«Istruitevi, perché avremo bisogno di tutta la nostra intelligenza. Agitatevi, perché avremo bisogno di tutto il nostro entusiasmo. Organizzatevi, perché avremo bisogno di tutta la nostra forza.»
“Instruct yourselves, because we will need all our intelligence. Stir yourselves up, because we will need all our enthusiasm. Organize yourselves, because we will need all our strength.”
(Antonio Gramsci, the first issue of L’Ordine Nuovo, May 1 1919)
On the evening of Wednesday, April 13th, over thirty NYU Florence students gathered around a banquet table in Villa Sassetti to participate in a discussion around the mobilization of identity and revolutionary activism. Among the students sat two great political activists and scholars: Angela Davis and Gina Dent. “We the Students” created by Wendy Koranteng was the first student-organized La Pietra Dialogue of the semester.
The conversation was starkly different from the usual LPD lectures from the offset. LPD Student Wendy Koranteng, as the facilitator, stated that everyone was entitled to a seat at the table and encouraged openness even for typically unpopular beliefs. The participants chuckled at her anecdotal “feel free guys, this is very high key informal.” There was no stage, no microphone, and no audio recording of the event so that everyone could feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.
The dialogue started with a question: “Has anyone ever felt targeted due to the stereotypes attached to their identity?” Participants raised their hands if it applied, and the questions became successively more specific. Now that the ice was broken, students started to share their personal experiences with identity. The group launched into a honest conversation about identity and in particular to students’ experiences of identity while studying in Italy. Moreover, education and training for dealing with diversity was underlined as a vehicle to make the changes they want in their communities.
Angela Davis joined the conversation, noting that “sometimes we think of identities as given…but actually identity is a very fluid thing.” Gina Dent also shared her insight into the difference between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. “I never really thought that I was doing what I was because [of] who I am, but because I wanted to manage how people would react to me.” These frameworks to think about identity became useful for the conversation.
Davis also spoke to how she believes there is a need to engage specifically with our political identities. In this neoliberal era, we are urged only to think of ourselves as individuals, but collective action requires a community to rally around shared ideals. According to Davis, the construction of political identities is what brings us into relationship with people all over the world and with people who are different from us for the purpose of mobilizing for radical change. In particular, she referred to the work of John Berger, using the metaphor of political demonstration as rehearsal to explain the process of finding the commonalities in people’s beliefs.
“The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness.”
(John Berger, The Nature of Mass Demonstrations, 23 May 1968)
Davis encouraged the students to think about how to achieve the changes that they seek. Change requires demonstration, but it is extremely difficult to form and come together into the communities that will make unified demands in demonstrations. Similarly, Dent underlined the difficulty in finding the common ground between a group of people. Even within the room, she said, people will have very different visions of what the future should look like.
According to both Davis and Dent, the key to mobilization is organization. Davis emphasized the integrality of coordination: “It’s so important to do the organizing that will predate the civil disobedience.” Meanwhile Dent explained the dynamics of effective organization: it relies on discovering the strengths and conditions of different individuals and bringing them together to have the largest impact. Yet she also noted that today’s youth have not been raised in a political atmosphere that teaches them the tools to perform activism in unsafe conditions, despite increasingly unsafe demonstrate conditions.
The end of the dialogue circled back to one of the beginning themes: the role of youth. At the offset of the evening an NYU Florence student, Jordan, said, “I think we have more agency than we give ourselves credit for as students.” Similarly, Davis ended the night echoing the thoughts of Isaac Newton, saying that young people are standing on the shoulders of those who came before which means that they have the knowledge of the past but also an extended reach and vision into the future. For this reason, “no significant change has ever occurred in the world without the leadership of young people.”
“The point is to upset people. The whole process of troubling people’s sense of what constitutes the normal is what we are trying to do.”
(Angela Davis, We the Students, April 12 2017)
Photography by NYU Florence student Katy Piwonka