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“Commitment, Cultivation and Curation:” Prof. Imani Perry on Digital Activism

The Bates College Office of Equity and Diversity welcomed Professor Imani Perry to the Olin Arts Center on March 7, 2019. Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies and faculty associate in the Program in Law and Public Affairs and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University, was chosen as the OED’s 2019 social justice speaker.
Titled, “‘Nice for What?’ The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Digital Activism,” Perry’s talk was centered around the power of technology in digital communities for initiating social change. Perry began, saying “[we] now have the opportunity to network with people doing similar social activism work. A great deal of opportunity develops out of that.” Perry expanded on this opportunity, saying digital platforms, such as social media, “facilitate the building of organizations, ultimately having the ability to shift the discourse nationwide.”
Yet Perry cautioned the audience of the detrimental effects of digital activism that she has witnessed. Speaking on the act of police brutality, she said “When death started to be recorded, we watched [police brutality against black boys], forgetting that we are being subject to entertainment that is being aired as a way for news networks to gain coverage, and make money.” Perry said this coverage evoked memories of lynching—displaying death, in some respect, for control and profit.
As viewers, she is afraid we are becoming desensitized to these images and the messages we are receiving. She said digital activism is only as successful as the understanding of its intention. What you want people to pick up as the message is not always what ends up being picked up. She concluded her talk asking whether we can shift culture, what is necessary, and if we should be patient. She said if we want social activism to be effective, we need to “commit not to claims of innocence or virtues, but to our own transformations.” She said it is imperative to be open and eventually comfortable to changes in transformations, welcoming “our own transformative possibilities, and anticipating the discomfort of growing.”
Quoting Bob Marley, Perry said “someone will have to pay for the innocent blood shed every day.”
During the question and answer period after Perry’s talk, one audience member asked: “How can we shut down or change destructive conversations? He further said, “For example, I don’t think we should talk about Trump tweeting all the time, I think it is creating rhetoric that is detrimental. So how do we combat that conversation with another conversation?”
Perry answered: “We need to not be passive recipients of information we receive.” She acknowledged the constant presence of information unwittingly being forced on us all the time. She said “On one hand, there is use in the presence of information, but on the other we need to learn how to curate this information and we can do that through community.” She continued to reveal how it surprised her that when she became intentional with what she was listening to, watching, and engaging in, she felt more in control, saying “we need to talk about what we want to listen to, what we want to read, what we want to look at—commitment, cultivation and curation is especially challenging but also essential.”