Student Voices Drive Toni Cade Bambara Scholar-Activism Conference

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More than a dozen students in the Toni Cade Bambara Collective are sitting in a circle in the Ennis Cosby Reading Room next door to the Women’s Research and Resource Center. They are being led in a thoughtful exercise by a guest facilitator helping them to understand how social movements can be influenced by various entities.

These budding young activists meet weekly to hear visiting scholars and community activists before they continue their planning for the annual Toni Cade Bambara Scholar-Activism Conference. Now in its 13th year, the two-day student-driven event includes paper presentations, workshops and performance pieces that explore dimensions of Black/African women’s lives, scholarship and social change activism across disciplines and topical areas.

“For students, it is about the process and their opportunity for leadership development,” said Bahati Kuumba, Ph.D., associate professor of women’s studies, and associate director of the Women’s Center. “Students conceptualize the theme and the panels based around the issues they see as salient today. It is empowering for them once it all comes together, and they are able to see their roles from beginning to end.”

This year, the conference, themed “Shattering Our Silences, Speaking Resistance, & Seeking Spaces of Liberation,” will take place March 22-23,in the Cosby Academic Center building. Confirmed speakers and participants include art activist Alice Lovelace, spoken word artist Theresa Davis, Lani Jones, Ph.D., visiting scholar in the Women’s Center, and Erica Williams, Ph.D., assistant professor,of anthropology. Dr. Williams will address Afro-Brazilian feminism. Other sessions, many of them facilitated by students, will address numerous topics including mental health, poverty, language in activism, incarcerated women, human trafficking, women and hip-hop, and body image.

Ayanna Spencer and Banah Ghadbian

Before the conference, Banah Ghadbian, C’2015, will facilitate “From the Club to the Classroom: Exploring Holistic Feminist Activist Consciousness” a convocation conversation between The Toni Cade Bambara Scholar-Activists and The Crunk Feminist Collective on March 21 in Sisters Chapel. The presidential scholar has been heavily involved in the Toni Cade Bambara Collective for the past two years.

“I have looked forward to our meetings every Friday at 3 p.m. in the Women’s Center every week for the past two years. I enjoy most of our lively discussions on race, class, gender identity, ability, global issues, and a multitude of other equally engaging topics,” said the sociology and comparative women’s studies major. Ghadbian  is also on the conference’s general collective organizing committee.  “I wanted to be involved in the conference because it is a student-led movement to engage one another on a scholarly level. It allows us the opportunity to listen to one another as scholars, as activists, and as writers.”

Ghadbian’s favorite moments from the 2012 conference included hearing the experiences of alumnae in the opening plenary, “Ain’t I a Spelman Woman?” as well as a presentation on women and the Syrian Revolution by Soraya Mekerta, Ph.D., director of the African Diaspora and the World Program and associate professor of French and Francophone Studies. She also enjoyed elements that will be repeated this year: the reading of solidarity statements from other campus organizations, a performance by the Spelman College Jazz Ensemble and the Speak Out, where students literally voice their opinions about issues right outside of the Cosby building.

Ayanna Spencer, C’2015, was moved by 2012’s Speak Out as well. “I liked that open and inclusive space of hearing from others. It was the one time you could be completely open about different things you had on your mind about society or Spelman,” said  Spencer, a member of the Social Justice Fellow Program, who is preparing a panel on linguistic violence. She sees the benefit between her participation in the conference and her career goals.

“I’ve had experience planning for a debate tournament, but this is different because you’re reaching out to professors and community members. You’re not being assigned tasks; you are taking on a full project as a collective. I’m really interested in community organizing, so I think this learning experience is related in terms of consciousness-raising. I aspire to be a philosophy professor and I’m interested in the importance of discourse. This is a great opportunity to begin that research and discussion with others about it.”

Learning transferable skills is one of the primary goals of having the conference be led by students. “A lot of students have used their experience in powerful ways in their own trajectory, whether going on to get graduate degrees or working for nonprofits,” said Dr. Kuumba, the conference’s adviser.

Ghadbian and Spencer appreciate not only their experience in the collective, but also the opportunity to be edified about its namesake. “I have learned a lot about real-world applications of social justice movements from my involvement in Toni Cade, and about Toni Cade Bambara’s own writings and life as an activist across and between movements,” said Ghadbian.

Spencer agrees. “She was just a phenomenal person. The most important thing that I’ve taken from her is that the revolution starts within the self – transform your own thoughts and actions before you try to change society,” said the philosophy and political science major. “Her story and being in the collective really inspires activism. It’s not enough to participate in the conference and have discussions. Putting a lot of that into action is the biggest thing that students get out of it – the connection between scholarship and activism.” — Joyce E. Davis is editor of Inside Spelman and associate director of Publications for the Office of Communications.

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