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Gittler Prize winner discusses academic work

Published: November 1, 2013
Section: Featured, News

On Tuesday, Patricia Hill Collins ’69, Ph.D. ’84, author, distinguished professor and scholar was awarded the fifth Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize for her exemplary academic work dedicated to racial, ethnic and religious relations.

Collins has authored seven books, served as the 100th president of the American Sociological Organization and is currently a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her career and scholarship have all been dedicated to social justice and understanding the intersectional relationship of race, class and gender.

The Gittler award, aside from its overall prestige, includes a $25,000 cash prize and a medal. Provost Steve Goldstein ’78, M.A. ’78, M.D., Ph.D., FAAP awarded Collins the prize and medal after she led a public lecture titled “With My Mind Set on Freedom: Black Feminism, Intersectionality and Social Justice” in Rapaporte Treasure Hall on Tuesday. This lecture was the conclusion of Collins’ two-day visit. She called this her “two-day pedagogical project” in which, in addition to her lecture, she met separately with undergraduate youth activists, graduate students and faculty to discuss social justice and intersectionality and their roles in her career.

The ceremony was opened by Provost Goldstein, who explained the Gittler award and its importance. He then introduced former Brandeis sociology professor—and supervisor to Collins during her graduate studies at Brandeis—George Ross, to formally introduce Collins. In his introduction, Ross remarked fondly upon his former mentee, stating that supervising Collins seemed like no work at all and that this award is is perfectly tailored to her.

During her talk, Collins first thanked the awards committee and Brandeis for her receipt of the award, reminiscing on her time at Brandeis. She recalled her experience at 17, moving from Philadelphia to North Quad, receiving cheers from the audience, and credited Brandeis as shaping her into the person and sociologist she is today. Most notably, she said, “Brandeis empowered me to claim the life of the mind.”

Collins then began her formal lecture which consisted of three main parts, focusing on defining intersectionality, black feminism, social justice and intergenerational conversations. Collins spoke about the word intersectionality defined as the viewpoint from which people experience oppression in varying configurations and degrees of intensity because of cross-cutting identities that run along lines of class, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion. Collins discussed the difficulty in referencing the desire to make the term accessible and understandable to all while not taking away the theory’s meaning.

She then showed a video clip of “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock, using the lyrics “we who believe in freedom cannot rest” to provide an underlying theme of calling people to action to fight for social justice and equality regarding issues of intersectionality that shaped the rest of her talk. She also used the video to exemplify her argument that works of artistic expression should be used to help educate and empower people about issues of social justice. The video was well-received by all attendees. Rose Wallace ’16 said, “I think what she said about using the arts, critical education and community engagement to create social change and ‘reclaim humanity’ really rings true.”

During her talk, Collins discussed the recent Trayvon Martin controversy and how this issue highlights the concept that power relations produce social justice inequities in this country. She applauded all those who wore hoodies in support of Martin in wake of the trial, and instructed all that “social justice demands internal vigilance” and that it requires activists to “overcome fatigue from struggling so long.”

In her discussion of black feminism and social justice, Collins continued to work off of the frame provided by “Ella’s Song” and its call for action, discussing the work of two women—Ella Baker, whom the song is about, and Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray, an African civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, lawyer, author and former Brandeis American studies professor—and their instrumental work in empowering and inspiring people to act.

In the final part of her lecture, Collins discussed intergenerational conversations, stressing the need for imagination and acceptance of responsibility among activists today. She referenced the importance of youth taking on currently unsolved issues of social justice in a cooperative manner so that they do not launch an “intergenerational warfare” against their elders and predecessors for the problems that exist today.

The Gittler award ceremony and talk concluded with a question and answer session with the audience in which students, faculty and Provost Goldstein participated. Collins responded to all with candor and humor, replying to Provost Goldstein’s question of how to make Brandeis a vibrant and revolutionary institution while staying in business, saying that “You can’t” and that “revolutionary and institution are oxymorons.”