Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) has announced that scholar and co-founder of the Los Angeles Chapter of Black Lives Matter, Melina Abdullah, will be the university’s inaugural Activist-In-Residence for the 2021-2022 academic year. The Activist-in-Residence will be charged with teaching students more about their power as change agents in society.
The news comes almost a year and a half after PVAMU President Ruth J. Simmons wrote a letter to the university community following George Floyd’s unlawful murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Among Simmons’ four suggestions to “advance understanding of the impact of discrimination on the health of the country” included the establishment of a Center for Race and Justice. This came to fruition as the Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice. Another suggestion was creating an Activist-in-Residence position, which would bring individuals to campus who have made a difference in casting light on or solving systemic social problems.
Melanye Price, the Simmons Center’s first director, had the distinct pleasure of choosing who would fill the position. She was already sold on Abdullah, but when she learned in conversation that Abdullah’s grandmother was a Prairie View A&M graduate, “it seemed like fate,” she said.
“For me, Prairie View connects me with her legacy,” said Abdullah, who currently serves as a professor of Pan-African Studies and immediate past Department Chair at California State University, Los Angeles. “My heart soars at the thought of walking the campus that nurtured and affirmed the Black-woman-brilliance of my family’s matriarch, who, even in 1932, was empowered to step fully into her intellect, her wit, her humor and her love for our people.”
Abdullah added, “My grandmother passed in 2003. She spoke of Prairie View often as shaping her. She stepped into who she was as an educator, pledged our beloved sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, developed lifelong friendships, and received an education that would benefit not only herself and her family, but an entire community.”
Originally from Oakland, California, Abdullah’s college career began with a bachelor’s from Howard University in African American Studies. Later, she earned her master’s and doctorate from the University of Southern California in Political Science.
A leading expert on race, gender, class, and social movements, Abdullah is among the original group of organizers who convened to form Black Lives Matter. She has contributed to numerous popular media outlets, The Root and the Los Angeles Times to MSNBC, Al-Jazeera, CNN and Revolt. She is the creator, host, and producer of Move the Crowd and co-host and co-producer of Beautiful Struggle, both of which air on 90.7FM KPFK radio.
Recognized by LA Weekly as one of the ten most influential Los Angeles leaders, Abdullah has garnered many accolades and awards during her career: 2016 Racial Justice Award presented by the YWCA; the 2016 Fannie Lou Hamer Award for outstanding community service presented by the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals; 2016 Fannie Lou Hamer Award presented by the National Conference of Black Political Scientists; 2016 Sacred Sistahs Award; 2016 California Teachers Association Human Rights Award; 2016 BCCLA Ella Baker Award; 2015 Freedom Now Award; and the 2015 Communitas Award.
Abdullah has also had a robust career in film that includes dramatic roles and appearances on tv shows and in documentaries, including Good Trouble, Waking the Sleeping Giant: The Making of a Political Revolution, When Justice Isn’t Just, 13th, and (In)Visible Portraits.
Abdullah is a leader in the fight for ethnic studies in the K-12 and university systems and was a part of the historic victories that made ethnic studies a requirement in the Los Angeles Unified School District (2014) and California State University System (2020). She continues to serve as a Los Angeles chapter lead for Black Lives Matter, a policy team lead for the California chapters, and co-director of Black Lives Matter-Grassroots, the global formation for on-the-ground organizing.
And this is the part of her impressive list of credentials that matters most as she prepares herself to help “build on PVAMU students’ long history of political engagement,” as the position is charged to do.
Price said that in her conception of an activist-in-residence, “The person who would take on this role would help our students better understand what it means to have a life of service and commitment to the community. I have watched Dr. Abdullah work as an activist in Black Lives Matter LA, but she has a long tradition of activism, including work as a labor organizer on her campus.”
Since PVAMU’s founding as the Alta Vista Agriculture & Mechanical College of Texas for Colored Youth, many students have continuously chosen to join in the battle against voter suppression in Waller County, where the university sits. “The county’s predominantly white power structure has thrown up hurdles to keep students from voting, or to limit their ability to wield meaningful political influence at the ballot box,” an article written earlier this year by the Texas Tribune said.
Abdullah’s family legacy, Price added, mirrors PVAMU’s. “I have immense pride in our legacy as an institution whose students are always actively asserting their rights and resisting efforts to silence them through voter suppression,” Price said.
“As my grandmother’s spirit dances, so, too, does Sandra Bland’s spirit whisper to me,” Abdullah said in response. “As a Black Lives Matter organizer who will become the first activist-in-residence at Sandra Bland’s alma mater, I hope to inspire a generation of students to continue to struggle for justice in her name, to allow Sandy to ‘speak’ through their justice work. I look forward to grounding students in a tradition that ties intellectual work to justice struggle. I hope to tie them to the long history of the Black freedom struggle, to expose them to justice warriors who walked before them, to deepen their sense of ‘linked fate,’ to give them tools that enable them to do meaningful work in the world, to inspire them to bring their gifts and talents to the charge of Black liberation, and to deepen their understanding of and commitment to this movement moment.”