McCoy lecture bridges identity gap

Social activist Yavilah McCoy gave a lecture on Sept. 7 and led workshops on Sept. 8 and 9 dealing with intersectional identities. Courtesy of Vassar College/Karl Rabe
Social activist Yavilah McCoy gave a lecture on Sept. 7 and led workshops on Sept. 8 and 9 dealing with intersectional identities. Courtesy of Vassar College/Karl Rabe
Social activist Yavilah McCoy gave a lecture on Sept. 7 and led workshops on Sept. 8 and 9 dealing with intersectional identities. Courtesy of Vassar College/Karl Rabe

Over the course of her visit to Vassar, social activist Yavilah McCoy proved that genuine discus­sions about faith-based, racial, class and gender identities are not just possible, but completely necessary. McCoy delivered a lecture entitled, “Faith, Race, Power, and Privilege” on Sept. 7 and led anti-oppression workshops on Sept. 8 and 9.

Discussing her identity with­in Jewish communities and in the broader context of contem­porary American society, McCoy emphasized that any solution or compromise must be born out of open-minded dialogue between peo­ple with different backgrounds and personal histories. McCoy began, “When people get together to share, when they open their hearts, when they say something that you haven’t heard before, it is a gift; it is a beautiful gift; it is sacred. I want to invite you to share in ways that can be held dear and valued and that will have promise for what happens at Vassar and in the world.” In McCoy’s approach, sincere speech and genuine listening are the starting point for bridging differences, especially those that have emerged from traumatic social events.

One such trauma is the disproportionate­ly high rate of incarcerated individuals from minority backgrounds in the American prison system. McCoy noted, “Racism is a disease that is killing our nation. I’m also awake to the fact people of color make up only 30 percent of United States population and yet account for 60 percent of those who are in prison or are in­carcerated.” Encouraging a way of thinking that sensitizes people to differences of race, class and gender, McCoy continued, “Intersectional­ity in the name of dismantling systems of op­pression amplifies the sound of many and mul­tiple hearts crying out for healing, repair and resolution. Intersectionality is a call to action.”

McCoy’s focus on intersectionality as a re­sponse to traumatic social developments cap­tured the hearts of her audience. A major as­pect of McCoy’s lecture was the connections between Jewish identity and various categories of race, class and gender. Raymond and Jewett House Advisor Michael Drucker reflected, “To me, McCoy’s remarks on Thursday night meant pride. I was emotional after the lecture, with tears in my eyes, because I was overcome with great pride for my community. I left with my own personal needs for being understood, for mattering, for community and for hope being met. I am still feeling exhilarated by it, days afterward, and for that I’m grateful.” Sylvan Perlmutter ’19 corroborated, “McCoy’s remarks were really meaningful to me as a Latinx-Jew who has struggled to feel fully understood in Jewish and Latinx spaces. The fact that she so confidently owned the intersection of her iden­tities really inspired me to not feel like I needed to tone down any part of myself.” Drucker and Perlmutter’s reflections exemplified the per­sonal responses of many attendees.

As a leader in education reform, McCoy has served as the director and founder of a non-profit organization called Ayecha that engages in advocacy for Jews from ethnic and racial minorities as well as a director of The Curriculum Initiative aimed at promoting Jew­ish identity in educational contexts. The key conclusion that McCoy distills from her experi­ence is that, even though positive and definitive resolutions to conflicts of faith, race, class and gender remain in the distant future, it is possi­ble to lay the foundations for tomorrow’s peace by engaging in dialogue that reminds partici­pants of their shared humanity. Crediting Mc­Coy’s experience, Drucker elaborated, “The presence and wisdom of a leader like McCoy on our campus are, in part, a response to the past and will act as stimuli for responses in the fu­ture. By that I mean, her lecture and workshops were not the beginning of a response to any specific issue nor are they the absolute answer for anything moving forward. As she reminded us several times during her visit, we are Vassar and the answers already reside within us.”

From speech to practice, McCoy delivered workshops that not only instructed students and faculty on how to facilitate open discus­sions, but also engaged them at the level of their personal histories. Henry Rosen ’17 comment­ed, “My personal experience of Yavilah Mc­Coy’s visit to campus was overall very positive. I thought she conveyed in an open and inviting way a very important perspective on campus activism and student leadership. She encour­aged students to be active and vocal against structural oppressions and to invite change to campus. In her workshops, she offered ways of thinking about leadership that could help facil­itate more genuine and far-reaching inclusivi­ty.” Rosen continued, “Several of JVP-Vassar’s student leaders attended Yavilah’s workshops, and so we’ll be taking to heart her reminders, approaches and insights with regard to campus organizing over the coming year.”

In addition to Jewish Voice for Peace, Mc­Coy’s workshops addressed student leaders from Vassar Jewish Union, Multiracial and Biracial Students Association, Students for Justice in Palestine and the ALANA Center. McCoy’s workshops also attracted students who were generally interested in supporting multicultural dialogue and interaction on cam­pus. Isabel Morrison ’19 noted, “[W]e talked about the goals and strengths of each of the communities and then discussed where things overlapped and where they were different. We explored how to create safer communities and spaces; we also talked about how people can take on multiple roles in systems of oppression at different times, including victims, perpetra­tors, bystanders and allies.”

Continuing his reflections on the workshops, Drucker noted, “I would say McCoy greatly addressed the Jewish community at Vassar, as well, as our diverse community of people of color whether they are Jewish or not. McCoy presented herself to us as Jewish, as African American and Black, and as woman…telling us plainly that she is not an anomaly. For our Jew­ish community, specifically, one of the gifts she gave us is to leave behind the myth that all Jews are white because it simply isn’t true.”

Drucker appreciated the hope McCoy of­fered that intersectional oppression can be combatted. “Her teaching reminded me that there is White Supremacy that creates racism and Christian Hegemony that creates religious discrimination (including, but not limited to antisemitism) and the two systems of oppres­sion work together,” he affirmed. “We have the capacity, as a community, to address them both simultaneously,” he concluded. Perlmut­ter agreed, “I hope that the presence of a Black Jewish woman on campus will help dispel the pernicious stereotype that all Jews are rich and white. These views have made it difficult for Jews to participate in the social justice move­ment because they have to constantly deal with false assumptions about the nature of their communities.”

The open discussion facilitated by McCoy’s visit also brought out observations about Vas­sar College’s campus-wide response to issues of faith, race and privilege. Rosen argues that the campus climate remains lukewarm to fully funding the Arabic program, increasing CARES and Metcalf budgets, offering Islam Studies within the Religion Department, establishing a Middle Eastern and North African Studies Department as well as supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement. In regard to Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, Rosen explained, “I think the school should be doing more to actively support Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives by holding roundtable discussions, inviting speakers, designing seminars and workshops for students, first-years in particular. The ad­ministration as well as the VSA should also be supporting Black student organizing on cam­pus and actively seeking the voices and input of Black students in relation to political conversa­tions happening on campus.”

In parallel, Perlmutter highlighted possible improvements in the Office of Residential and Spiritual Life’s response to these issues. He stat­ed, “There does not seem to be an established space where RSL orgs and identity groups can regularly interact and create interperson­al as well as inter organizational connections. If some common space could be established that would be a great start.” Morrison agreed, “Vassar is lagging behind its peer institutions in many ways concerning offering support to marginalized students. This is primarily due to decision makers for the college being out of touch with the needs of students. However, it is also due to lack of communication between re­ligious and other identity-based communities.”

Despite the subtle impact of social trauma and closed attitudes toward a variety of issues, patience and hope manage to find their way into everyday moments. Morrison continued, “There are many common goals between iden­tity-based and religious communities including supporting students based on how they identify and working for justice and peace.” Anticipat­ing these types of criticisms and the long pro­cess of dialogue, negotiation and compromise at the end of her lecture, McCoy concluded, “Your liberation is my liberation and my liber­ation is your liberation, and we cannot have it any other way. I welcome you to your truth, and may the journey continue to find us together.”

One Comment

  1. Yavilah McCoy is Black and Jewish, and it’s telling that you did not include a single quote from an African-American student in this piece, but instead (and not for the first time), included multiple paragraph-long quotes from Henry Rosen.

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