President-Elect Donald Trump’s electoral victory came as a surprise to many, including CA students who had either just voted for the first time or were not yet old enough to vote. But Rosa Clemente, an Afro-Latina scholar, activist, and former vice-presidential candidate who lives in upstate New York and observed Trump signs there outnumbering Clinton signs five to one, saw it coming. In a passionate address to CA students in the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel on Tuesday, November 15, just a week after the election, she expressed concern about the incoming administration legitimizing white nationalist views and vowed to continue her life’s work of galvanizing activists to push for change both within the political system and in local communities.
Clemente, a Black Lives Matter, Hip Hop, and immigration activist; community organizer; 2008 Green Party vice-presidential candidate; and prominent critic of the American two-party system was wrapping up a 15-month speaking tour that had taken her all over the United States. She had been invited to CA as part of the Community and Equity speaker series, which brings a range of voices to campus to speak on issues of identity and social justice. Assistant Dean for Community and Equity Laura Twichell prefaced the talk by saying she expected Clemente’s political perspectives to challenge CA students and faculty to listen, sometimes uncomfortably, holding her ideas and their own side by side in a way that interfaith advocate Eboo Patel and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey in an On Being podcast that students recently heard had called critical for cultivating the empathy required to maintain a healthy democracy.
Clemente brought fire to her speech. In the previous week, she was quick to point out, more than 300 racist incidents had been documented across the country, directed at African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Muslims, and also young white protestors. LGBTQ suicide hotlines had been inundated with calls. “We have to think about these things,” Clemente said. “You’re in a good institution where you are being taught to think and be intellectuals, but also you now have to be part of the fight. You have to use every skill set you are getting here to benefit humanity.”
Her analysis of this election: Half of the electorate did not vote, and voters who had helped Obama win both of his presidential bids were the same who elected this president. Trump prevailed because people are tired of the failures of the two-party system and voted for something different. What Clemente is concerned about are continued systemic biases and once-dormant expressions of racism that have been publicly unleashed.
Clemente traced the history of the Black Lives Matter movement, influenced by the post-9/11 militarization of police forces across the U.S., and addressed the similar surge in populist upsets across Europe — all based on fear of migrants. “We have to think beyond the U.S.,” she said, and broadly. “Why is your generation going to have to fight for clean water and air to breathe? You don’t care about anything else? Care about the climate,” she said. “The climate crisis that we’re in right now is going to affect every single one, and no amount of money is going to save anyone from that.”
Clemente grew up in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the United States, then moved at nine years old to Westchester County, the second-richest county in New York. She experienced some disorientation as her cousins in the Bronx were subjected to stop-and-frisk tactics while she was supported by a community of caring and involved teachers. Still, it wasn’t until she went to college that any of her teachers were people of color. At the State University of New York in Albany she first encountered racism personally — and after a year of initial depression, she plunged into ethnic studies and community organizing.
An outspoken advocate for communities of color, Clemente reflected on why she had continued to pursue her own education, which distinguishes her from much of her family. “I didn’t go to college to get a nice job and a nice house,” she said. “My goal in going to college was to educate myself to a level to be so politically astute that I’m going to create my own path. I have the ultimate responsibility for everything that I’ve been taught and given, to be part of a community and change the conditions that people are in.”
Questioned by one student who wondered if voting for a third party might be throwing away his vote, Clemente countered by arguing that the Democratic party had failed its base. “You never waste a vote when you vote with your values and your conscience,” she said. “You should never vote out of fear, but that’s what so many people have been doing.” As a committed Green Party supporter, whose nominee Jill Stein took in a little over one percent of the vote this election, her hope remains in the emergence of a third party. “We need real choice,” she said, “not the duopoly of trading power between two elitist parties.”
Likewise, she chided an older generation for shaming those who don’t vote. For her, “Social justice is not built on voting. That’s a tactical response to power.” The focus, she said, should more reasonably be placed on grassroots organizing.
As Clemente said, she operates from passion, not anger, thinking about the world her 11-year-old daughter will live in. She invited the CA community to be part of the struggle. “When black and brown people are free,” she said “we will all be free.”
Clemente encouraged students to share their views on social media using the hashtag #ifiwaspresident. For students looking to get involved in improving human rights, Clemente recommended Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for justice. In a meeting with faculty following the speech, Clemente also pointed them to the Black Lives Matter syllabus, this Movement for Black Lives policy paper, and, for context in response to a student-raised question, a historical speech by Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet.”
“You have to become an organizer and activist,” Clemente urged each student. “That’s your generation’s calling right now.” Several students were much inspired, staying after Clemente’s speech to trade hugs.