The current pandemic, and increased visibility of deep social inequities has creates a huge opportunity for leadership from the academy to address social justice issues. Yet as I reflect on discussions at environmental science institutions here at Stanford, I have been struggling with the lack of concrete action steps to date.
Concerned students have made specific proposals to promote greater social and environmental justice. Unfortunately, such concrete steps have not entered into the broader department-level or institute-level discussions that I have been part of.
Last week, I was inspired to see a different trajectory occurring in environmental science departments at UC Berkeley. Led by a large and interdisciplinary group, the faculty in environmental sciences has responded directly to student action requests with a clear set of commitments.
These includes establishing a mandatory training on diversity and restorative justice for all faculty and staff, building anti-racism training and readings into core classes, ensuring that 50% or more of departmental seminars are given by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) scholars or scholars from other under-represented groups, encouraging the representation of BIPOC authors within course materials and using a teaching self-assessment to help achieve this goal, increasing efforts to identify and encourage BIPOC candidates for faculty positions, and more.
I am grateful for this important leadership towards systemic change. These commitments speak meaningfully to the broader asks being made for cultural change within the academy that support the Movement for Black Lives, e.g. #ShutDownSTEM.
Earlier this year I gave a research seminar on the topic of Sustainability and Equity. This builds off of my long experience with community-engaged research, and also off of severals years of supporting the Environmental Justice Working Group at Stanford. The reception to the seminar around my department was positive, but quiet. A few months passed without comment on the topic.
We have now experienced consistent media coverage on racial disparities of COVID-19 impacts that are linked to environmental exposures. Black Lives Matter solidarity movements are calling for racial justice. There has been a new level of engagement. I have been encouraged by the number of faculty signing onto a new proposal, seeking to build a meaningful sustainability and equity initiative at Stanford. This proposal builds off the work that my collaborators and I have been doing for some time. My colleague described this positive response as “whiplash”. How did we get here after receiving such a lukewarm reception to the EJ issues for years?
It is confusing. Perhaps it is also hopeful.
6/6/20 In solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives I wish to express my deep sadness and anger at the senseless violence against Black people and honor the memory of my friend, Ashanti Aku Hassan, and so many others, who have been taken too early from this world due to racial prejudice and inequity.
Ashanti Crosses the River
In Memoriam, Ashanti Aku Hassan, aged 29. For Ashanti and your many friends and family members. Written by your friend Sibyl Diver on the day of your funeral in Riverside, California, July 12, 2012.
Today, a bright light floats away, crossing over towards the heavens and the great unknown. On Monday, July 2, I received the news that Ashanti had been shot and killed over the weekend near her home in Riverside, California. The email was sent by Robert Burkhardt, head of the Eagle Rock School, which is where I met Ashanti in 1997. Such a very sad day. It is an unfair death. It makes me sick at heart. To lose Ashanti Aku Hassan to unnecessary violence, so early in her life. I am now focused on completing my graduate studies at UC Berkeley. Instances of youth violence seem like something to read about in the news, but now my young friend has been shot and killed. Such awful words.
The family has arranged for a joint funeral for Ashanti and her Uncle Peewee, who died following a long illness, just three days before her. A few blocks from the family’s home, the funeral parlor is elegant, stately. Pews along the sides slowly fill up with family and friends. The bright white ceiling even sparkles a little. A silver coffin provided the centerpiece for the room, a solid presence that is framed by overflowing flower arrangements of red and while carnations, with ribbons.
As we cry a little, Ashanti’s cousin starts up a video, photos of Ashanti in full force. We listen to home grown rap songs. We see Ashanti introducing her DIY weekly show on life, music, and, of course, “corporate America,” as she tells us in the video. Her cousin chimes in that they will be sure to cover rap music, too! We see her goofing around with family and friends, the way it should be. We laugh a little.
As the service began, the family processes in. Family and friends fill the room, and they keep coming. It is standing room only, with many listening and watching from the hallway. I had flown down from Oakland to be there, to begin to come to grips with this reality that I didn’t want to believe. The service starts. People say, “She is life,” because she is so full of love. Light. Love. Life. Sass. These sentiments come up again and again as her family and friends speak. People say she made them feel special. I felt that, too. I remember times of Ashanti looking over, and feeling a mutual sense of joy. She is a “sparkplug,” when she walks into the room, says the Reverend. Yes, she is, was. How do we talk about this vivacious spirit now? Oh, how it hurts to have this light of a person go out in this world.
I learn that she sang with her cousins, nieces, and nephews. I watch the antics, captured on video. Ashanti singing for the camera – always with family and friends. I am told that Ashanti inherited much of her creativity from her mom, who loved to read and write poems, before she passed away. One moment, you are hamming it up, singing on the video screen. The next moment, I approach your open casket. In a split second, I know that you were no longer here.
Many people say, “I will really miss her smile.” This was a smile of joy, of love, a smile that competes with the bright white flash of teeth that her cousin gives us, as he talks about Ashanti at her funeral service. Other people say, “She was tough,” and she pulled through for her friends and family. When her niece put in that first job application, Ashanti was in the back office arguing with the administrators. They were going to hire her niece. When her friend’s car broke down in the street, Ashanti said, “Now you are going to drive, and I’m going to push you.” She had lost her mom and her dad. Yet she loved her extended family, and she always knew how to make a new place her home. How does one measure up to Ashanti’s smile?
So many sides to Ashanti: tough, smart, wilderness, friend, singer. She was so loving, but she also knew how to act tough. She knew how to get people to like her so that they would help her out during difficult moments. The word “chameleon” comes up in conversation. Not in a bad way, but in a way that marvels at her ability to fit in, whether it was rural Colorado in the mountains at Eagle Rock School, or on the streets of Riverside, California. I always thought of Ashanti as a survivor, which makes this loss even harder to deal with.
One young woman tells us that Ashanti also had a soft side. It was not easy to lose one’s mother so young. I learn that her mother had more energy for Ashanti’s older siblings. But Ashanti’s brother would convince her mom to go out with them trick-or-treating. The youngest kid still needed her mom. Is this what the Reverend was talking about when he evoked the spiritual, “Climbing up the Rough Side of the Mountain?” Those of us who knew Ashanti from Eagle Rock School had seen her mountain climbing. We knew she could get to the top, but it wasn’t always easy.
We know her from so many different places. And now we are beginning to know each other. While I had met Ashanti in Colorado, I had never gotten to meet all the family members she was so close to. I didn’t realize how many cousins, nieces and nephews she had in her life, who loved her, whom she was mentoring now in her twenties. This gathering of people is a healing moment.
She was just starting to find herself. One family member said that they had talked with her at one point when she was thinking about having a baby. People say, “She is unconditional with her love.” What could be a more perfect characteristic for Ashanti as an aunt, a mentor, maybe even a mom? I get all broken up watching Ashanti’s younger niece crying with her mom.
When I was in my mid-twenties and struggling to be a teacher, Ashanti gave me moments of real friendship. Being with her was being in the present tense. Feeling like my belly would burst from laughing so hard at our antics. Even while we studied and worked, Ashanti gave me permission to be a kid again. We would talk about the things that we were passionate about – love, family, justice in the world – jumping from our teenage selves to our adult selves and back again.
I think of calling out to her, “Hey, girl!” She almost skips up with a grin, lanky arms swinging. Fully herself, even as a cool 16-year-old. Glowing dark skin, and a brightness about her face. I don’t notice that she is petite, because her spirit takes up the whole room. She would always tell me she loved me. What a good lesson – teaching friends to be generous with their love and to say what they feel. I loved her too, and I told her so. She was the one who taught me to do that. She was simply fun to be with. Just to kick it. We didn’t need to be doing anything. She would take me for who I am. I could talk to her. We would dance crazy-like. She was a student and a friend and family. Now she is gone, and it is too sad.
We let her go by weeping in each other’s arms before a shining silver casket and bursting bouquets of flowers. The special attention to color and the decorations say we want to make your last days beautiful, Ashanti, because we love you.
We let her go by speaking and listening and singing about her, so that others begin to see the stories from all the places she has been – California, Colorado, Washington D.C., Washington State. Why not cover both coasts and the middle of the country in your short life span while you’re at it, Ashanti?
We let her go by gathering at the gravesite that will be her memorial. A carpet of green grass that rests below the Southern California scraggly desert rocky outcrops. The rocks that are continually looking down over our sad party – comforting each other, laughing with each other, and meeting one another for the first time.
We let her go by sharing a meal – greens and chicken and turkey and potato salad and peach cobbler and red velvet cake and more. Ashanti is saying, heat up the coals, let’s barbeque!
The part that we will not let go is the injustice of this. Why was Ashanti called when she was? A relative says killing of innocent bystanders is happening more and more in the Riverside area. This is for “shock value” – death just for tearing communities apart. Why are young people and other innocents dying in neighborhoods where families used to feel safe? At the same time that we search for the peace in this individual tragedy, we search for justice to cut through a societal crisis.
Ashanti was shot and killed just in front of the house where she had spent much of her childhood. She was on her way to visit her cousin who now lives there, and who just lost her own father. Her body was cool in the street before anyone got to her. Ashanti was found by her cousin, who opened the door when she got worried that Ashanti should have already been there by now. She opened the door and found that Ashanti was already there, yet already gone.
Ashanti is playing around on the video screen, and flashing her signature grin. Her hair is short now, compared to when we spent time together. She is joking around about how people are telling her to cut her hair, to give it a close crop. On the video she tells us that she is here to ask the American people to answer a simple question. “Do I look like Don King???!” she bellows at her audience. The votes are tallied… Drumroll. And a notebook page slides across the screen. The handwritten page tells us what we need to know. “Yes!” She does look like Don King!
She got shot in the back, a family member tells me. Who knows what the perpetrators saw in her silhouette, a young Black woman, as she was walking down the street to her cousin’s house. One person thinks that they would not have shot her if they had realized that she was a girl. My God, what is this? Why do gender and racial categories predispose an innocent young person to an early and violent death?
The Reverend says that God decided it was her time, and that is not for us to understand. She is in a better place, even while those who are left mourn her loss. Yet at the funeral, family and friends tell each other, we need to come together as a community. We need to watch out for each other. You need to let someone know where you going and to take extra care. We need to get organized. We need to stop this senseless violence.
The words help, Ashanti, my dear. I know I have not seen you in the last few years. There was that Facebook exchange, and the T-shirt that I mailed you. Yet that seems so small and insignificant. Now you are no longer physically with us, and I am seeing the body you have left behind. I regret that it has been so long since we had seen each other. Yet here I am also talking with your family for the first time… about you. I am writing and thinking about you. The love is there to stay. You still have things to teach me.
I will really miss that smile, and I will miss Ashanti coming up to wrap her arms around me. Saying “I love you!” and meaning it. This is something to hold on to, to remember, and to learn from. As one of her cousins said, “She is so planted with her spirit in me, I will grow again.” Let it be so.