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How One Determined Senior Got Angela Davis to Visit BU

The inside story behind the feminist civil rights activist’s talk to a packed house of 650


Chatting over coffee at Blue State Coffee, Claire Lawry flipped open her laptop and pulled up the Google Doc that had consumed her life for almost six months. She was reflecting on the February 9 event she’d organized that packed in 650 BU students, faculty, and staff to hear a 75-year-old feminist civil rights activist talk about women, class, race, violence, mass incarceration, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter, all in one heart-thumping speech that ended with a standing ovation.

A senior sociology major, Lawry (CAS) explained that it was the first event she’d put together. Then she showed the Google Doc she’d created last October: Project Angela. For any student interested in starting a big community-building conversation on campus like Lawry did, her Google Doc would be a great place to start.

It is an elaborately color-coded mission map, complete with a detailed budget breakdown, a record of her 40 to 50 fundraising emails (“Bringing Davis to BU will be momentous in exemplifying our goal, as a community of common ground”), and a list of the 23 BU sponsors. There was the College of Arts & Sciences sociology department (the first donor), Wheelock College of Education & Human Development (the largest donor), the College of Arts & Sciences, the Schools of Law, Social Work, and Public Health, the Diversity & Inclusion office, the Dean of Students office, and the African American Studies and American and New England Studies programs.

Angela, for those still wondering, is Angela Davis. And for anyone whose image of Davis is frozen in the 1970s—the revolutionary with the Afro on the FBI Most Wanted posters—her appearance at BU on a cold February night, and the way she connected with students, was a revelation. The students, many of them young women of color, who spoke of growing up in families where Davis was a household name, listened with rapt attention as the gray-haired academic implored them: “I want you to imagine a world without violence.”

If some people—for the most part white people a lot older than the 22-year-old Lawry—express surprise that when she wanted to make a splash on campus, Lawry chose to invite Davis, she’d like to set them straight. Growing up in Seattle, she went to public schools where white students were the minority, and her high school classmates led stirring post-Ferguson protests against the police killings of black people. Davis’ name, she says, was in the air.

“Angela Davis is timeless,” Lawry says.

She began her term as president of the BU Undergraduate Sociology Association (BUUSA) last September determined to invite a big-name activist speaker to campus—someone who would excite all students, not just white cisgender students or sociology majors.

“I started by literally googling, ‘Bringing Angela Davis to your campus,’” she says. That led her to a speakers bureau that handles Davis.

Lawry was carrying a full course load, writing an honors thesis (on white racial consciousness), and working three part-time jobs to buy groceries and pay the rent on the Allston apartment she shares with five friends. In mid October, with guidance from Deborah Carr, a CAS sociology professor and chair, and other faculty, she mounted a crowdsourcing campaign to raise the money for Davis’ honorarium.

On a to-do list covering four-and-a-half-months was an email request to Lawry’s former thesis advisor Saida Grundy, a CAS assistant professor of sociology and of African American studies, to introduce Davis.

“I didn’t want to bother her on sabbatical,” Lawry says, “but it had to be her.”

Grundy replied immediately: “Yes, absolutely.”

Enrolling in Project Angela

Also on Lawry’s to-do list? A trip to Dorchester to see if Oasis Vegan Veggie Parlor could supply the food for the post-event reception (Lawry had learned that Davis is vegan).

With graduation approaching, however, Lawry had to free up time in her life. “I dropped calculus and enrolled in Project Angela,” she says. By late November she’d raised enough money to invite Davis. And Davis accepted.

Lawry’s next problem was space: Davis draws standing-room-only crowds at colleges, and her only availability was a Saturday night in February, when prime venues get booked far in advance. Lawry worked with the sociology department and Student Activities to reserve Sleeper Auditorium.

The event was coming together. But near the end of January, one last snafu arose: the plan was always that Davis’ talk would be free and for a BU audience only. But somehow (the details are unclear) members of the public were able to register for the event online. That meant fewer seats for the BU community. The only way to fix it was to announce that only those with BU IDs would be admitted. Angry tweets followed. The BUUSA apologized.

“I cried multiple times,” Lawry says.

Support poured in from across campus, including from Crystal Williams, associate provost for diversity and inclusion.

Finally, on February 9, Project Angela came to life. There was Davis, taking the stage and thanking Lawry and the BUUSA—and Grundy, who had given a rousing introduction—before the full-house crowd. In her hour-long talk, Davis moved seamlessly from slavery to civil rights to Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. She talked about Rosa Parks’ overlooked role as an anti-rape activist—and about feeling haunted by the voices of the women in the Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly.

Angela Davis, activist, academic and author, at center, took time to talk with students and pose for photos after she spoke to a full crowd in Jacob Sleeper Auditorium February 9, 2019. The event, entitled Angela Davis: Violence Against Women and Its Ongoing Challenge to Racism! was made possible by The Boston University Undergraduate Sociology Association. Photo by Cydney Scott.

Activist, academic, and author Angela Davis (center) talked with students after speaking at Jacob Sleeper Auditorium February 9. The event, Angela Davis: Violence Against Women and Its Ongoing Challenge to Racism, was made possible by the BU Undergraduate Sociology Association. Photo by Cydney Scott

Sipping ginger tea to nurse a cold, Davis, whose papers were acquired a year ago by Harvard’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, encouraged her listeners to believe that institutions could change—and to be patient. “You do the work you believe in,” she said, “and if you do it, perhaps 10, 50, 100, or 200 years from now, the work you will have done today will have made a difference in the world.”

Davis lingered after her talk, posing for pictures with the dozens of students who waited to speak to her.

“I’ve been so inspired by her,” said sophomore Juliette Pluviose-Philip (Sargent). “I had to come and see her—just to hear her story of perseverance.”

“She’s so wise,” said another sophomore, Alexa Moreno (COM). “Our generation resonates a lot with her.”

As for the young woman who pulled it all together, Lawry says the sacrifices she made—including a delayed diploma—were worth it.

“Project Angela was probably the most important event of my life,” she says. “I realized the best part wasn’t about meeting Angela Davis; it was about seeing this part of BU so engaged—and so joyful.”

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Sara Rimer, Senior Writer and Director, Research Communications at Boston University
Sara Rimer

Sara Rimer can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.

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