Don't Just Occupy Space, Create it
Semi Williams ’20 reflects on the impact of honorary degree recipients Risë Jones Pichon ’73, J.D. ’76 and Joanne Hayes-White ’86—and her path as a Black student at Santa Clara.
The following was a speech given by Semi Williams at the virtual conferring of honorary degrees held June 4.
This is such a momentous occasion and I am honored to participate in the conferring of two honorary doctorates to two extraordinary women. Both Ms. Risë Pichon and Ms. Joanne Hayes-White have led remarkable lives filled with major successes. Both women have created legacies and inspired young girls and women who can look at them and know that if these two women did it, there are no boundaries to what they could do too.
As I prepared for this day, I reflected upon the legacies of these two remarkable women, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, and my own experience as a Black woman at SCU. The quote by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley came to mind. Congresswoman Pressley said of her position: “I’m not here just to occupy space, I’m here to create it.” To me, this quotation perfectly encapsulates the work of Ms. Pichon, Ms. Hayes-White, the History of Women’s Activism and Liberation, and my own understanding of what it means to be a Black woman in student leadership positions at Santa Clara University.
The history of women’s activism and the unfortunate limits of solidarity were evident in the movement to pass the 19th Amendment. While Black women and White women joined together in the suffrage movement, White women denied Black women the right to be at the forefront of the passing of the amendment. Black women were integral to creating the space for the 19th amendment to be ratified by the states, but were stripped of the recognition for their work and asked to stand in the back, so that White women could win enough votes to pass the Amendment.
While the 19th Amendment was a historic achievement for women in terms of political, social, and legal recognition, the reality is that those possibilities were not granted in practice for Black women. Even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Black women continued to fight to create the space for all people to be able to exercise their rights. It was another forty-five years after this before the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed, to ensure that all people regardless of gender or race were able to truly exercise their rights. This was only 55 years ago. I am only the second generation of Black women in my family, who was born with the full rights of the Constitution afforded to me. Yet, in reflecting on this history, we are reminded that there is so much more to be done in terms of justice, legal rights, recognition, and equity. This was something I learned once I became a student at Santa Clara University.
When I first came to SCU, I was not aware of what it would mean to be a Black multiracial multiethnic student on this campus. I noticed a lot of silence in my classes when we spoke about racism, sexism, different forms of oppression and the ways in which they intersect. I realized, on many occasions, if I did not speak up, no one would. In those moments, I began to understand that I could not just occupy space as a Black student on campus but had to create change. In thinking about the long lasting change I wanted to create at SCU, my motivation was my two younger sisters. I thought about what I would want for them when they began college. I knew that in order for them to have an experience without racism or sexism, one with true diversity, equity, and inclusion, there would need to be change; and I would have to work to create the changes that I needed to see, for them and for my fellow students.
So I began to take on leadership positions, working with various communities on campus. I listened to their grievances and concerns. In these spaces, for and with students, I was inspired by the way that students of color, especially Black women, advocated on behalf of themselves and their communities. Most went without recognition yet they all strived to continue to fight to make SCU a space that was better for all.
During my senior year I began working on the Inclusive Excellence Council and transformed it into an organization that has created the changes that marginalized student communities needed and wanted. While I was asked to speak today because of my role as a student leader, I want to acknowledge that I make up one part of a larger collective of Black women and women of color who form communities with one another, inspire one another, and channel the histories of sisterhood, solidarity, and activism. These students, educators, faculty, and staff show up to their classrooms and this campus as leaders and activists every day. If it wasn’t for these women I’ve met and been inspired by, these everyday student leaders and activists, who work with and without leadership titles, on behalf of all students, I wouldn’t be here today. If it weren’t for my professors who changed my view on who higher education was for and about, by centering Black women and women of color in their research and assigning work by Black intellectuals in their classrooms, I would have never understood that my potential and possibility were much greater than what I had imagined and what I had been taught throughout my entire education.
While I am given the space to speak today, I want to recognize these women who have inspired me and taught me to lead and create change. So often Black women and women of color are not given the recognition that they deserve.
So Thank you: Dr. Jesica Fernández, Dr. Allia Griffin, Dr. Sharmila Lodhia, Dr. Sherice Nelson, Pr. Margaret Russell, Pr. Deborah Moss-West, Kennedy Myers ’20, Leah Sparkman ’21, Kayla Williams ’19, Jamie Jenkins, Khiely Jackson ’20, Sydney Thompson ’20, Alejandra Fraume ’20, Chloe Gentile-Montgomery ’21, my mothers Alisa Hatfield-Dixon, Andrea Beasley Jolly, my sisters Shantell Jolly, Olivia Jolly, and my grandmother Willie Beasley, the strongest woman I know.
There are so many more who have poured into and inspired me. Today I add Ms. Pichon and Ms. Hayes-White to my list. Thank you for the work you have done and for inspiring women and young girls, like me, by creating spaces and opportunities for women in your fields.
Lastly, as we scramble to get “back to normal” in the aftermath of both a pandemic and police violence, I would like to ask everyone to reflect on what our normal was and what it meant. For Black and other insitutionally marginalized communities normal meant systemic racism, sexism, oppression, discrimination, and systematic injustice. Our new normal can and should be so much better.
As our country attempts to move forward, I ask you to think about how you can work to support the Movement for Black lives, educate your communities, and center institutionally marginalized communities. I ask you all to reflect on your positionality and privilege when thinking about how you can bring about change and equity for those around you. I ask you to consider what resources and support you can provide to those disproportionately impacted. I ask you to think about who you will become in this time of reopening and who you will allow others around you to become.
I ask you to not just occupy space, but to create it.