Post by Eboni Nash, MTS ‘21
Eboni Nash is a second year MTS student, who recently interviewed professor and activist Angela Davis. In addition to her academic pursuits at HDS, she serves as Social Justice Chair for the HDS Student Association (HDSSA), the Office of Student Life Ambassador for Diversity & Inclusion, an Organizer for the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, and Vice President of Events/Organizing for Harambee, the HDS student organization for students of African descent.
Where were you when it happened? I imagine this question, much like 9/11, will be asked of us by the younger generation. Where were you when the COVID-19 pandemic struck? For me, I was on a plane heading back to my mother’s house for spring break. I decided to go early to be able to celebrate my niece’s birthday, when I received the email notifying me not to come back to campus.
Just like that, 2020 took another unexpected turn that forced us to adjust quickly. During our stay-at-home orders, I found myself wondering what I could do and how I could still be useful so far from my networks. After weeks of contemplating and eating entirely too much, I realized that organizing was still very possible.
For the past three years, I have considered myself an organizer and activist. Starting with food justice, I directed a local nonprofit in Nebraska that helped feed low income families of elementary school students over the weekend. This exposure to food-insecurity, education surrounding the poverty-line, as well as hot zones for food deserts, really took hold of my heart. I eased deeper into social justice soon after when I spent a summer interning at Sunshine Enterprises in Chicago.
This last year I have fully stepped into my shoes, not only as an activist, but as a prison abolitionist. The prison system has always been a double-sided demon for me. Growing up with an incarcerated father, experiencing my own horrors when visiting him, and eventually losing my father at the hands of the system, I grew to fear the criminal legal system. It wasn’t until I started studying the system and started visualizing the bigger picture, that I saw it as something that I must work to dismantle.
Harvard Divinity School has given me the platform and motivation to stand up taller against the injustice within our world. This past year at Harvard, I became a core organizer for the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign (HPDC). This campaign works to sever ties between Harvard University and the prison industrial complex. Just last fall, HPDC released a report shedding light on the endowment and how it is directly and indirectly supporting the caging of bodies within the United States. In addition to that, HPDC successfully filed a lawsuit against Harvard for their lack of transparency with funding this past February.
Attending an institution that profits off the backs of incarcerated people—that supports the rounding up, brutalizing, and caging of people—was just not something I could stomach. There are better ways to invest our money, ways that build, create, and establish healthy relationships. I am thankful for the education I am receiving at Harvard, but I also understand my responsibility as a student and organizer within this very moment. In addition to HPDC, I have joined multiple coalitions, based out of Illinois and Michigan, to advocate for the people on the inside.
It was in that moment in quarantine at my mother’s house this past spring that I reached out to Professor Angela Davis, the world renowned abolitionist, activist, former member of the Black Panthers, and professor emerita at the University of California, who responded quickly with interest in an interview. Together, we worked out a date that she would be available to chat with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, and I set off to work on our questions.
As many of you know, the recent uprisings in response to George Floyd’s death took place at the beginning of June. Professor Davis and I decided to push the conversation back another two weeks to give time for our networks to do the groundwork needed. The tension and emotion drawn during this time was crucial; I experienced this embodiment of lamentation. As a biracial woman, I am often looked to as the bridge between two communities. The amount of pressure left on my shoulders to stand with my people, but also educate and organize directly within the movements was profound.
The day of the interview with Professor Davis was a day I was long preparing for: consuming every one of her interviews, reading all the materials I can to catch-up, and following her most recent actions, all to develop a sense of grounding within our experiences. Was I nervous? Of course! Throughout my high school and undergraduate years, Angela Davis has been my idol. I look to her in the struggle and I celebrate alongside her in the light. I was finally going to speak face to face (or screen to screen) with the woman who has influenced my career the most!
It was finally time to start the broadcast. I logged into the waiting room and saw two other organizers preparing for the event. Then, 30 minutes prior to the event starting, I saw the screen loading for Professor Angela Davis. My heart dropped—it was as if I forgot how to talk. Her wonderful face appeared on the camera and her melodic tone echoed through the Zoom call, “Hello everyone.” It felt like minutes passed and I was finally able to respond. We spent time talking about organizing, how she was feeling, and the importance of self care. When the clock edged toward 5 o’clock, the room became silent as we opened the floodgates of participants.
Interviewing Angela Davis was the highlight of my professional career. Listening to her in real time and knowing that I must respond and effectively transition into the next question was complex, to say the least. I would often get lost within her words and my own note taking. Professor Davis answered our questions with grace; her willingness to give time and attention to us as students and rising organizers was humbling.
There are many take-aways that I would love to offer up, but I feel as if it is almost better to view the discussion yourself. If there was one thing that I personally took away from this conversation, it would be the bigger picture as an organizer. Professor Davis aligned each question around the concept of motives. Why are we wanting these things, and what is the end goal? It made me realize that we cannot get caught up in the busy conversation of political candidates and hypothetical “what ifs.” Instead, we must see through the slander and redirect the objective from the broad picture to the more concise movements. She mentioned that when thinking of leaders, we must think about what they can do for us and not so much worry about their past. If we are to advance an agenda, this is the most important step. There will likely never be a perfect candidate to uphold liberation for all, but there are those candidates that can entertain the idea and make small shifts in the right direction. Slow is fast.
Professor Davis’s undeniable support for Harvard, as well as divestment, rang true throughout our conversation. “Scholarship happens not just within the classroom, but in prison cells, streets, and walkways,” Professor Davis reminds us. Her words encouraged me to bring in the people that need to be in these conversations; lived experiences need to be within political and organizational discussions. There should not be a decision made, without the voices heard from the people it will inevitably impact.
My experience as a whole this past year has given me so much. My mindset has shifted from thoughtful reflections to meaningful actions. I feel better prepared to step into conversations and promote my beliefs without hesitation. I have now taken on the role as Student Association Social Justice Chair for Harvard Divinity School. I could not have stepped in at a better moment, in a more crucial movement. When looking back at my career aspirations, this is exactly what I should be doing; this is praxis.