On the second day of the Intercultural Center’s 25th anniversary celebration, returning guest speaker and University alumni Dr. Janice Johnson Dias ’94 delivered a “semi-autobiographical” keynote address and discussion shedding light on how college communities can better bridge the gap between “students, activism and the community.”

An associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at John Jay College and co-founder of the Grassroots Community Foundation, Johnson Dias uses both “qualitative and quantitative methodologies” in her studies to evaluate the living experiences of mothers and children in impoverished communities. Johnson Dias’s work specializes in “building collaborations dedicated to sustainable social change” in order to “instigate conversations on productive activism and positive community change,” she said in her remarks. 

Johnson Dias’s keynote, titled “Structuring Resistance: from Student Activism to Community Changemaker,” sought to explore how the Brandeis community can “not create a divide between students’ ability to create change and the community [itself],” Johnson Dias said.

The University could transition to becoming a community that promotes activism, said Johnson Dias, as she recounted her earlier Brandeisian experience and explained that Brandeis was once “centered around non-sectarianism and intended to be an open space.” 

Drawing parallels to 2015’s Ford Hall protest, Johnson Dias explained that, in the fall of 1990, students protested the University’s fifth president, Evelyn Handler, and Brandeis’s involvement in South Africa during the student- and faculty-led South African Divestment Fast Movement. 

The students began an anti-apartheid protest that used fasting as a way to respond to and atone for the the University’s investments in South Africa, in order to prevent the University from “benefiting off [African-Americans’] legacy of oppression.” Although at the time Brandeis only invested in South African companies that complied with the Sullivan Principles — financial codes of conduct created in 1971 by Leon Sullivan to promote corporate social responsibility — this protest was a way for student activists to achieve tangible change in African communities by using the money saved from the fasts to aid African famine relief during apartheid. 

Johnson Dias explained that, with this in mind, the University must dispel the notion of “liberator and oppressor as dichotomous,” and transition to understanding them as “a part of what comes together.” She explained to the students that “Brandeis seems to restrict and restrain you, yet they’re giving you the tools everyday … to become more critical of the community.” 

Because of this, she argued that “Brandeis must be ready to deal with the reality that it is an institution primed for treating resistance as normative.” 

She added that it is imperative for the University to “institutionalize and structure resistance,” and that only by embracing it can Brandeis “move from where it is now, to where it can be.”

She argued that one way to do this is by making student activism a crucial part of the academic scholarship offered at the University. Johnson Dias also referenced the University’s Motto, “Truth even unto its innermost parts,” and explained that the University must promote discussions among both students and faculty members, so as to solidify a structure of foundational resistance and to promote a tangible change on campus and off.

Johnson Dias concluded that, in order to promote the transition of student activists to tangible changemakers, the University must “structure resources” to enable optimism and activism. 

She urged that the University must also “provide more equity in our students of color and be more intentional in how we allocate resources for incoming students."