Lena Zuckerwise

Simmons PLAN: Black Leaders and Leaders in Recent History

What do you teach at Simmons?

This is my third year at Simmons. I'm a political theorist by training — at Simmons I teach in both the Department of Political Science and International Relations and I teach courses with PLAN. I teach and write on feminist political thought, racial politics, democratic theory and critiques of capitalism. Specifically, I teach our introduction to political theory course (The Nature of Politics), as well as Gender and Politics, Theories of Justice and Feminism and Capitalism. 

For PLAN I teach the Boston course: Class, Gender, and Ethnicity in Boston, Though Film and the Leadership course: Black Leaders and Leadership in Recent History.  

What made you make the move to teach at Simmons?

Before coming to Simmons, I taught at two other women-centered colleges, Wellesley College and Mount Holyoke College. At the end of my time at Wellesley, I called Dean Doherty to see if there might be a need for a political theorist in the department. She and I met and had a fabulous conversation about the culture of Simmons and the excellent students she has worked with over the years. I was thrilled when I was invited to teach a couple of courses in the department, and things only got more exciting from there when I began teaching full-time, and later on the tenure track!

What's your favorite thing about your students?

Where do I begin? My students' ideas and insights, their rich readings of texts, their critical perspective on politics in the present moment animate my thinking, literally on a daily basis. If I were to isolate just one favorite thing about my students, it would have to be their engagement in class discussions. The experience of digging into the day's readings together leaves me thinking differently about material I have read dozens of times. The intellectual connection I have with my students is always exciting.

Tell us about your course: Black Leaders and Leadership in Recent History. 

This course is designed to encourage students to think about the intersections of race and leadership. Most undergraduates come to college having learned a great deal about Martin Luther King Jr. in high school history class, but not Malcolm X. They might know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but not the absolutely central role of Black women in its organization and execution. The work of amazing African American leaders like Jo Ann Robinson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Robert Moses and Eldridge Cleaver is too often forgotten or replaced by a highly sanitized and inaccurate view of Martin Luther King Jr. as a peaceful moderate. I wanted this course to bring attention to Black leaders and moments of true leadership that have not received a great deal of airtime in popular historical and political discourse.

What inspired you to teach a course on this topic?

Something that really stood out to me during the early months of #BlackLivesMatter was the conservative criticism that the movement had no leaders. This is factually incorrect, but beyond that, I found it interesting that so often movements for racial justice, organized by people of color, are derided for not having leaders. Yet when you take a movement like Marriage Equality, we almost never hear such a criticism. And the latter is very largely White and middle class, by comparison. Why, in other words, are strong leaders said to be necessary for movements driven by African Americans, but not Whites? This got me thinking about the racial dimension of the call for leaders and provoked the idea for the course. 

What leadership skills will students gain from this course?

I don't think it's possible to exercise effective leadership and create positive change without understanding how social power and privilege work. That is the primary goal of my course. While students engage in team projects, write critically and learn to facilitate a group discussion — I hope they come away from the course with a sense of what racial inequality has looked like through history and a stronger commitment to work against it.

How have you seen your students and other young people help lead social change?

I have deeply admired student activists on campus at Simmons. This includes trans activists, feminists and anti-racists advocating gender-inclusive restroom facilities, calling out microaggressions in and outside the classroom and more. Many students on campus think very strategically and understand the power they have to change the institution, at the level of both culture and policy. In the world outside of campus, examples of the importance of young people in enacting social change are too many to name. They have been undoubtedly central to the recent surge in direct democratic action over the past five years: Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Gezi Park, Black Lives Matter. Maybe that's because the political imaginations of younger people are more expansive, so revolutionary messages have real resonance for them.

What's the most exciting part of working with PLAN? How does this program benefit students?

PLAN is such a unique program at Simmons and it has been truly exciting to be a part of its first year. Because PLAN is a common experience for all undergraduate students, it allows them to engage with and learn from one another, regardless of their different academic persuasions. In my Boston course, I had artists, nursing students, future history majors and others, all talking together about Boston-based films and forming friendships with peers they would not likely encounter in the departments of their chosen majors.  

PLAN provides myriads of opportunities to build on the rich diversity of student interests. 

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