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Drew University Welcomes Ruha Benjamin

The author, professor, visits with students, talks racial justice with the community

February 2023 – Drew University continued the celebration of Black History Month by welcoming Ruha Benjamin to share her work on racial justice with students, faculty, and staff.

Benjamin is the professor of African American studies at Princeton University, founding director of the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab, and the author of Viral Justice: How to Grow the World we Want, Race After Technology, People’s Science, and Captivating Technology.

A gifted storyteller, she studies the social dimensions of science, medicine, and technology with a focus on the relationship between innovation and inequity, knowledge and power, race and citizenship, and health and justice. 

Her appearance was made possible by Drew’s Pan-African Studies program and the Center for Civic Engagement.

Benjamin’s Viral Justice is currently included in the Drew Action Scholar Seminar II course syllabus. 

Drew’s Pan-African Studies students and Action Scholars had the opportunity to participate in a meet and greet with Benjamin and engage in a conversational Q&A session with the author.

One student asked Benjamin what sparked the idea for Viral Justice.

“It was spring of 2020 and we were living through the convergence of a public health and policing crisis,” she answered. “I was trying to make sense of it, trying to metabolize the emotions I was feeling.”

Before the pandemic, Benjamin lost her father to the H1N1 virus and the pandemic triggered familiar feelings of grief and rage. “I tapped into that grief and used it as fuel. In many ways I was writing the book for myself, to get myself through this, but also trying to make it useful for other people who I know were sharing many of the same experiences.”

Benjamin was asked how best to educate those close to you about racism.

“The most meaningful conversations happen when you already have some level of trust, love, and care for that person’s growth,” said Benjamin. “We also have to remind ourselves that we went through a process of growth, and what helped us? Think that we’re all teachers, whether we have that title or not. Think about what helped our growth, and try to use that as a way to invite those to think about a more expansive view of the world.”

Benjamin then discussed her ideology on social justice, innovation, and community-building through a hybrid lecture to the Drew community on viral justice.

Benjamin, who grew up in Los Angeles, was inspired at an early age by poets Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Ursula Rucker.

“Poetry is easy to underestimate, the same way it’s easy to underestimate how our individual actions and decisions can shape the world around us,” she said. “A poem can slice into your insides and open you up to the world like one thousand footnotes never could.”

Through unique, small-scaled, and localized examples of racial justice, Benjamin shared stories of strength, repurpose, and rebuilding. 

“If this pandemic taught us anything, it’s that something almost undetectable can be deadly,” she said. “And we can transmit it without even knowing. Doesn’t this imply that small things—seemingly minor actions, decisions, habits—could have exponential effects in the other direction? Tipping the scales towards justice, affirming life, fostering well being, invigorating society—the attention to seemingly small actions is what I think of as viral justice.”

She used Ron Finley, also known as the Gangsta Gardener, as an example. He turned parkways (small plots of grass between the street and sidewalk) in South Central Los Angeles into edible gardens to address food insecurity and educate residents on the benefits of whole food.

“This is why arts and imagination are so vital for world building,” said Benjamin.

“Viral justice is an admission—we are exhausted, discouraged, grieving. It’s a recognition that the most resolute and hopeful among us worry that our efforts are futile. We each have to figure out what our plot is. Whether digging deep or sowing seeds far and wide, plotting is about questioning the scripts that we’ve been handed and scheming with others for the collective good for all.”

When asked how to start viral justice efforts, Benjamin responded, “Figure out what pisses you off. Of all the injustices and problems in the world, what really boils your blood, keeps you up at night? Use that anger as fuel for the work.”

She closed by asking the audience, “Where is your plot?”

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