A conversation with activist Dezi Gillon (Augustana College, ‘16).
Dezi Gillon (they/them) is a teaching artist and healer living on occupied Potawatomi territory—what is known today as Rogers Park, Chicago. In 2016, they graduated from Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois) with Religion and Sociology majors, having participated in Interfaith Understanding, Black Student Union, AugiEquality, and Micah House, a residential intentional community. They went on to graduate from Union Theological Seminary (New York) with an MDiv in 2019 and are currently working with Alternatives Youth and Family Services as a restorative justice coach and educator. I interviewed my former student in order to learn more about the callings to justice-work among students of color and how I and other white professors can better support them as they live out those callings.
I remember vividly the die-in that you and others at Augustana organized as part of the emerging Black Lives Matter movement. Would you please describe some of your other activism in college and how you started to think about protest and activism in relation to who you are and what/who you were training to be?
My urge to participate in activism at Augustana came from my desire to be heard and to find community. This was after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and my anger and desperation couldn’t be ignored. The moment swept me and others into a whirlwind of organizing and disrupting systems of oppression that affected us and those we loved.
The beginning of the BLM movement was a moment that encapsulated feelings of anger and resentment I had towards white people growing up in Chicago and Evanston. I also grew up with two parents who were very active in their local black communities. My father was a community organizer and social worker and my mother did outreach work through the church we attended. At the beginning of my junior year, I could feel the support of my family back home and my community at Augustana and felt as though I needed to do something.
I was fortunate to be surrounded by friends who also felt a call to action. The idea to organize protests at Augustana came after a number of seminars addressing the current events involving the Black Lives Matter movement. I remember walking away from those discussions feeling underwhelmed and frustrated at the lack of attention this matter was getting at our school.
At first, we weren’t sure if we should keep it broad or be more specific to our needs at Augustana. We decided that to have the biggest impact in our local community, there needed to be specificity in what we were asking for and who we were directing our energy towards. (See the students’ list of demands, created in 2014, here).
What I loved so much about our community was that it was student led, trauma informed, and centered black students. Although we reached out to Augustana faculty and staff for advising, we also had the guidance of writers and activists such as Angela Davis, Alicia Garza, bell hooks, James Baldwin, and so many more. We led various demonstrations on campus as well as a die-in. We also worked with the local Black Lives Matter chapter in the Quad Cities where we participated in a few local protests.
Dezi Gillon at Nevada Falls in Yosemite National Park in California.
Mennonite Summer Service Committee’s Summer Service Leadership Conference, June 2019.
MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas
Thinking back on those college years now, did your call to activism feel more like filling a void and emerging out of pain or following those who gave you hope and courage? I guess I’m trying to ask whether you thought about your emerging activism as a promising way forward or as something of a necessary, almost last-ditch measure because nothing else was meaningful or effective.
While there was and is deep pain, for the most part my call to action came from a passionate desire to feel more connected to my community of fellow black and brown students. I love us, and I wanted to fight for us—for our love and existence, as well as for our representation at Augustana. I was also very grateful for fellow white students who joined our organizing and care work. I felt inspired by folks in my community and people I was meeting in Chicago and following on social media. There was not any time to be silent or to cater to requests to be more gentle with white professors and students. Even though there was pain, we were determined to fight for one another in community.
Did the calling you felt to fight for and support a community of Black and other students of color carry over into your life and work since graduating from college? How have communities of color, social justice, and activism work continued to shape who you are and what you do?
100% yes! That time in undergrad has had such a significant impact on my life. After finishing my bachelor’s degree I decided to go to Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There I participated in organizing for undocumented folks who were seeking asylum in church and in school as well as accompaniment in court proceedings. During my time in NYC, I also deepened my exploration into spirituality and Blackness. There was such a diversity of Black experiences in that city. I started becoming closer to my West African roots in my spiritual practices. I started grappling with very complex questions regarding my Christian identity.
While doing social justice education and programming with the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, I also discovered that work with youth and environmental justice were large parts of my vocation. This work and so much more brought me to do the restorative justice work I do now. As I am now settling back into Chicago, I want to continue to learn more about transformative justice and youth work. Using art and transformative practices and following the leadership of youth, I want to invest myself in justice for the communities that I am a part of.
Dezi Gillon, facilitating a conversation on environmental justice with youth participants, including Elgin Storbakken (right), in Radical Living’s urban youth gardening summer program in Brooklyn in July 2019.
MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas
You mention how art, spirituality, and activism all compose parts of your identity and calling. Can you give us a sense of how those three go together—especially for the younger communities in which you are a part? For older adults like me, these three can seem like really different commitments. How did they come together for you?
I actually found these fit together quite easily for me. I have always been an artist. Sometimes I am a very active artist and other times my creativity seems blocked. Creating art and being fascinated by the art around me has informed my calling for justice and my connection to the spirit.
When I moved to NYC and started school at Union Theological Seminar, I had access to so much art and spiritual faith practices. These were woven together so tightly that at times I couldn’t tell them apart. Being around other artists, especially artists whose work tied directly to their spiritual life, helped me unravel the cultural aesthetics of Black Christianity and Black American lived experiences. I became fascinated with the arts and spiritual life.
I didn’t see myself or those around me as one-dimensional beings. I was a cultural critic, special theorist, spiritual seeker who practices Christianity, educator, afrofuturist, ethicist, and theologian. I knew my work was going to be multidisciplinary in its nature. I began to prioritize art and garden-based learning in my facilitation style as well as in my academic and personal life. Art became a portal into understanding and storytelling and I wanted to incorporate that into the way I taught. I also want folks to think more critically about the land and their relationship to it and to the people in their local community. Tying together my art, spirituality, and activism was second nature to me. Any limitations did not come from me, but from the boxes that other people put me in. I wanted to break out of those boxes and into something that documented the lives of my community.
What advice would you give to black students studying at predominantly white institutions? How about to white teachers like me who are trying to learn how to better support students as they fight for change in an unjust world?
Whew, these are big questions! The advice I would give to current Black students at PWIs is to try to find your people. Find people who support all of you—not just some of you. I am so grateful for the leadership of Black students and the space they take up on college campuses. Don’t let white people and non-black POC put you into boxes that stifle your strengths. And if you feel like you are doing work you should be getting paid for, chances are you are. Know your worth and demand your seat at the table.
When I think about the advice I’d give to teachers, I think of the Maya Angelou quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” You have the power to shape the way black folks feel on your campus. I not only experienced the silence of my fellow students, but also my professors. I remember the silence being frustrating and cruel. At times, the silence was almost being louder than words of solidarity. There is no neutral ground. By staying silent you actually speak volumes. You are a resource to students, and should use the power that you have to open doors for students and support students when they need you. Do not become another barrier to voices who are learning to speak out.
Photo credit for portrait of Dezi at top: Mohammad Mia for Union Theological Seminary’s Queer Faith project.
Jason Mahn is Professor of Religion and Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Illinois. He is the author of the essay, “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things,” which appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Jason is working on a new book project, tentatively entitled Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Real-time Reflections on the Coronavirus. For other posts on this blog by Jason Mahn, click here.