Chris Crass, an anti-racist and social justice advocate, came to campus as a part of the Les Howard Social Justice Speaker Series. He spoke about the importance of ending white supremacy, participating in inclusive movements for liberation, and fighting for systematic change. His speech on Thursday, Oct. 26 was interactive and moving for the group of Poets.
Crass is an organizer, educator, speaker, and writer who grew up in Whittier. He conducts talks and workshops around the United States to help support justice efforts. He is the author of two books. Towards the “Other America”: Anti-Racist Resources for White People Taking Action for Black Lives Matter is a call to action to end white silence. His other book, Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy, discusses the opportunities and challenges raised in anti-racist work. Crass’s main goals are to get white people involved in movements for racial justice and to support collective liberation.
The social justice speaker was inspired by the Election Reflection Series that Assistant Professor of Political Science Sara Angevine organized in 2016, as well as the passing of Professor Emeritus of Sociology Les Howard. “I met [Les Howard] when I started here at Whittier and he was so inspirational as a colleague and a mentor,” said Angevine. “He’s always been in the spirit of scholarship and practice.”
The Les Howard Social Justice Series was made a reality by many departments, programs, and faculty members of campus in order to make Whittier College more aware of social justice movements.
“Throughout history, every day people have come together to take on the most pressing challenges of their time and through collective organizing and struggle they have envisioned a better world, made large scale changes, won crucial victories, and passed on lessons to the next generation,” Crass writes on his website to discuss the importance of joining in on movements to progress as a nation. These ideas were central to his discussion with the campus community.
Crass began his talk by discussing the diversity at Whittier College and how past generations fought to expand educational opportunities for all. Crass said he feels inspired by those individuals who helped to advocate for change. “I need inspiration in these times. You all with me?” Crass asked. “These are historical times in which folks like you, 30 years from now, who are students, will be looking back at this time right now and asking, ‘What did you all do or not do?’ We are in a time in which our country is in a spiritual and political crisis of what direction we are going in. We are in a pivotal time.”
With the path of the country in mind, Crass asked the audience to think of someone who inspires them when things are rough. The audience then sorted themselves in a line alphabetically according to the first letter of the person that inspires them and each individual spoke their names. The group then broke into smaller groups of three and shared why those individuals inspire them.
During the event, Crass shared stories from his upbringing in Whittier that influenced his interest in anti-racism efforts, including some of his experiences at La Serna High School in Whittier. A student in his class went through his own personal transformation in regards to being racist, which originally sparked Crass’s interest in how white people can be involved in anti-racist efforts. He also talked about his own family and how he grew up with racist family members. “I’ve seen the way racism has turned white people in my family into soldiers against people of color,” said Crass. “The way that the capacity to love has turned into an engine of hate.”
Crass is from Kentucky. His school district became a sanctuary school district with the help of Crass’s six-year-old son, who spoke at a school district meeting. “This is important for white kids, too, because it impacts who our kids go to school with, who their friends are, who they grow up with,” said Crass. “We don’t want students of color to be afraid of showing up to class.”
Crass believes in collective freedom from white supremacy and racism. “To get free, we need to develop the courage for racial justice in these times,” said Crass. “We need to see the ways that racism, white supremacy, and sexism affects our communities. Anti-black racism plays out in all our communities. Who wants to get free from that?”
To end the talk Cross posed a few phrases for the audience to complete and asked volunteers to come to the front of the room and tell the crowd their answers. The phrases included “I want to end white supremacy because…” and “We need to be courageous in these times because…” and three volunteers went to the front and shared their answers. They talked about future generations, current movements, and the importance of inclusive dialogue.
The event had approximately 40 people in attendance and was very successful. Many students participated and shared their thoughts throughout the discussion. “I was very surprised at what he looked like. I wasn’t expecting a white guy to be preaching at us. A half an hour in,I realized he knew what he was talking about,” third-year Hailee Lee said. “I was moved by him.” Fourth-year Ciara Clark said she thought that he was a very powerful speaker and also felt inspired by his talk.
The series will continue on Thursday, Nov. 9 with Ian Costello, a Whittier College alumni and a former student of Professor Howard’s. Costello took Professor Howard’s Urban Studies Jan Term course, which inspired him to pursue a career working with the homeless in Los Angeles. The final speaker in the series is Professor of Political Science and African-American Studies at Purdue University Nadia Brown, who willl focuson race and gender in political science.