By ELIZA GUION & ANA MASHEK
After sociology professor Vanessa Muñoz introduced Rosa Clemente as the speaker for the department’s 19th annual Daniel Patrick O’Connor memorial lecture, someone else took the stage.
JLove Calderón, Clemente’s friend and fellow social justice activist, encouraged the crowd — which filled nearly three quarters of the lower seating section of the Richard F. Celeste Theater — to partake in some breathing exercises.
Three deep breaths later, the audience was greeted by a somewhat frazzled and out of breath Clemente. “After you have a baby, things happen,” she said. Laughs lingered in the theater as she took a few seconds to prepare to deliver her talk. A 2008 vice presidential candidate, journalist, and grassroots organizer, Clemente addressed the current political climate and her own journey in activism.
The O’Connor Lecture commemorates the life of Dan O’Connor, a Colorado College student who was committed to the struggle for social justice.
“I continue to feel an ethical code is necessary to live by, but now I include in this code political activity … I am compelled to hit the streets and make my voice heard,” read a quote from O’Connor on the back of the lecture program. Clemente’s speech aligned well with his message, as she urged students to speak out against injustices and organize their communities.
Clemente began by sketching outlines of our political moment and emphasizing the gravity of the current situation. “There is no morality in the executive branch,” she said. “All who stay are complicit and consenting to fascism.”
Clemente refused to parse words or sidestep ugly realities as she spoke about the rise of open white nationalism in the U.S., exemplified by racist hate groups emerging in Albany, N.Y., where she lives. Within two minutes of taking the stage, Clemente brought to the forefront the plights of children caged in detention centers by ICE and the fatal shooting of De’Von Bailey by Colorado Springs police.
She treated the threat of climate change with similar weight. “The climate catastrophe is here,” she said. “And if we don’t name it, if we don’t deal with it, your generation is not going to survive.” She identified climate change as our greatest existential threat, describing how it pervades every intersection of identity and oppression.
Clemente combined her acknowledgement of these awful truths with calls to action, appealing to histories of resistance and revolutionary change. A student of history, Clemente’s speech was peppered with quotations: from Frantz Fanon to Assata Shakur, bell hooks, and Kwame Ture, among others.
“Question everything you’ve been taught,” Clemente urged the crowd. She shared her own radical ideas such as, “If you’re anti-racist, you have to be anti-capitalist — racism isn’t an attitude, rather, a result of our economic climate.” She acknowledged that tuition-free college may seem like a “pie in the sky idea.” However, what if we think of solutions, Clemente asked, like “cutting military spending”?
She shared with the audience how exposure to Afro-diasporic history and thinkers as an undergraduate played a pivotal role in her personal development. “To decolonize my mind I had to read, I had to study,” she said.
Clemente reflected on her experiences as an Afro-Latinx student from the Bronx, N.Y., at a predominantly white institution, and spoke directly to students of color in the audience. College, for Clemente, was “enlightening;” she walked away with an education that she believes translates to power. So, Clemente had many messages to pass on for those in the same stage of life. She also called upon white students, to, “learn the history of white resistance to white supremacy,” citing Anne Braden, David Gilbert, and Naomi Klein as examples.
Clemente connected issues of white supremacy, the climate crisis, and other social injustices through an economic lens, offering a scathing critique of capitalism. “There can be no compassion in capitalism,” she said. She encouraged her audience to visualize alternative ways of being that prioritize community and interdependence. In this way, Clemente kept a sense of future possibility throughout her talk, in spite of the grim obstacles in the way.
Clemente asked the difficult question: “When history is told about our time, your children are going to ask, what did you do?” In an era Clemente describes as characterized by “white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism,” the fight is “not a Snapchat, a hashtag, or a phrase.”
Among some students, the message was well received. “My main takeaway from Clemente’s talk was that individuals in our generation don’t have to be passionate and work on solving every issue,” said Isabella McShea ’20. “Instead, individuals can choose one or two issues to fight for in this trying political and social time.”
Abby Williams ’20 felt inspired by Clemente’s balanced realism. “I thought that the lecture was really impactful,” said Williams. “It was hard hitting and dire at points, but there’s this element of proactiveness. You have to recognize it, and then go and do something about it … there’s a lot of work to be done.”
To learn more about Clemente and her work, visit rosaclemente.net.