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UMass Lowell launches lectures on racial justice

Civil rights activist Fania Davis, who will serve as the 2021 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies at UMass Lowell.
Civil rights activist Fania Davis, who will serve as the 2021 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies at UMass Lowell.Fania Davis

At a time of nationwide protests in support of racial equality and social justice, University of Massachusetts Lowell has found a way to keep its students and the public engaged with the issue.

The university this month launched a yearlong series of lectures examining such issues as the legacy of white supremacy, voter suppression, and the removal of public memorials with racist connections. The forums, free and open to all, are being held virtually, at least for this semester.

The talks are being offered as an extension of UMass Lowell’s Greeley Peace Scholar program, in which a visiting scholar each spring delivers a lecture and speaks with students and community groups on peace and justice issues.

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“Given the protests around Black Lives Matter and the need for social justice, the university felt like we really had to do something to address the issues,” said Sue Kim, associate dean of undergraduate studies in UMass Lowell’s College of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and a member of the Greeley Scholar Board. “This is a longer conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how to make real structural change.”

A variety of university departments have participated in recruiting speakers for the added talks, resulting in a lineup that will delve into social justice through such prisms as art, economics, the environment, and music, according to Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, chair and a professor of UMass Lowell’s political science department, and cochair of the Greeley Scholar Board.

“I hope that Greeley’s expanded program can create awareness among our students and the general public about the multifaceted features of social justice and instill in them a sense of inspiration, greater appreciation and responsibility for social justice, and creative ideas to help move us beyond our increasingly polarized society,” Thawnghmung said by email.

Meanwhile, the university also announced its selection of Fania Davis, a prominent civil rights attorney and activist, as the 2021 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies.

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Davis, a sister of longtime political activist Angela Davis, came of age in Birmingham, Ala., amid the civil rights movement. Two of her friends were among four Black girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing by white supremacists that also injured 14. The experience helped fuel her commitment to working for social change.

In addition to her civil rights work, Davis has a doctorate in indigenous studies and has apprenticed with traditional healers in Africa and elsewhere. She founded and directs a California program that promotes restorative justice for young people, an alternative form of rehabilitation in which offenders work to reconcile with victims and the community.

Thawnghmung said she is excited about Davis’s selection, calling her experience and expertise “very timely for the current political environment where widespread calls for racial inequality and social justice have been met with resistance and further deepened social divisions.”

Davis had been scheduled to serve as the Greeley scholar in 2019 but had to cancel due to health reasons. This spring’s program was canceled due to the pandemic.

Begun in 2008, the Greeley program is named for the late Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, a longtime Unitarian Universalist minister in Concord and well-known social justice advocate. It is funded in part by a gift from a foundation established in Greeley’s name.

Past Greeley scholars have included Nobel Peace Prize recipients Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman.

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Three lectures have so far been presented in the expanded series, with two others set for Thursday, Oct. 22: a talk by political scientist and award-winning author Frederick Harris on voter suppression; and one by music educator and performer Jarrit Ahmed Sheel on the social-historical foundations of hip-hop music and how to teach it.

For more information on the Greeley Peace Scholar program, go to www.uml.edu/greeley-race.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.