In her 50 years as a teacher, recently retired UCLA Professor Sondra Hale pushed to the forefront of research and activism ““ a career that included fighting against genocide on African soil.
The professor of anthropology and women’s studies completed her tenure at the end of fall quarter after decades of work with the university. The UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies celebrated the life and work of Hale in a conference called “Gender, Art and Social Movements in the Middle East and Global South” in October.
Hale’s relationship with UCLA goes back to her own time as a student. She received her bachelor’s degree in English literature, a master’s in African studies and a doctorate in anthropology at UCLA. She also developed an interest in activism while protesting against the Vietnam War and for the cause of African liberation.
“Knowledge is useless unless we apply it to real things, combining theory and practice ““ that’s the most important thing I’ve carried away from UCLA,” Hale said.
Colleagues applaud her for her passionate approach to her work.
“(Hale) puts her heart and soul into everything she does, so it’s natural that a lot of people came to recognize her life,” said Carole Browner, chair of the anthropology department who has been Hale’s friend and colleague for more than 20 years.
During her time at the UCLA African Studies Center as a graduate student, she co-founded the UCLA African Activist Association in 1969, a student group that increases awareness and clarifies misconceptions of African issues.
“The 1960s and 1970s were such a special time for Africa, when a lot of African states were breaking away from colonialism and becoming independent,” she said. “I got to interview and meet the revolutionary leaders that came through UCLA.”
Hale has integrated her interest in activism from her time as a UCLA student into her activities as a UCLA professor.
In 2009, Hale was part of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and last year she spoke at a protest for the Occupy UCLA movement. Hale signed a letter asking Chancellor Gene Block to drop charges against the students arrested for the protest.
Last year, she planned a workshop to empower women from the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, which had been ravaged by war for more than two decades. Despite a tense political situation in the area, Hale planned to visit the region with government approval, but her plans were put on hold after bombings began in the area.
Hale’s interest in Africa stemmed from her first visit to Sudan in 1961 after she finished her undergraduate study.
The experience of living in a Third World country, the richness of the culture and the strength of the Sudanese women, which helped them endure gender prejudice and constant warfare in their country, inspired Hale to pursue her research interests in Sudan.
“My husband took me to Sudan for our “˜second honeymoon’ and it changed me completely,” she said.
Hale has continuously visited Sudan and its surrounding region for vacation and research since then, publishing more than a dozen publications on the African countries of Sudan and Eritrea, focusing on issues such as gender, genocide and human rights. She has completed seven years of fieldwork in the area.
Hale said she still hopes to hold her workshops once the region becomes more stable. In the meantime, Hale said she is trying to help out the refugee situation in Sudan’s capital city Khartoum.
Hale’s activism hasn’t always gone without conflict, however.
She was involved in a controversy in 1982, when she was the director of the women’s studies program at California State University, Long Beach. After undergoing investigation, university officials stated that the entire women’s studies program at the school was imbalanced and taught a one-sided feminist point of view.
The program was temporarily shut down and Hale was removed from her position as director. In response, Hale, 12 other faculty members and two students engaged in a lawsuit against the institute with help from the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 1991, Hale and the remaining five faculty members received a $110,000 settlement for the case.
After moving to UCLA, Hale received numerous teaching awards, including the Luckman Distinguished Teaching Award in 1993, the highest recognition for teaching at the university.
Naveen Minai, a women’s studies graduate student who studied under Hale, said Hale was invaluable as a professor.
“(Hale is) an admirable combination of activist and scholar,” Minai said. “She lets me experiment and cares about her students personally as much as professionally.”
Hale received two lifetime awards last year ““ an award recognizing Hale’s commitment to the Sudanese women’s movement from Salmmah Women’s Resource Center and a lifetime scholarly award from the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies.
Hale said she was surprised to receive the first award from Salmmah Women’s Resource Center because the group rarely ever acknowledges outsiders.
Apart from being an activist and a scholar, Hale is the mother of two daughters, whom she adopted in Eritrea in 1974 during the war for independence in the country. Two weeks after adopting her daughters, Hale was forced to leave the country as rebel forces were moving in to take over the region.
“At Sudan (my husband and I) came by an orphanage full of children, and thought, “˜The world is overpopulated and here are some fantastic kids ““ why not?’” she said.
After five decades of teaching, Hale said she wanted to move on to pursue other interests. She added that she was disturbed by the increasing privatization and corporatization of the university, and said it was eroding the concept of a public university.
After her retirement, Hale said she hopes to spend more time with her family and expand her interests by writing poetry, short essays and a novel about Sudan. Currently, she is co-editing a book on perspectives of genocides in Sudan.
She also serves on 30 graduate committees, which oversee students obtaining doctorate degrees.