African-American Jewish activist and education Yavilah McCoy speaks about holding multiple identities

Thursday, February 16, 2017 - 11:14pm

Yavilah McCoy, an African-American Jewish activist and educator, spoke to a diverse group of about 60 students on Thursday evening at the Trotter Multicultural Center about her experiences as an activist and holding multiple identities, particularly in a changing political and social climate.

The event, called “Holding Racial Justice, Equity and Intersectionality in 2017,” was hosted jointly by the Black Student Union, University of Michigan Hillel and NOiR Runway Fashion.

McCoy is the CEO of VISIONS, Inc. and the founder of Ayecha, a nonprofit that advocates for Jews of Color in the United States.

McCoy invoked her diverse experiences in advocating coalition to the audience, something she said is important to build in the face of hate and racism.

“I want to dedicate this discussion about how we can hold social justice and equity and intersectionality across lines of difference,” McCoy said. “What I came prepared to do was to talk to you about the ways which race, religion and gender have intersected in my lived experience, and given me very powerful reasons to stand and deliver in the name of equity and justice.”

She described her experience of holding multiple identities as a practice of having multiple perspectives, both of which are situations have different privileges and face different oppressions. Communicating personal truths across different communities, McCoy explained, is crucial in building coalitions in justice advocacy.

For the organizers of the event, this message comes at a crucial time on the University of Michigan’s campus.

“There’s been tensions in both (African-American and Jewish) communities, with different students enacting violence in different ways against our communities,” said BSU member Jesse Love, an LSA sophomore. “We felt that it was important to build a sense of connections between our organizations, in a time where our communities are being attacked in very similar ways.”

Late last week, three anonymous emails were sent to engineering students with anti-Semitic and racist messages. The sending of the emails spurred students to protest outside University President Mark Schlissel’s house to call for increased institutional responses to racially-charged incidents.

McCoy noted the first step in fighting for justice was to listen, then build on one’s own knowledge to help others.

“We have to get quiet enough to hear where the cries for healing are coming from,” McCoy said. “What can I use to speak from my tradition to be able to answer the call?”

The event was the first in a series of three, aimed to build coalitions between the organizations and identity groups on campus in order to bring about joint civic engagement, according to LSA senior Zara Melitts, a member of Hillel.

McCoy also led a communication and relationship building activity her organization uses to guide attendees in the process of addressing grievances across lines of disagreement and identity.

LSA sophomore Vivian Obia described how the activity helped her work through experiences she had in confronting peers who had voted for President Donald Trump.

“Even while you’re dealing with (situations like that), you still have to find peace within yourself in some type of way,” Obia said. “At the end of the day, even if we do disagree on things, I still know who I am as a person, and this has honestly allowed me to love myself even more even with all that’s going on.”

LSA senior Micah Griggs, vice president of Central Student Government, said she appreciated McCoy’s words and acknowledged her ability to put current political climate in perspective.

“(McCoy) really put things in perspective, that we need to acknowledge and appreciate how people feel, and give ourselves space and support when things like this happen on campus and learn and realize we can move forward as communities together,” she said.