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Nobel Peace Prize nominee Mandy Carter discusses activism and identity

Published: April 18, 2008
Section: News


Nobel Peace Prize nominee Mandy Carter gave a short speech followed by an informal discussion with students on coalition building, activism on campus, and her experience as an African American, lesbian social justice activist. The event took place on Wednesday night and was sponsored by TRISK, the Women of Color Alliance, and the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance.

When Mandy Carter won the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders Spirit of Justice Award in 2006, an award honoring those dedicated to the ideal of a just society, TRISK officer Scott Frost ’09 knew that “she needed to come to Brandeis.”

Frost approached leaders of identity-based groups on campus about the idea of sponsoring Carter to come to Brandeis. Frost explained in an e-mail, “For a couple of years, I have noticed that Brandeis students often put themselves in boxes and get attached to particular aspects of their identity at the expense of the others. I thought it would be important for the campus to have a speaker with a passion for combining intersecting identities on both the individual and group level to achieve progressive change.”

In the Intercultural Center lounge, couches were pushed to form a circle, and as students trickled in, they were warmly greeted by Carter. “How did you hear about the event?” she questioned. Before she started her speech she struck up several conversations with students and asked about the history of the ICC.

She began her speech by telling a brief version of her “story,” she emphasized the importance of journeys, how people get to where they are today.

During the civil rights movement, a schoolteacher at Mt. Pleasant High School in Schenectady, NY, where Carter attended, brought a representative from the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee to speak to his students. He spoke of the “power of one,” how one person can impact change and Carter described how she was “intrigued by it.”

She explained, “we live in a society that tells us that no one person can make a difference.” The representative invited the students to spend a week at a work camp in Pocono Mountains and this is where Carter said she gained “the tools” to be an organizer.

After high school, Carter went to the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, a school founded by singer Joan Baez and where Carter joined the Anti-Vietnam war movement. She, along with 400 other students, participated in a peaceful protest and blocked the entrance of the Armed Forces Induction in Oakland, California.

She then spoke about her experience as an African American, lesbian activist. As a person of multiple identities, she described how it was confusing and distressing, to be told by feminist, black, and LGBT activist groups that she could only bring a “part” of her identity to the group.

Carter said, “we have been so compartmentalized in our organizing…I’m bringing all of who I am to my work.”

She suggested that groups could be organized, instead, based on the connections between race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Carter cited as an example a protest that Southerners On New Ground, a group Carter founded, organized against the Mt. Olive Pickle Company.

In this case, she explained, the common denominator was money. A coalition of social justice groups protested the company and eventually there were labor laws and unions at Mt. Olive.

Following her speech, Carter prompted a discussion by asking students how optimistic they are about the change they can impact through activism. Most students were fairly optimistic. FMLA president Emily Kadar ’08 said that “she used to be more cynical,” but because of learning more about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, she realized that, while they were heroes, the civil rights movement mainly involved “ordinary people working with other ordinary people.”

Rachel Kincaid ’10 commented on how activists may sometimes feel that they are not making a difference. “[What we do] doesn’t necessarily make a difference in our ordinary lives…it’s hard to see effects.”

The discussion then shifted to specifically Brandeis social justice on campus.

Sahar Massachi ’11 expressed that there is “no real activist community” because it is “fragmented” and there are so many of them.

Frost offered an explanation for Massachi’s observation. “[People] are overwhelmed and caught up in the work they are doing…there is not enough time to branch out,” he suggested.

Members of the Activist Resource Center present at the event explained that the center has been working on developing an infrastructure so groups can connect on campus. However, they described how it was difficult since the center did not have an office.

Carter ended the workshop by having students voice what, in a perfect world, they would want to achieve at Brandeis.

The answers varied from connecting activist groups on campus to people conversing, who wouldn’t normally converse. Mandy Carter stated, “[Sometimes we] are so into what is not happening that we forget what it’s like to dream.”