A Talk with Ruha Benjamin: How Viral Justice Can Spread to Make Positive Change
By Annabelle Smith
Drew University was visited last Thursday by Professor Ruha Benjamin, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University and the author of three novels: “People’s Science” (2013), “Race and Technology” (2019) and “Viral Justice” (2022), the latter being the focus of her lecture at Drew. The lecture and discussion were organized jointly by the Pan-African Studies Department and the Department for Civic Engagement.
Prior to the hour-and-a-half-long lecture, which was more broadly based on activism and open to the public, students taking Pan-African Studies courses and Action Scholars were invited to have a conversation with Benjamin about “Viral Justice.” With each chapter focusing on a different crux of institutionalized bigotry, “Viral Justice” seeks to encourage activism even to the smallest degree, arguing that justice can be “viral” and spread like a disease in a beneficial way. Students asked questions about the structure of the book and its source of inspiration, especially pertaining to its unique combination of memoir and academia.
In the lecture, Benjamin highlighted multiple outside examples of “viral justice,” instances when individuals or communities tackled smaller structural barriers rather than the institution as a whole. Those examples included activist Ron Finley, otherwise known as the “Gangsta Gardener,” whose practice of “guerilla gardening” in South Central Los Angeles provided fresh fruits and vegetables to hundreds of families otherwise cut off from cheap and easy access to healthy foods.
Another example was artist Stuart Campbell (who goes by the pseudonym “Sutu”) and his breathtaking Alternate Reality experience Breonna’s Garden, which he created with Breonna Taylor’s sister, Ju’Niyah Palmer. The piece both commemorates the late Taylor and creates a virtual space for all those dealing with the complex emotion of grief.
Benjamin emphasized that viral justice can be healing and reconstructive, a brick to build up structural integrity after the rotting infrastructure has been removed. It is also a positive, more local solution that can be implemented in the context of larger action. Most importantly, Benjamin reaffirmed in her lecture that small, self-initiated actions are just as important as large, law-making actions.
Annabelle Smith is a first-year student majoring in studio art.
Featured image courtesy of the Center for Civic Engagement.