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In his new book “Viral Justice”, Ruha Benjamin finds hope by celebrating how small changes can “spread justice and joy”

In the spring of 2020, Ruha Benjamin received a DM on Twitter from his literary agent Sarah Levitt: “I’m hungry to read everything you have.” Inspired, Benjamin started writing and spent the first months of the pandemic to conceive what was going to become his new book, “Viral Justice” (Princeton University Press).

In the introduction of the book, Benjamin takes Covid -19 – which we are used to meeting in negative terms – and overthrowing it, exploring his potential to generate hope and social change. She writes: “What if … we reimagine virality as something we could learn?” What if the virus was not just something to fear and eliminate, but a microscopic model of what it could look like to spread justice and joy in a modest but perceptible way? »

Benjamin, professor of African-American studies, studies the social dimensions of science, medicine and technology. She joined Princeton in 2014, received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2017 and was named first Freedom Scholar in 2020. She is the author of “Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code” and “Popular Science: Bodies and Rights at the Stem Cell Frontier.” She created the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab in Princeton, which brings together students, educators, activists and artists to rethinking and retooling data for justice.

“Viral Justice: How We Build the World We Want” by Ruha Benjamin of Princeton

In her new book, Ruha Benjamin offers insight into how small changes can add up to big ones.

Benjamin often uses the idea of ​​speculative world-building in the classroomencouraging students to ask themselves, “What if? » In “Viral Justice”, she adopts a world-building rubric that anyone can participate in. Raising dozens of stories of real people whose individual actions and seemingly small decisions have effected widespread change for a fairer world – what Benjamin calls “daily insurgencies and beautiful experiences” – she invites readers to cultivate their own bits of hope.

“[E]only one of us can weave new patterns of thought and action… drawing on our varied skills, interests, and dispositions,” Benjamin writes. “We need loud and fierce worldbuilders as much as quiet and studious ones. The last thing we need is everyone doing or being the same!

On October 11, she launched a 20 cities book tour across the United States, Europe and Africa, including an appearance at 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Princeton Public Library in a co-eventsponsored by Labyrinth Books and the Department of African American Studies and the Council on the Humanities at Princeton.

Here, Benjamin unpacks how the writing of “viral justice” gave her hope during the pandemic, why she abandoned her overview as a trained sociologist in order to focus on the individual, and what It was to put personal details of your own life in a book for the first time.

You started working on this book during the first months of the pandemic lockdown in the spring of 2020. You write: at the end, offer food. Can food lead to hope? Could you share how the book illuminates what hope looks like for you right now?

In “Viral Justice”, I see hope as something we donot just something we feel, and writing for me is a hopeful act. If “hope is a discipline”, as Mariame Kaba reminds us, this means that we can practice hope. We can strengthen it, like a muscle, which fuels our work. We can sow hope, and water it to grow, nourishing our efforts to make this world more joyful and more just.

To be clear, practicing hope does not mean ignoring or minimizing the gloom around us. Rather the opposite. It means honestly considering the state of the world, but not stopping there. It is refusing to give in to fatalism or to wallow in cynicism. In academia, in particular, we can become self-righteous in our critical understanding. But then what?

That was the question nagging at me when I started this book, and the original title was “Viral Racism.” But then I remembered what one of my mentors had told me: “As scholars, we spend so much time naming the world that we don’t want, we can forget to imagine the world we do want.” That led me to “Viral Justice.” And while I dive deep into the many issues that make us sick, the book shines a light on people everywhere who practice hope by resisting and reimagining the status quo. what.

In the introduction to the book, you talk about your reluctance as a sociologist to focus on the role of individuals in social change. What was this ambivalence and why was it important to embrace the individual?

We are already living in a hyper-individualistic society, so I was too worried about the role of individuals in social change and how it could strengthen our default cultural framework. In addition, my training as a sociologist focused so much on the role of social forces and institutional processes in shaping the lives of people that I have an allergic reaction when I hear about “individual responsibility” and “D ‘Individual intention ”, in particular in conversations on inequalities. et l’oppression. But that led me to minimize the individual will in the maintenance and Transform the status quo. Social systems, after all, rely on each of us playing the game or questioning the rules of the game.

“Viral Justice” shines a light on everyday people who refuse to cede power, sowing it instead.

By focusing on individuals, you unpack how seemingly minor decisions and habits can spread ‘viral justice’. Can you tell us about an individual in the book – not someone famous but an “ordinary person” – who captures your vision of how small changes can help build a more just and joyful world?

There is so much many! So difficult to choose. There is an educator Calvin Terl facilitating transformative justice workshops in the wake of school violence, “Nap Minister” Tricia Hersey leading a movement to resist grind culture and revalue Rest as a form of repair, the “Gangsta Gardener” turning sidewalks into edible gardens and food deserts into food sanctuaries, and Sarah Henderson (who delivered my eldest son) working with black birth attendants in Georgia toward an expanded vision of reproductive justice in a state where community midwifery is still not legal.

In addition to many people I’ve profiled, there are many groups and organizations that we can learn from. Philly Jobs with Justice (JwJ), for example, has been fighting for the fair treatment of workers since 1999., including a new campaign to ensure wealthy nonprofits like universities are good neighbors and contribute their fair share to local public schools. What I love is how JwJ is focusing on real-world changes — like pay raises and sick leave for campus workers and increasing the universities’ contribution to public schools — while sowing a broader vision of solidarity that brings together students, unions, faith groups and communities. It is this combination of short-term victories and long-term world building that exemplifies viral justice.

The book is a mixture of memoirs and social analysis. In Chapter 5, “Exposed”, you talk about your experience as a senior at Spelman College, at 23, married and pregnant, giving the farewell speech a week after giving birth. Tell us about the Toni Morrison quote that inspired you at the time, and how you hope revealing your own lived experiences and vulnerabilities will inspire readers.

I figured if I asked people to think deeply about how their personal lives connect to their public engagements, then I better do the same. I can’t expect readers to be introspective if I wear the mask of a “cool, calm, collected scientist” to use a phrase from famed sociologist WEB Du Bois. One of the many experiences I share in the book is the one you mention, about how it felt to be a young, pregnant, black senior at Spelman.

The year before, while looking for a junior essay I came across a 1989 interview with Toni Morrison [the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, who died in 2019] in which she was asked if the “crisis” of teenage pregnancy is closing the opportunity to young women. “Don’t you think these girls will never know if they could have been teachers?” Asked the interviewer. Morrisson replied

They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. It’s my job. I want to take them all in my arms and say, Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, darling, you can do it. And when you do, call me – I’ll take care of your baby.

Even though I was not a teenager, I still felt the cultural stigma perpetuated by policymakers and popular media that comes with being a statistic. But I quickly found myself carried by family, friends and midwives who had torn this cultural script and seemed to take Toni Morrison’s gospel to heart,”Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it.This is exactly the kind of stubborn love and support that I hope ‘Viral Justice’ will further encourage in readers.

The book’s subtitle “How We Grow the World We Want” kicks off your use of gardening analogies — the sower and the uprooter, identifying your plot — to help readers imagine viral justice. And you extended the book to a monthly newsletter”Sow the future: A bloomscrolling place to balance all our doomscrolling. What’s your best advice to help readers find their own “plot” to grow the flowers and not the ruin?

I would say, think about what you like and what brings you joy, but also, what pisses you off? Of all the injustices in the world, which makes your blood boil the most? What prevents you from sleeping at night? “Plotting” is conspiring with others, rewriting cultural scripts and working in our own backyard. But, above all, it’s about getting your hands dirty in the messy work of world-building.