‘Not ivory towers’: HBCU activist-in-residence nurtures hope, activism

By Ashley Lisenby

The Center for Race and Justice at Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black school, announced this month that Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles organizer Melina Abdullah would be its inaugural activist-in-residence. A professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, Dr. Abdullah will work with students virtually at first. 

Prairie View students have been active in voting rights work for decades, but as Melanye Price, director of the Center for Race and Justice, notes in an email interview, there is a “need to stem the tide of growing despair among young people about the current state of racial politics and their future once they leave our campus. Having someone to spend time with them and ... talk to them about what it means to dedicate one’s life to the service of others seemed like a natural step.”

Following months of social unrest, interest in historically Black colleges and universities is up. One HBCU has launched an innovative way to prepare students as leaders in the fight for justice long past graduation.

In fulfilling that role, Dr. Abdullah wants “to encourage students to deeply analyze the spaces that they’re called to.”

For example, she says, “If they’re health care majors, what is their role in making Black liberation central to their work as health care providers? If they are teachers, how do they make Black liberation central to their role as teachers? ... Black liberation has to be the fight in every space.”

After George Floyd’s murder, Ruth J. Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas, made a commitment to students to advance their understanding of discrimination in the United States. That pledge included the creation of a Center for Race and Justice – which opened in March – and a new post for an activist-in-residence, modeled after the more familiar artist-in-residence.

Students at Prairie View are not strangers to activism. They have long been involved in voting rights work, for example. Yet Melanye Price, director of the Center for Race and Justice, notes that students are seeking support on these issues. She writes in an email interview, “We wanted to honor the work of the student activists and formalize the university’s role as an intellectual space where activism and political protest can be studied and discussed as a part of the scholarly work we do.”

She also writes of the need to offer students hope in the face of ongoing injustice and a role model for a lifetime of activism.

Following months of social unrest, interest in historically Black colleges and universities is up. One HBCU has launched an innovative way to prepare students as leaders in the fight for justice long past graduation.

The center announced this month that Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles organizer Melina Abdullah would be its inaugural activist-in-residence. A professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, Dr. Abdullah will work with students virtually at first. 

In addition to emailing with Dr. Price, the Monitor spoke with Dr. Abdullah. Both exchanges have been edited lightly for length and clarity. 

Why is it important to have an activist-in-residence at Prairie View right now?

Dr. Price: Our campus has been involved in a now 50-year fight against voter suppression that led to a Supreme Court decision, Symm v. US (1979), that established the rights of college students across the nation to vote where they go to school even if they live in dormitories. ... In 2018, we filed yet another suit against the county for voter suppression and are still waiting for a decision. ... That case is being handled by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

So we know activism around voting rights, but we also need to stem the tide of growing despair among young people about the current state of racial politics and their future once they leave our campus. Having someone to spend time with them and discuss their own experiences as an activist, and to talk to them about what it means to dedicate one’s life to the service of others, seemed like a natural step.

How does this new role align with a younger generation demanding social justice reform?

Dr. Price: We chose Melina Abdullah because she has been a leader in the most important social movement of our students’ lives – Black Lives Matter. The movement is now a decade old, and that means that people have been marching in the streets demanding an end to police and vigilante violence against Black bodies since our students were in elementary school. So, Dr. Abdullah’s work speaks directly to the political moment that our students are in. 

How have the experiences you’ve had so far, Dr. Abdullah, prepared you for this moment?

Dr. Abdullah: Well, I’ve been an organizer, really, all of my life. I was raised in Oakland, California – of Texas roots, but raised in Oakland – born in the 1970s, at a time when activism and organizing were really at their peak, and in a location where you saw Black radical organizing really take shape. So all of my life has been preparing me for this role. And then, of course, as one of the original members of Black Lives Matter, which is the primary organizing space, that also prepares me.

What knowledge do you think students need to have going into the world? What is it that you want to provide them?

Dr. Abdullah: Well, it’s always been the tradition of historically Black colleges – and I’m an alumna of Howard University, another HBCU – to remember that we are not ivory towers. We don’t seek to be ivory towers. We seek to be spaces where we can hone tools that are empowering to all of our people. So that’s my goal at Prairie View: to make sure that I help students hone tools that can be used for the liberation of Black people. 

It means also debunking and re-educating folks around what activism, what organizing, what transformation is, and how it takes shape. It means rejecting the notion that mainstream education offers: that there’s a messianic leader, that movements are asymmetrical in nature, that someone like a Martin Luther King comes along once in a lifetime and directs everybody how to go, rather than walking on arm in arm with the people and having a whole chorus of people who are working towards liberation. I think that’s really, really important. And it awakens students to their own role in creating meaningful change. 

Think about the Black Power movements and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale [Black Panther Party founders] were two community college students who conceived of this movement and then went back into their community and said, What does the community need? And then they endeavored to be that. 

When we think about SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, these were regular college students who would talk and analyze the world around them and vision what it means to be free and then work towards that freedom, audaciously. 

Are there any issues that students on campus care about, Dr. Price, that differ from the social justice struggles of the past? 

Dr. Price: Our students are particularly attuned to contemporary political movements because they see the current slate of regressive laws being passed in Texas, and they are worried. They are asking the adults around them what they can do to counter the backlash against civil rights, and it is incumbent upon us to provide historical and scholarly examples of effective social change. They are asking us to tell them more about their history and how it can inform the work of their future, which is to build what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.”

As a journalist, I’ve talked to different people with different views of what activism looks like and what Black Lives Matter stands for. I’m curious if there is a top issue or group of issues that you think should be the focus. 

Dr. Abdullah: I think that Black Lives Matter is recognizing that we have to fight for Black liberation in every space. Black Lives Matter was born out of a struggle to end state-sanctioned violence against Black people – and the way in which it comes through policing in particular. But when we say Black Lives Matter and we say end state-sanctioned violence, we can also think of having an unhoused community which is disproportionately Black as state-sanctioned violence. 

We can think of the way in which schools often abuse Black students as being state-sanctioned violence. So while my focus is particularly around re-imagining public safety, and ending state-sanctioned violence in the form of policing, really, in this role, I want to encourage students to deeply analyze the spaces that they’re called to. What is their role? 

If they’re health care majors, what is their role in making Black liberation central to their work as health care providers? If they are teachers, how do they make Black liberation central to their role as teachers? And so I think that there is no single space. There is no single issue because we’re not single-issue people. Black liberation has to be the fight in every space.