themselves. They also discussed boundaries and how to acknowledge a person’s intersection of identities, knowing where to speak up and where to support, especially when it comes to “invisible” minorities like Asian and Indigenous peoples and sexual and gender minorities.
Brown stressed the importance of knowing one’s full identity and transferring that knowledge to experience.
“We don’t just choose the most aesthetically-pleasing truths, we don’t choose the most palatable truths because you have to look at all sides, within your community, within your family,” Brown said. “Sometimes it makes you ask some questions about yourself. (It makes you) say ‘how did I perpetuate some of this damage built against other communities.’ It makes you very uncomfortable, which is why people choose to make that minority or other minorities invisible.”
The panelists said that, ideally, performative activism would be used to boost the voices of people who “truly care” about the topics being discussed, but it typically smothers them. They also discussed overcoming the feeling of marginalizing oneself through activism that some ethnic and societal minorities feel.
“You have no special obligation to teach (people) who you are. It is not your obligation to be the token for your community (or) of being the most valuable member of your community,” Brown said.
The panel ended with thoughts from the panelists. Brown said that activism in itself is a journey in identity, Kelly and Simpson echoed sentiments of making one’s own space and to keep fighting, referencing another James Baldwin quote, and Nihad said to look at issues from a non-Western perspective.
“OU 10 years ago (was) a very different place and the students from 10 years ago worked really hard to make that so, but we’re not done,” Simpson said. “I will always have the opportunity to do better, I will always have the opportunity to inspire, I’m always going to have an opportunity to do better, to learn from what I’ve done to keep going, etcetera.”