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Faith Leader and Filmmaker Valarie Kaur to Deliver the 2022 Russell Lecture on Spiritual Life

The "See No Stranger" author will address the Tufts community on March 28

Little-known fact: civil rights leader Valarie Kaur discovered her public voice on the Tufts Medford/Somerville campus.

In September 2006, Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, Kaur’s documentary with Sharat Raju on racism in America after September 11, 2001, made its Boston premiere in Barnum Hall, in a screening hosted by the Asian American Center. Tufts was the first university in the nation to host the film.

While producing the film, Kaur expected the documentary would be a resource to share on college campuses. But during the screening at Tufts, she had an epiphany.

Seeing all the students lined up after the film to speak with her made her realize that she had a message that resonated with young people. Kaur cites that fateful visit to the Hill as the “beginning of her public voice.”

Kaur shared this origin story during a February 9 interview with Neha Ratnapuri, A23, and Curry Brinson, A22, two members of the University Chaplaincy’s Interfaith Ambassador team. Ratnapuri and Brinson spoke with Kaur in anticipation of her return to Tufts on March 28, when she will deliver the Russell Lecture on Spiritual Life. This year, the Russell Lecture is offered jointly as part of the Solomont Speaker Series from the Tisch College of Civic Life.

Kaur’s lecture will draw from her 2020 book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. Kaur describes revolutionary love as “the call of our time, a radical, joyful practice that extends in three directions: to others, to our opponents, and to ourselves.”

“Valarie embodies the creative and courageous spirit of an interfaith leader,” said University Chaplain Rev. Elyse Nelson Winger. “As a lawyer, filmmaker, and a member of the Sikh community, Valarie shows us how each of us can weave together our own expertise, experiences, and stories for the common good.”

Brinson said speaking with Kaur offered a chance to explore the “remedies Valarie can offer to us as students, through self-love and divine rage . . . as we continue to discern where we fit in the fight for justice.” For her part, Ratnapuri said that she is excited for the lecture as an occasion for Kaur to show students “ways to grow as friends, family members, community members, and activists that is true to themselves.”

“Valarie deeply reveres the stories that have shaped communities of people across traditions and time for liberation and justice,” said Nelson Winger. “And when she is at Tufts next month, she will invite our community to bring those stories and practices to the civic work of revolutionary love in our relationships, across institutions, and amidst deep difference.”

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Kaur on knowing when to share your story with the world:

Since I was a little girl, I’ve heard this voice in my head: “You’re not good enough, you’re not strong enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not enough.” That voice—the little critic, I call it—gets loud, especially anytime I’m about to put my art into the world or tell a story that I’ve never told before.

There’s a different voice in my mind, too. I can hear it when I get really quiet. It’s the voice that says, “Oh, my love, you are enough.” It’s the wise woman in me.

My whole life had been the power struggle between the little critic and the wise woman—until I finally understood that the little critic was just scared. The little critic doesn’t want me to break my silence or tell my story because it’s not safe for young brown women to tell their truths in this world. “The world will eat you alive” is what the little critic keeps saying—and they’re right.

But the solution is not silence. The solution is solidarity. So, the wise woman in me will say, “Okay, my love, you are enough. You are brave enough to do this thing or say this thing. Just don’t do it alone. Ask yourself: Who’s going to have your back? Who’s going to be by your side? Who’s going to hold your mic as your voice trembles? Who’s going to catch you after you put this book into the world?” It’s those moments of realizing the importance of community in sustaining courage and safety that allow me to live the life I live now.

On the role of college students in anti-racist work:

My dream for college students is for you to be ignited by your particular role in this season of your life . . . to know that you have one role that is part of the whole—but that you don’t need to carry it all.

If you are someone who has a knee on your neck, it is not your role to look up at your opponent and try to wonder about them or love them. No, my love: your role is to stay alive, take the next breath, let other people love on you and stand by your side, and help you get to your feet.

But if you are someone who, by virtue of your privilege, your skin color, your resources, is safe enough and brave enough to talk to those kinds of opponents, then we need you now. We need you in that labor. You have an essential role to play because if you’re not talking to them, who is? And the only way we’ll transition the nation as a whole is if we move all of us across the threshold.

The revolutionary love compass is: See no stranger, tend the wound, breathe, and push. It’s loving others, loving opponents, loving ourselves. At any given moment, there’s a place where we are most called to be; what is your work right now? Is it to build bonds of solidarity? To love on others? To grieve with them? To fight for them? Or is your work right now to reach out to those opponents? To create safe spaces for rage, but then also to create opportunities to listen and engage—and to reimagine institutions?

Or is it your role right now to create spaces of community care, to breathe and to push, to love ourselves well, so that we can survive, so we can last at any given season?

Registrations are open for the 2022 Russell Lecture on Spiritual Life.

The 2022 Russell Lecture on Spiritual Life is offered jointly by the University Chaplaincy and the Alan and Susan Solomont Speaker Series at Tisch College. Established in 1867, the Russell Lecture is the oldest lectureship at the university.

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