Editor’s note: Priyanka Nanayakkara is a student in Ananya Roy’s class Inequality and Democracy: The Analysis and Praxis of Public Problems.
Scholars, artists and activists gathered Feb. 4 and 5 for the launch of the new Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy. The launch event, “Urban Color-Lines,” took place on the UCLA campus as well as in the Japanese American National Museum. The two-day event was inspired by the work of W.E.B. Dubois, and the issue of the “color line.”
NANAYAKKARA: Willie “JR” Fleming stands in the spotlight on a stage in the Japanese American National Museum. He’s leading the audience in a chant.
FLEMING: We are the people! What? We got a story! What? To tell the whole wide world this is people’s territory!
NANAYAKKARA: Fleming is the executive director and co-founder of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign. Tonight, he’s helping inaugurate a new home at UCLA –the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy. Professor of Urban Planning and Social Welfare Ananya Roy is the founding director of the institute.
ROY: This is a research institute really committed to the mandate of social justice … we are going to think very seriously about economic inequality, but also about racial inequality … attentive to important historical moment … black power, black liberation …
NANAYAKKARA: Scholars, activists and artists from around the world joined together for Urban Color-Lines, the two-day launch event of the institute. Issues of racial discrimination and segregation played a central role in the event.
ROY: Urban Color-Lines comes from W.E.B. Dubois, who says that the problem of the 20th century is the color line, 21st century the problem is still the color line.
NANAYAKKARA: Dubois spent his life fighting discriminatory laws and practices, a legacy that the newly founded institute draws inspiration from. Raquel Rolnick is a professor of urban planning at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. She was also special rapporteur to the UN. She sees equality as the root of democracy.
ROLNICK: Democracy was in principle based on the idea that everybody could have equal voice, equal rights to participate in the society. What we are witnessing all over the world, is that the state, has merged with economic power.
NANAYAKKARA: The Institute on Inequality and Democracy is funded by part of a $50 million gift from Renee and Meyer Luskin, who asked the question:
ROY: What would it take for us to live together?
NANAYAKKARA: So what does it take to live together? Bernard Brown thinks the answer is in art. Brown is a second-year MFA student in the world arts and cultures/dance program. Art gives us a way to relate to one another across racial lines.
BROWN: Art is the seed of humanity. If the culture loses its art, it loses its humanity … The arts can change the direction of the human condition.
NANAYAKKARA: Brown choreographed the dance “Champion” last spring after researching racially restricted covenants in Los Angeles. Back on stage, five dancers, including Brown, are dressed in black, grey and white tights and shirts.
BROWN: The piece begins with a solo black male figure. He runs into the space, and is confronted by a wall. He is tossed about here and there, and he ends up sort of defeated, laying prone on the floor.
NANAYAKKARA: There are moments when the music stops altogether. But the audience is still the entire time.
BROWN: It ends with one of the females of color challenging the white man, the white supremacist.
NANAYAKKARA: While Brown confronts issues of inequality Toussaint Losier confronts issues of inequality and democracy through activism and research. Toussaint Losier is an organizer and co-founder of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, as well as a professor of afro-american studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
LOSIER: The work that I do through the anti-eviction campaign directly connects to the broader questions of inequality and democracy, particularly in regards to the right to housing, and the ways in which folks who should get adequate housing are denied that right.
NANAYAKKARA: Director Ananya Roy has seen inequality across the world.
ROY: I grew up in Kolkata, India, and moved to the United States to go to college. But in that journey realized that I had an enduring, some would say stubborn, interest in issues of urban poverty and inequality, which came partly out of trying to make sense of the cities in which I’d grown up in, like Kolkata, and cities in which I’d made a home in like Oakland, California.
NANAYAKKARA: While Roy wants the institute to have a global focus, she’s also focusing in on UCLA by thinking about the types of courses that are taught. This quarter, she is teaching a new class on inequality and democracy. She moved to UCLA after many years at UC Berkeley.
ROY: It mattered to me a great deal to stay within the UC system, and to be able to take on these questions of social justice within a great public university system, really the greatest in the world, I think.
NANAYAKKARA: Artists, activists and scholars took the stage at Urban Color- Lines. Though, it was their ideas and questions on inequality and democracy that stood in the spotlight.
For Daily Bruin Radio, I’m Priyanka Nanayakkara.