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U of O workshops address social justice issues

Photo: Nadia Drissi El-Bouzaidi

“My entire activist life has been spent looking for connections between issues that are generally disconnected,” said outspoken American activist Angela Davis.

Davis’ keynote speech was the top-billed event at the Activist Assembly, organized by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) and the Graduate Student Association (GSAÉD).

Her talk centred on the prison-industrial complex, weaved in with events from her own past and commentary on activism. Her interest in the prison-industrial complex has shown her how all social justice issues are interconnected, she said.

“Prisons have become the sites where disposable populations are sent, all over the world,” said Davis, who was arrested and imprisoned before a jury acquitted her. “Prisons have become a way to avoid addressing a whole bunch of social problems.”

She described an incident where a female guard followed her into the bathroom during a flight. “What was I going to do? Flush myself down the toilet?” said Davis.

She was a member of the Communist Party and had ties with the Black Panther Party. She has a PhD in philosophy and has taught at many prominent American universities.

In 1969, Davis was fired from her post at the University of California, Los Angeles under pressure from then California Governor Ronald Reagan. “They hired me to teach Marxism,” she said, “but then they fired me for being a communist.”

Kaitlyn Caesar cites Davis as a major influence on her life. Caesar, a Women’s Studies major, was impressed by how Davis related classroom ideas to real life.

“Just to see how it actually works through her stories and through her experiences, it’s amazing, it’s so inspiring,” she said.

The student unions held the event to bring awareness to their various campaigns, according to SFUO president Anne-Marie Roy.

“Activism is a very big part of the work that we do,” said Roy. “But I think we need to continuously improve and challenge ourselves in terms of who’s engaging in our campaigns.”

The three-day event from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 included various other workshops surrounding the SFUO’s campaigns, encouraging students to engage in activism.

“A lot of people who are trying to be activists find it overwhelming with everything that’s going on and trying to be a part of everything,” said Caesar. “I think that’s something I’m going to take away … learning to focus on one thing that I can identify with.”

The assembly was part of the SFUO’s anti-racism campaign called In My Skin, meant to discuss the “intersectionality” of racism, according to Roy.

Last winter the campaign met backlash from students, who criticized the racial segregation of participants. But Roy said it’s still going strong.

“There was clearly a misunderstanding with one of the events last year, however we’ve done our best to clarify that situation,” said Roy. “The In My Skin campaign is still a campaign that is going to be integrated in all of the work that we do.”