Ayanna Brown advises student activists during Lecture Without Limits

Alveena Siddiqi

Staff Writer

Seeking to aid in the reconstruction of the way that issues of social justice are addressed, EC Associate Professor for the Department of Education Ayanna Brown presented on April 25 during the Lecture Without Limits in Illinois Hall.

Brown’s lecture addressed the need to “disrupt the conveniences of low-hanging fruit,” which she explained as the necessity of stepping outside of comfort zones and sacrificing convenience in order for activism to be effective in enacting real progress.  

She cited the example of Larycia Hawkins, the former Wheaton College political science professor who made national headlines last year when she wore a hijab to the Evangelical Christian campus to express solidarity between Muslims and Christians throughout the Advent season and lost her job. 

During the question and answer session following the lecture, Brown had a warning for students seeking to be taken seriously while pursuing social activism.

“Academic success is commensurate with justice work — they have to go together,” she said. “You can’t be a social justice advocate and be a failing student at the same time. Now your justice doesn’t mean anything, because you don’t have the academic integrity for someone to want to listen to you because you’re failing while you’re fighting.”

Brown described students who try to be the face of social diversity and advocacy without applying focus to their academic success as simply “a college’s token” —“good for marketing” for colleges, but “useless to the people who are coming behind you who need your legacy to do better work.”

Brown’s lecture came just days after students stuck posters on the Niebuhr statue to draw attention to issues facing EC minorities. 

Brown had some words for The Leader about the importance of having difficult conversations about race and social activism for the future of EC, a “predominantly and historically white college” in “trying to advance a mission that aligns with Niebuhr’s mission.”

“In order for us to have a new narrative, about what we will talk about in 50 years, there’s work that we have to be doing right now in 2017 that helps us think about Elmhurst in 2067,” she said. “That’s what we’re advocating for. Not upending historical roots, but growing the roots so that they intersect in a way that creates forms of progress that allow all of us to be better.”

Brown further addressed her contentions with the statement “all lives matter” being used in discussions about social justice as a counter to the “black lives matter” movement.

“We know that already, but all lives aren’t suffering. So if all Elmhurst matters, wonderful—but [we need to consider] what group within that ‘all’ are not having the same Elmhurst experience. And that requires a different discussion.”

Brown also cited quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s nationally controversial decision to take a knee during the national anthem as a protest against the neglect of social issues dealing with Black people and people of color. 

“When you are standing up for someone you are also recognizing that in order to do that on the behalf of someone else, I might be giving up something, too. And that’s sacrifice,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, Brown’s lecture spoke on the challenges that come with dealing with discussions of social justice within the education system. 

“Teachers don’t permit these discussions to happen. The moment a discussion becomes complicated, or a little dicey, or the teacher’s on edge, that conversation is shut down,” she said. “So as you’re trying to engage in critical issues that might deal with forms of social justice, it creates a lot of discomfort for teachers. Not all, but most.”