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History of Activism Explored During Two-Day Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference

By Jo Kadlecek

When Jim Downs, an '04 history PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, was considering how he and some friends could pull together graduate students for a meaningful conference, he realized he would have to find a topic that they would be passionate about. Though Downs is studying history, he also wanted to gather an interdisciplinary group of academics to look at a subject from all sides. Activism seemed the ideal area for both.

The result was a two-day conference sponsored by Columbia's History Department and the Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSAC) entitled, "History of Activism, History as Activism." The recent conference drew over 300 participants, and 100 emerging scholars from a half dozen countries presented papers on topics ranging from environmental activism and women's movements to alternative media and art as activism.

Downs, his co-leader Jennifer Manion, a graduate student at Rutgers, and their committee of 12 graduate students were surprised when within months of announcing the conference and calling for papers, they received over 200 proposals from scholars around the world for 70 presentation slots.

"The conference was an attempt to provide graduate students with a forum to present their work," Downs said. "We were shocked when proposals came in from around the world: Germany, Ireland, Australia, Pakistan, Canada, France, and all over the United States. But we also received proposals from senior faculty who wanted to participate."

As a result, they decided to organize the conference into three areas. Panel discussions allowed graduate students the opportunity to display their work on some aspect of the history of activism. Workshops invited activists, experts and scholars to discuss practical elements of activism such as publishing and archiving, and round tables engaged faculty with graduate students in much-needed discussion around certain issues of activism and the direction of the field.

"It's appropriate that a conference on activism takes place here because of Columbia's long history of activism by both scholars and students," said Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, in his introductory remarks at the conference. Given all that is happening in the world, Foner said there is a desperate need for new analysis in scholarship and activism.

"Scholarship can be an important form of activism. A lot of scholarship and activism is important even when it might not seem relevant with current issues," Foner said. "That's the role that young scholars are playing. They foresee a struggle in the future and so determine the proper balance between activism and scholarship."

In a workshop on archiving activism, Orlando Bagwell, a PBS documentary filmmaker who worked on the award winning civil rights series, "Eyes on the Prize," challenged the participants to "translate troubling attitudes into action that can help change the world. Our role is to find voices and collect events and stories to make it possible for us to see and make change in the world."

Gary Okihiro, professor in the School of International and Public Affairs and director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, joined other professors in a roundtable discussion exploring how to bridge the gap between academia and activism. Barron Lerner, Angelica Berrie-Gold Foundation Associate Professor of Medicine at Columbia and author of "The Breast Cancer Wars" (Oxford, 2001), presented his findings on the history of modern breast cancer activism during a panel on gender, sexuality, and healthcare advocacy. A screening of the documentary film "Occupation -- the Harvard Living Wage Campaign 21-Day Sit-In" was also included in the conference.

"What was truly unique about the conference is that we had such great faculty support and involvement throughout the two days," Downs said. "Throughout our conference, the faculty involvement did not detract from the graduate student presentations but in many ways enhanced it. This was a serious moment of historical inquiry and reflection on activist work."

Published: Apr 24, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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