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.”