Opal Tometi in Conversation with Deborah Willis and Pamela Newkirk
October 6, 2020
Opal Tometi, Co-Founder #BlackLivesMatter, joined for a conversation with NYU Professors Pamela Newkirk and Deborah Willis.
Opal Tometi is a globally recognized human rights advocate, strategist, and writer of Nigerian-American descent. Pamela Newkirk, PhD, is an award-winning journalist and multifaceted scholar whose work addresses the historical exclusion of multidimensional portraits of African descendants in scholarship and popular culture. Deborah Willis, Ph.D, is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and has an affiliated appointment with the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Social & Cultural, Africana Studies, where she teaches courses on Photography & Imaging, iconicity, and cultural histories visualizing the black body, women, and gender.
Pamela Newkirk, University Professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU
Pamela Newkirk, PhD, is an award-winning journalist and multifaceted scholar whose work addresses the historical exclusion of multidimensional portraits of African descendants in scholarship and popular culture. Her latest book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, (HarperCollins) examines how prevalent and pernicious racial attitudes contributed to the 1906 exhibition of a young Congolese man in the Bronx Zoo monkey house. Spectacle was listed among the Best Books of 2015 by NPR, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post Black Voices and The Root, and won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Non-Fiction Literature and the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Legacy Award. Newkirk is the editor of Letters from Black America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2009); and A Love No Less: More Than Two Centuries of African American Love Letters (Doubleday 2004). and is the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, (NYU Press 2000). The book, which examines how race overtly and covertly influences news coverage, won the National Press Club Award for Media Criticism. Dr. Newkirk holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from New York University and Columbia University, respectively, and is professor of journalism and director of undergraduate studies in New York University’s Arthur Carter Journalism Institute. She previously worked at four successive news organizations, including New York Newsday where she was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team. Her articles on media, race and African American art and culture have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Nation and Artnews.
Opal Tometi, Co-Founder, #BlackLivesMatter
Heralded as a feminist freedom-fighter in the U.S. and now a global icon, Opal Tometi is one of the most influential human rights leaders of our time. As one of the three women co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, her name is etched in American history. For years, the award-winning advocate, strategist and writer has used her voice to ensure that race, immigration, and gender justice remain at the forefront of global conversations.
Opal’s story of heart, passion, and justice starts in her childhood. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Tometi experienced first hand the challenges that her tight knit Black immigrant community faced while growing up in Arizona. She witnessed the heartbreaking human rights crisis at the US-Mexico border and as a result became an outspoken community organizer. Young Opal launched initiatives to tackle homelessness in Phoenix. In school she led student advocacy and council groups, showcased her Blackness on a competitive step team, and argued passionately on a debate team. As she got older, and as her eyes were opened to the realities of the human condition, Opal’s voice grew stronger and louder.
Before BLM, Opal spent eight years as Executive Director at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), an organization that helps black immigrant communities mobilize and advocate for social and economic justice. Assuming her role as the first woman director at age 27, Opal worked on the reunification of families in the wake of the Haitian earthquake in 2010, and boldly challenged unjust deportations. She went on to speak on behalf of immigrants to the United Nations, at congressional briefings, at the Atlantic Ideas Summit, Harvard and Yale Universities, on the TED stage, and over 100 more stages around the globe.
In the wake of the devastating acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, Tometi initiated the Black Lives Matter online infrastructure in 2013, ensuring that millions of people could participate in a movement for inclusive democracy. Now, 7 years later, with the momentum BLM has gained in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, with a COVID-19 Pandemic, and as people all over the world reconcile their social consciousness with the reality of our present suffering, Opal has set her movement sights on an even bigger struggle: unifying the global Black community.
This is why she saw the need for a platform like Diaspora Rising. The digital digest focuses on pertinent issues of blackness around the world. Ahead of the first edition, Opal launched an inspiring video, shot in Ghana by filmmaker Wael Gzoly, that solidified her new call-to-action. She stands confidently in front of Ghanaian monuments and landmarks reminding us that our ancestors also fought these freedom battles, and won.
Opal is a trusted advisor and board member to many organizations and initiatives and often travels internationally to support human rights initiatives. And while her career has been impressive, so too are her accolades, including being named one of TIME 100’s Most influential Women of The Century. She is currently featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African History and Culture (NMAAHC) for her contributions. Along with her fellow BLM Co-founders, Opal was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize, and an Honorary PhD. Over the years she has graced the cover of several magazines, and has been named to “Most Influential People” lists by Forbes, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan magazines. Her most recent award was the 2020 Freedom of the Flame Award from civil rights icons, awarded during the 55th anniversary of the Selma Bridge Crossing.
Opal represents a level of courage and leadership that most of us only read about in Black history books. Faith and family are her pillars of strength through the heartache of witnessing and fighting for justice, but she also draws from her African heritage, her identity as a Nigerian woman, and a wealth of education and experience in the field of human rights. Opal holds a Masters of Arts degree in Communication Studies and uses her skills as a social entrepreneur in the private and public sector to advance social justice.
When she’s not traveling the world or strategizing for social justice you can catch her dancing, riding a bike or adding to her African art collection. And while she’s accomplished a lot to date, the truth is, Opal has only just begun.
Deborah Willis, University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU
Deborah Willis, Ph.D, is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and has an affiliated appointment with the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Social & Cultural, Africana Studies, where she teaches courses on Photography & Imaging, iconicity, and cultural histories visualizing the black body, women, and gender. She is also the director of the NYU Institute for African American Affairs and the Center for Black Visual Culture. Her research examines photography’s multifaceted histories, visual culture, the photographic history of Slavery and Emancipation; contemporary women photographers and beauty.
She received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and was a Richard D. Cohen Fellow in African and African American Art, Hutchins Center, Harvard University; a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, and an Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. Fellow. She has pursued a dual professional career as an art photographer and as one of the nation's leading historians of African American photography and curator of African American culture.
Willis is the author of Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present; Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty; Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers - 1840 to the Present; Let Your Motto be Resistance – African American Portraits; Family History Memory: Photographs by Deborah Willis; VANDERZEE: The Portraits of James VanDerZee; and co-author of The Black Female Body A Photographic History with Carla Williams; Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery with Barbara Krauthamer; and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (both titles a NAACP Image Award Winner). She lectures widely and has authored many papers and articles on a range of subjects including The Image of the Black in Western Art, Gordon Parks Life Works, Steidl, Volume II; America’s Lens in Double Exposure: Through the African American Lens; “Photographing Between the Lines: Beauty, Politics and the Poetic Vision of Carrie Mae Weems,” in Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography & Video, and “Malick Sidibé: The Front of the Back View” in Self: Portraiture and Social Identity. Professor Willis is editor of Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography; and Black Venus 2010: They Called Her "Hottentot", which received the Susan Koppelman Award for the Best Edited Volume in Women's Studies by the Popular Culture/American Culture Association in 2011.
Exhibitions of her art work include: A Sense of Place, Frick, University of Pittsburgh; Regarding Beauty, University of Wisconsin, Interventions in Printmaking: Three Generations of African-American Women, Allentown Museum of Art; A Family Affair, University of South Florida; I am Going to Eatonville, Zora Neale Hurston Museum; Afrique: See you, see me; Progeny: Deborah Willis +Hank Willis Thomas. Gantt Center.
Professor Willis’s curated exhibitions include: “Convergence”, Joan Mitchell Center, New Orleans; “Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty,” Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, “Visualizing Emancipation,” Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, “Gordon Parks: 100 Moments,” Schomburg Center; “Posing Beauty Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits” at the International Center of Photography and, “Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration”, Nathan Cummings Foundation.
In addition to making art, writing and teaching, she has served as a consultant to museums, archives, and educational centers. She has appeared and consulted on media projects including the documentary films such as Through A Lens Darkly, Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia project, which received the ICP Infinity Award 2015, and American Photography, PBS Documentary. Since 2006 she has co-organized thematic conferences exploring imaging the black body in the West. Professor Willis has been elected to the board of the Society for Photographic Education, where she was Chair of the Board and received the Honored Educator Award in 2012 and the College Art Association. She holds honorary degrees from Pratt Institute and the Maryland Institute, College of Art. She is currently researching a book on an early 20th century portraitist and educator.
This event was sponsored by:
|Office of the Provost||Office of the Dean Tisch School of the Arts|
|Department of Photography & Imaging||Office of University and Public Affairs|
|NYU Brademas Center||Office of Global Inclusion and Strategic Innovation|
|The 370 Jay Project||Women & Migrations Working Group|
Institute for African American Affairs &
Center for Black Visual Culture
|Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality|
|Department of Social and Cultural Analysis||NYU Skirball Center for the performing Arts|
|New York University Abu Dhabi||NYU DC Dialogues|