Social Justice at UC Davis Mellon Initiative Launch October, 2013

We are pleased to report that the Social Justice Initiative’s Launch Event was a great success!  We are grateful to everyone who attended and contributed to this event, including the advisory board and affiliates. Professor Inés Hernández-Avila opened the launch event with a blessing, first for the P’atwin people, “who are the original peoples of the land here,” as well as for everyone present, and for the initiative.  She offered a traveling song she learned on the Tule River Reservation, and respectfully sent blessings to the ancestors, who she remarked, are with us as we do our work on this campus.  Professor Amina Mama, who hosted the event, introduced Dean Jessie Ann Owens who remarked that the social justice initiative “grew out of the trauma” the campus experienced on November 18th, 2011, the infamous pepper spray incident.  Dean Owens offered gratitude to the Hart Hall faculty, students, and staff who dedicated themselves to shifting the climate of the university by envisioning this social justice project that builds on the contested histories of ethnic studies at UC Davis.  David Biale, Director of the Davis Humanities Institute, echoed this sentiment by suggesting that “the challenge of social justice remains perhaps the most enduring of the human condition,” noting the worthy and urgent focus for the next three years of SJI’s research and dialogue.

Professor Andrea Smith, of UC Riverside, offered an inspiring talk that addressed the intersections of law and security in building social justice movements.  Smith critiqued the “academic industrial complex,” while encouraging UC Davis campus interlocutors to dream about what they would like to create.  Best known for her work on the centrality of rape in Native American genocide, published in her widely acclaimed and controversial book Conquest, Smith framed her discussion through the concept of the academic- industrial complex.*  Smith encouraged the reconnection of academia to social movements, advocating building structured relationships to community-centered projects, as well as collective and collaborative working relations among faculty, graduate students, undergraduates and staff members. A productive discussion ensued during the question and answer, revealing among other things a wide variation in social justice perspectives between communities and generations. This affirms the SJI’s core commitment to working collaboratively across borders of sexuality, genders, ethnicity and nation, as well as across diversely racialized communities. Smith evoked the creative building of “unlikely alliances” as a useful concept she developed in her book, Native Americans and the Christian Right (2008).

After the three co-directors, Amina Mama, Inés Hernández-Avila, and Yvette Flores detailed the planned three-year Mellon funded project, the afternoon roundtable discussion proved to be a welcoming and invigorating space.  Over 40 participants shared the social justice work they are currently involved in at UC Davis and beyond, as well as they discussed their visions for the future. Faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, community members, and staff discussed the meanings of “social justice” and “community” in our multiple contexts.  Issues of methodology were raised with regard to the political-intellectual challenge of articulating diversely situated realities, while honoring the indigenous peoples forcibly displaced from these lands in particular. It was clear the dialogue inspired many.  An undergraduate student walked away from this discussion saying, “I feel much safer knowing this [SJI project] is on campus.”  Another participant reported, this event “has pushed me to grapple with reform and radical strategies being used together for rethinking and changing the system.”

The near future of the Social Justice Initiative is relevant to the critical historical moment we are in.  Through the thematic foci of each year, we are building an intellectual community of practice that stimulates new thinking and activist research that bridges the institutionalized disconnection of the globalizing university from local communities. The first year will continue the focus on Feminism and Social Justice by examining topics such as global feminism and transnational activism, and the contested intersections of science, sexuality, race, and medicine.  Year two will take a particular focus on Indigenous issues globally, critically addressing themes such as: land claims, territory and expressions (through performativities), and Indigenous knowledges.  The third year will round out this Mellon-funded project with a keen focus on Citizenship and Identity through a local and global focus. Central themes are: belonging in the post 9/11 era, Queer diasporas (including sexuality and health), and revisiting the Borderlands through an analysis of (in)security.

Professor Yvette Flores brought the event to a close by offering compelling remarks. She noted the uniqueness of this moment at UC Davis by voicing that she felt “ignited and inspired,” in a way she hadn’t in many years at the university.  She urged us to work collectively to make the campus a friendly and accessible space for community, while simultaneously doing the work to form a collaborative and complex vision of social justice.  For more information, questions, provocations, or to affiliate, please contact: social, or visit our website:

* The formulation “academic industrial complex” builds on earlier critical terms such as the “non-profit industrial complex” and Mike Davis’s “prison industrial complex” which were directly influenced by President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 speech titled, “Military-Industrial Complex.” For more see: A. Smith “Social-Justice Activism in the Academic Industrial Complex” in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 23, No. 2, Fall 2007, and the text The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non- Profit Industrial Complex (2007), edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.


Social Justice Initiative Feminist Seminar, “Passionate Politics: Global Feminism and Transnational Activism,” will feature a dialogue between long-time feminist scholar- activists Charlotte Bunch and Margo Okazawa-Rey.  Friday, November 1st, 11-2pm, Art Annex, UC Davis.


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