Angela Davis, UC Santa Cruz professor and political activist, received the Marie Fielder Medal for Social Transformation at a virtual event on Jan. 14 held by Fielding Graduate University in partnership with Healing Justice Santa Barbara and The Fund for Santa Barbara.
The event, titled “A Community Conversation with an Icon: How America Can Change,” marked the fifth awarding of the Marie Fielder Medal, with Davis joining the likes of Walter Bumphus, Gary Orfield, and Patricia Gurin — all leaders in education and social work — as well as civil rights and labor activist Dolores Huerta.
Fielding Graduate University President Katrina Rogers opened the event, describing the early mission of Fielding Graduate University.
“We were founded by faculty 48 years ago to be a place where graduate education could be designed for people who had been shut out of traditional graduate education at that time, particularly women and people of color,” Rogers said.
During her introduction, she commended Davis for her life’s dedication to social change and fighting for racial, economic and gender justice.
“Professor Davis has championed for social justice and campaigned for her lifetime, particularly with the prison industrial complex which has grown since the 1980s with the emergence of the private prison industry,” Rogers said.
Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama to parents who were active community organizers. She picketed against racial segregation as a teenager; later on, she earned her doctorate in philosophy at Humboldt University of Berlin and gained recognition as a radical feminist.
She also founded Critical Resistance, a nonprofit advocating for an end to mass incarceration and the dismantling of the prison-industrial complex, in 1997.
In addition to her work as a scholar and activist, Davis has published several books including “Are Prisons Obsolete?” in 2003, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement” in 2015 and “Abolition. Feminism. Now.” in 2022.
The medal was first awarded in 2016 following the establishment of the Marie Fielder Center for Democracy, Leadership and Education at Fielding, both named after founding faculty member Marie Fielder.
According to Orlando Taylor, director of the Marie Fielder Center and distinguished advisor to President Rogers, Fielder contributed to the efforts of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Whitney Young, and worked with the Black Panther Party as well as served as an advisor to the Los Angeles Police Department on race relations.
The medal honors activists like Fielder who have made notable accomplishments toward achieving racial equity.
“The annual awarding of this medal is perhaps the center’s annual signature initiative,” Taylor said. “It recognizes an individual for a lifetime of sustained advocacy, actions and achievements devoted to supporting access, equity, diversity and inclusion of all people in communities in their quest for success and fulfillment of their aspirations.”
Davis accepted the award by first thanking the university and the partners of the event.
“I wanted to express my gratitude for this major honor you have bestowed on me … I can only hope that my own contributions are worthy of the Marie Fielder Medal for Social Transformation.”
She then proceeded to recognize the prominence of historically marginalized communities in movements fighting against racism, classism, sexism, ecological destruction, neocolonialism and other social movements.
“Social change emanates from the activities and contributions and collective commitments of vast numbers of people who are not the ‘great men’ who until relatively recently have been regarded as the makers of history,” Davis said. “There is clearly no social transformation without the kind of education for which Marie Fielder was a proponent and the kind of pedagogy she represented in her own work.”
Following her statement, Miriam Dance, director of theater at The Riviera Ridge School and Bishop Garcia Diego High School in Santa Barbara, performed a song accompanied by local musicians John and Nansie Douglas. Dance said she she wrote the piece the day after George Floyd’s murder, describing it as a “song of pain, song of sorrow and song that just asks the question, ‘When will we matter?’”
“How many more brothers, countless names? How many more Black deaths on this plain? How many more times will they just walk away?” Dance said while singing.
“Will you just let us be? Respect our right to breathe. Will you just let us live? Enough is enough; you will pay for sins. Rise up, we ain’t taking no more. Tribe up, no more blood on the floor. We gon’ bust through the doors for sisters and brothers who can’t speak no more,” she sang on.
The event then transitioned into an interactive segment, during which Davis responded to questions posed by Simone Akila, co-founder of Juneteenth Santa Barbara as well as Healing Justice Santa Barbara, and Marcos Vargas, executive director of the Fund for Santa Barbara.
In conversation about working together toward prison abolition, Davis spoke about her involvement in the movement and how she deems the reorganization of society as critical for meaningful reform to take place.
“The question is not, ‘How do we get rid of prisons?’ The question is, ‘How do we imagine a future in which we no longer need to rely on these institutions of violence and repression, on police and prisons.’ But of course, that’s also related to healthcare; it’s also related to education; it’s related to all the institutions in society,” Davis said.