DEI Speaker Series with Dr. Ruha Benjamin: Joyful and Just, Community as Rebellion and the Poetics of Living

Kaitlin Resler
Last week saw the start of the 2022-2023 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Speaker Series at Emma Willard School as we welcomed storyteller, scholar, and advocate Dr. Ruha Benjamin on Tuesday, September 13. Dr. Benjamin’s new book, “Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want”, examines the many routes through which race, technology, and justice intersect, and offers creative and innovative solutions for fostering togetherness.
Head of Institutional Equity and Inclusion Christine Gilmore noted that in its inaugural year, the office of DEI at Emma Willard School had a goal of “making sure that we as a community recommit to this important work at the start of every year, because the journey in this work is every moment.”

As part of this commitment, the school will annually welcome a ‘call to engagement’ speaker to share insights through the lens of their own unique work. The Adult Diversity Working Group and the Student Diversity Leadership Group collaborated to determine who this year’s speaker should be, and chose Dr. Ruha Benjamin. 

Dr. Benjamin’s work focuses primarily on investigating the relationship between innovation and equity, with a specific interest in the intersection of race, justice, and technology. In her approach to these topics, Dr. Benjamin begins by offering her audience poetry. 

“I start with poetry to remind us that creating a just world requires more than new policies and laws–which it does–but it requires new poetics. By which I mean creative care and attention to how we treat one and other, how we value one and other, a poetics of living,” she says, after reading selections of work from three poets (“Catch the Fire” by Sonia Sanchez, “Mercy” by Rudy Francisco [a response to “Allowables'' by Nikki Giovanni, also at the previous link), and “L.O.V.E.” by Ursula Rucker] whose poems she first experienced under her grandparent’s roof in ‘the White house’ (her grandparents last name is White). It is with this house that Dr. Benjamin sets the stage for her remarks, detailing her grandparents' movement west to “there in that house,” a phrase to which she returns, where her poetic discoveries began.

“I start with poetry because poetry is easy to underestimate, the same way it’s easy to underestimate how our individual actions and decisions can shape the world [...] a poem can slice into your insides and open us into the world like a thousand footnotes never could,” a sentiment she invokes with a line from Mary Oliver’s “Lead”: “I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.”

Vectors of Justice, Spreaders of Joy

As the title of Viral Justice suggests, Dr. Benjamin employs some now-familiar language of the COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate how an idea, a movement, a seemingly minute action or decision can cultivate larger mechanisms for change. “This virus is teaching us to respect the microscopic.”

By that, Dr. Benjamin suggests that the localized, small-scale, in-one’s-own-backyard approach is worthy of consideration and investment in seemingly infinite ways throughout a variety of communities. Examples include the Ron Finley Project: Gardening is Gangsta, White Coats for Black Lives, and the Solidarity Budget. These movements started as individual or small ideas within neighborhoods, schools, communities and through collaboration and a dedication to a shared vision they spread into new areas with far-reaching effects. 

Viral Justice rejects the idea that just one person is too small to make a difference. The efforts from individuals doing what they can are the point, the driving force from which change is possible. Dr. Benjamin turned to a 2000 essay from Octavia E. Butler to underscore this point: “There’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

In explaining how these endeavors are propelled by the individual in collective, Dr. Benjamin returned to the personal, bringing the audience back to the White house and her family as she detailed her work advocating for her brother as he experiences mental illness and the criminal justice system. Underscoring these stories is Dr. Benjamin’s declaration that our small changes in caring for each other can, and will, contribute to large shifts. 

Questions and Answers

Packed into Kiggins Auditorium, the on-campus community had ample time to ask questions. Many of which centered around a similar theme: how can we, as a community of individuals in an educational institution, impact change and create safe, inclusive spaces of belonging?

In her answers, Dr. Benjamin offered creation and creativity in the service of building a “liberatory education.” Creativity not only through the traditional arts, but used to conceptualize parallel realities that exist in education: for some, education is a chance for growth while for others, the systems available to them stifle their potential. Thinking creatively allows for us to understand how these different experiences operate, why and how they happen, and how to create something different. Alongside this concept, Dr. Benjamin notes that the practical is vital to change: it is not enough to only investigate the how and why, we must also find tangible, actionable ways to incite change. 

Students and community members also asked questions focused on identity and culture, prompting Dr. Benjamin to offer insight into finding strength during difficult personal times, and the importance of building community within large institutions. 

That evening, Dr. Benjamin also spoke to Emma Willard School families during a virtual event. Similar to that morning’s talk on campus, there was ample time for the audience to ask questions and for Dr. Benjamin to answer. The concerns and discussion were similar to those that came up in the morning, with a focus on community building, honoring and holding space for difficult conversations, and recognizing that the discomfort borne out of this work is necessary for both the individual and collective growth. 

Throughout these answers, Dr. Benjamin continued to offer practical guides for how to actually do some of this work. In discussing the work of bringing out differences to result in worthwhile conversation, she details how her early academic time spent in a theater program is useful: asking students to come to a conversation in character, to role-play, in an exercise that allows them to approach issues from a position of values and views they may not share. 

“The point is that not all of the views and positions are created equal,” she said. “That is to say, we should listen to them, but some should not guide the implementation of a certain policy: in my view, we should prioritize and think about the insights and experience of those who have been harmed by systems of power [...] and let that guide our world building and the future.”

For more details, stories, and practical suggestions for world building, you can order Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want here
    • Community members pick up copies of "Viral Justice" after Dr. Benjamin's talk.

    • "Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want" by Ruha Benjamin

    • Dr. Ruha Benjamin and Head of Institutional Equity and Inclusion Christine Gilmore at the DEI Speaker Series event at Emma Willard School.

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