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Panel discusses sustaining an activist life

The election of President Donald Trump has many members of the University community wondering whether levels of activism will increase, or whether normalization of Trump’s and others’ ideologies will result in never-before-seen levels of apathy, a Monday lecture emphasized. However, Head of Wilson College Eduardo Cadava said the relevance of the activism series stretches back to far beyond the most recent presidential election.

As part of its Signature Lecture Series, Wilson College sponsored “How to Sustain an Activist Life” on Monday, April 17. The talk was co-sponsored by 11 other departments, offices, and University programs, and featured speakers journalist Chris Hedges, photographer Fazal Sheikh '87, Columbia University professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Liana Theodoratou, and African American studies Professor Emeritus Cornel West.

Politics major Naomi Fesseha ’19 said she attended the talk mainly to hear about Spivak’s work. Spivak is originally from Calcutta, and has focused her career on criticism of postcolonial narratives. Spivak is best known for her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” which challenges the ways once-colonized populations have been represented by anthropologists.

Hedges, an author, former University professor, and Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times, began by saying that “to resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of wider society, is a failure.” He went on to give a passionate  address about the ways in which activism, what some call “career-killing contagion,” is fundamentally at odds with bodies of power that define twenty-first century life.

“The state, the press, the church, the courts, academia, mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, no matter how venal, which provide them with money, status and authority,” Hedges said.

Referencing his own experiences reporting on the fall of the Soviet Union, Hedges compared the revolutions of that era to others that are currently shaping the U.S. and the rest of the world.

“We, too, have undergone a coup d’état, carried out not by the stone-faced leaders of the monolithic Communist Party, but by the corporate state,” Hedges said. He argued that in our current state of despotism, simple human kindness “becomes a subversive act.”

Photographer Fazal Sheikh also painted a complicated picture of activist life. Raised in New York City by South Asian and American parents, Sheikh often grappled with representing the lives of refugees of other ethnicities living in Kenya.

Although Sheikh’s work often identified him as Kenyan, he did not identify with all the same narratives as his Kenyan subjects. Sheikh doesn’t consider himself an “authority” on activism. Instead, he works to recognize the value of the forces motivating his subjects.

“I feel much more as though the true activists within my work are the people in the images,” said Sheikh. “Their activism is the strong thing I recognize.”

Sheikh has done much of his photography work in East Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Brazil, Cuba, India, and Israel and Palestine, according to his website

For audience members hoping to receive concrete advice on leading activist lives of their own, Gayatri Spivak provided more specific guidance. She encouraged audience members to evaluate the level of development their work is sustaining.

Using the example of fundraising, she explained that fundraising for girls in underdeveloped countries does not dismantle the patriarchy. Spivak told audience members to focus on doing the most work for the largest number of people. Contrary to many mainstream activists today, she said that participating in protests and demonstrations is not a force for change because these activities do not reach a larger audience and merely “preach to the choir.”

Spivak emphasized that true democracy is about communicating with people whose backgrounds are different from your own. She urged audience members to aim their efforts at policymakers.

The lecture was given at 5 p.m. on Monday, April 17 in McCosh 50.

This article has been corrected to indicate that Sheikh is an alum of the University, and to clarify where he was raised and where he does much of his photography work.