Keynote examines using identity to make change
People must show compassion, engage with their communities and understand their identities in order to change the world around them, Rebecca Walker told students on Tuesday at the ’DEIS Impact keynote address.
An activist, writer and mother, Walker is known for her work on third-wave feminism. The website of Third Wave Fund — an organization which Walker helped found — defines feminism as “explicitly connect[ing] women’s issues to issues of race, sexuality, class and ability.” One of Walker’s earlier books, the memoir “Black, White, and Jewish,” describes her own struggle with identity and belonging.
Three speakers preceded Walker. Intercultural Center Director Madeleine Lopez opened the event, followed by University President Ron Liebowitz and Student Union President David Herbstritt ’17.
Lopez spoke about the importance of “celebration and joy … in our activist lives” and invited students to celebrate the ICC’s 25th anniversary on April 29. Liebowitz lauded the University’s social justice festival, which is now in its seventh year.
Herbstritt spoke about the nature of social justice, something which carries many definitions, depending on who one asks. “Identity cannot be curated top-down,” said Herbstritt, emphasizing the need for student-led activism.
Walker’s speech itself concerned recent political and social events like President Donald Trump's election, the translation of identity into action and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
“I think I speak for many of us in the room when I say we are living in extraordinarily frightening and dispiriting times,” said Walker.
She praised efforts nationwide to work together and push back against injustice, later pointing to the airport protests against President Trump’s travel ban as an example. Only by dedicating themselves to and promoting “values of justice, peace and freedom,” she said, can people effectively resist “those who seem to be addicted to tyranny, conflict, chaos and control.”
Walker also talked about the conflict between striving for social justice, showing compassion for those with whom one disagrees, and having compassion for oneself.
“I want to use my experience in this body, in this time, to hold onto the knowledge that I am not alone in my understanding of what is happening and that while my feelings of despondency are often great, they will, like all other feelings, pass,” Walker said. “And surely as they do, they will be followed by a resurgence of my will to survive and my determination to make the world a better and more just place.”
“When the initial tumult in my mind clears, I will remember once again that I have cultivated the skills and language necessary to fight this battle, to right this terribly off-course ship,” she added.
In order to clear that tumult, survive and “die a good death,” Walker said, people can look at the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that life is suffering from change and habituation; the second, that the suffering stems from people clinging to stability; the third, that they can end that suffering by recognizing the reality of change; and fourth, that by following the teachings of Dharma, they can liberate themselves.
Walker then spoke of her own personal noble truths. First, she said, one must recognize that the world is brimming with noise, distractions and ideas. Everyone is vying for hearts and minds, draining away time, energy and peace of mind, she said, adding, “And it will never end.”
Still, Walker pointed out, there is a way out of the “programmatic thinking” that creates suffering. Instead of depending on others for direction, people can ask themselves: “What do I bring to the table?”
People should also be conscious of how they use their energy, she said, as they only have so much of it in their lives. Even after recognizing those noble truths, the process remains an uphill struggle.
“You may not see the result tomorrow,” she said. “You may not see it next week. You may not see it in your lifetime. But standing up for the human good will manifest at some point, and even if it does not, it certainly will not if you don’t do your part to make it so.”
Additionally, Walker stressed the long-term nature of activism. She praised Prof. Anita Hill (Heller) for speaking out against Justice Clarence Thomas’ nomination for the Supreme Court. Though Thomas was ultimately appointed, she said, Hill nevertheless impacted the national discourse on sexual harassment. “We almost took [Trump] down based on his treatment of women,” she said. “That is a massive success, and it has not been erased because of what followed. It is in the hearts and minds of people. It is not going away. And that is why we must always stand up, because we do not know when the outcome of our effort is going to manifest.”
Walker wrapped up her speech by throwing in a fifth noble truth: Do not give up. “That, to me, is the embodiment of dignity and the perseverance of the human spirit,” she added. “And once we give up, there’s really nothing.”