Social justice and activism integral to American experience, speakers tell Stanford audience

The inaugural Sally Dickson Annual Lecture on Diversity, Inclusion and Reflection explored how individual people pursued social activism and justice to make a difference in contemporary society.

Life as an activist can take on many forms, as panelists at this week’s campus discussion on social justice affirmed.

The four speakers at Stanford’s inaugural Sally Dickson Annual Lecture on Diversity, Inclusion and Reflection told stories of everyday heroism on behalf of their fellow community members. Titled “In Pursuit of Social Justice,” the March 7 event was sponsored by the OpenXChange campus initiative, the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs, and Residential Education.

Bree Newsome, a filmmaker and activist, is known for being the woman who scaled a 30-foot flagpole to remove the Confederate flag at the South Carolina state capitol in July 2015. She knew the bold action of climbing the flagpole would lead to an arrest, but was inspired to take the extreme measure as she saw how others around her were already regularly “volunteering” to get arrested during other protests.  

Heavy lifting’

“There were all these people who were doing this heavy lifting, and I thought, ‘Who am I not to contribute what I can?’ That’s how I got into it,” Newsome said, reflecting on her activism efforts over the past few years.

Rick Lowe is an artist best known for his work behind Project Row Houses, a community-based art project that he started in 1993 by converting 22 shotgun houses in one of Houston’s oldest neighborhoods into an arts venue and community center. He is also this year’s Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at Stanford.

Lowe has spearheaded community projects in other cities, building arts and education programs as well as transitional housing for low-income families. He was appointed by President Obama to the National Council on the Arts in 2013 and named a MacArthur Fellow in 2014.

Lowe’s advocacy work straddles two worlds. “I’ll drive 2.5 miles to a board meeting where they’re talking about how to spend $1.3 million on something, and then I’ll drive 2.5 miles back to where they’re struggling to raise $1,200 so a group of kids can take their first journey out of state,” he said.

“It’s a hard thing, and I’ll question sometimes if I should resign,” he continued. “But that’s why I go to mentors – to help me center myself and figure out how to make it work.”

Storytelling and lifelines

Raymond Braun created the #ProudToLove campaign in 2013 – the first LGBT-themed marketing campaign on YouTube – while he was working at Google. Braun has since left his marketing job at Google to devote himself to his nonprofit YouTube channel that promotes the stories and rights of the LGBT community.

He grew up gay in a small rural town in Ohio, and one day discovered how gay youths were using the world of social media and how YouTube was a “lifeline” for such support. It all resonated with him.

Braun said he did not think of his storytelling work as activism, but that’s what it became.

For Aimee Allison, senior vice president of PowerPAC+, a political organization that works on electing social justice champions to public office, it took years before she realized that leading the life of an activist did not necessarily mean not getting paid.

Allison, a combat medic with the U.S. Army, successfully fought to be a conscientious objector during the Persian Gulf War. Later, to pay the bills, she got a job in the corporate world, only to find herself sneaking out to the parking lot to use her company cell phone to counsel other military officers and organize legal support for them.

She has since learned, however, that activism does not have to be done on the side.

“You can actually pay your bills and be fully expressed as a complete person and as an activist,” Allison said, explaining how activists can draw financial support from networks of sponsors who believe in the same cause.

“There are ways you can operate within an existing infrastructure and still put some activism in there,” said Braun, who has found support for his LGBT work through grants and foundations.

None of the panelists considered themselves “activists” per se when they embarked on their varied pathways pursuing social justice.

Know the history

But, they stressed, it is important to understand the issues you’re fighting for, and to know the historical context behind them. Black Lives Matter, for instance, is rooted in a struggle that is more than 100 years old, Newsome said.

“There are people who lay down their lives for their causes; it’s not a cool thing to be an activist. It’s not trendy,” Newsome said. “So, if you’re doing this just so you can wear a T-shirt, I’m sure we won’t be seeing you 10 years from now.”

The Sally Dickson Annual Lecture on Diversity, Inclusion and Reflection was created in 2015 to honor the contributions of Dickson, Stanford’s former associate vice provost for student affairs and dean of educational resources.

Dickson, who retired last year after 23 years of service, was dedicated to community-building and engagement between students, faculty and staff. She also worked to create a more diverse faculty at the university.

Greg Boardman, the vice provost of student affairs, said the legacy of Dickson’s work will continue through the annual lecture.

There is much that needs to get done in this world, Dickson said at the event.

“Activism is about being concerned about the world, and it needs fixing, y’all – desperately, ” Dickson said. “Whatever path you take, it’s the right one so long as you are doing it out of a sense of responsibility.”

Dickson, who received a standing ovation, vowed to keep pushing for diversity and inclusion. “I will continue to fight, ” she said, “and I want to make sure that everyone else in this audience does, too.”

The Student Affairs Intergroup Dialogue Team assisted with the event.