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Ruha Benjamin to Deliver Loeschner Leadership Lecture

November 29, 2023
Ruha Benjamin
Ruha Benjamin's latest book Viral Justice explores the importance of incremental, individual actions.

Sociologist and author Ruha Benjamin, whose latest book argues that seemingly small efforts can help build a more just and joyful world, is the featured speaker for Northwestern University’s Nancy and Ray Loeschner Leadership Lecture Series and its Distinguished Public Policy Lecture Series at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23.

Benjamin, the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, is known for her original research on race, technology, and justice. She’ll be in conversation with School of Education and Social Policy Dean Bryan Brayboy, a scholar of race, diversity, and Indigenous experiences in education.

The community-wide event is co-sponsored by the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) and Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR), led by sociologist Andrew V. Papachristos, who studies gun violence, social networks, and urban poverty and inequality.

The lecture, followed by a book signing, will take place at Northwestern University’s Segal Visitors Center, 1841 Sheridan Road, Evanston.

This in-person-only event is free, but tickets are required. A brief audience Q&A will follow the conversation.

A highly regarded public speaker, Benjamin’s talks have focused on ensuring that AI doesn’t deepen historical discrimination and that technological fixes don’t become substitutes for wider social change.

“Technology is not creating the problems. It is reflecting and amplifying—and often hiding—preexisting forms of inequality and hierarchy,” she said in a recent talk at Bowdoin College.

Part memoir, part personal manifesto, Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want, explores and emphasizes the importance of individual, incremental actions that can shift norms and expectations. She also turns conventional thinking on its head. Viruses, she contends, are not our ultimate foes.

“What if we reimagined virality as something we might learn from?” she wrote. “What if the virus is not something simply to be feared and eliminated, but a microscopic model of what it could look like to spread justice and joy in small but perceptible ways?”

At Princeton, Benjamin’s research examines how advancements in science, medicine, and technology intersect with social issues. She’s especially interested in the link between innovation and inequality, health and justice, and the dynamics of knowledge and power.

“The tension between innovation and equity is mainly what keeps me up at night,” she wrote on her website.

Her 2023 TEDWomen talk, titled “Is technology our savior – or our slayer?” offered a more hopeful vision of the future: Technology doesn’t fulfill all our desires or lead to chaos and conflict, she said. Instead, it can be used to support ordinary people and to make things like health care and housing for all a reality.

Raised in the Bahá’i faith, Benjamin was born in India to a Persian-Indian mother and an African American father. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 3, then to South Carolina when she was 9. She calls her family her “first classroom,” where she “became a student of race-ethnicity, gender, class, citizenship and diaspora – an ongoing touchstone for questioning what ‘comes naturally.’”

Benjamin earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology from Spelman College and her doctorate in sociology from the University of California-Berkeley. The founding director of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab, she has earned numerous awards and honors, including the Marguerite Casey Foundation Freedom Scholar Award and the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton.

In addition to Viral Justice, winner of the 2023 Stowe Prize, Benjamin is the author of Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Her forthcoming book Imagination: A Manifesto will be released in February 2024.

Benjamin’s new newsletter “Seeding the Future,” puts what she calls “bloomscrolling” — examples of justice happening across the nation and the world — in the spotlight.

We need “bloomscrolling to balance out all our doomscrolling, a space we can witness the many ways that people are seeding justice, watering new patterns of life, and working to transform the sickening status quo all around us,” Benjamin wrote in the inaugural issue.

About the Loeschner Leadership Lecture Series

Established in 2013 by a gift from School of Education and Social Policy alumnus Ray Loeschner, the Nancy and Ray Loeschner Leadership Lecture Series presents visionary leaders in education and other fields. Loeschner is the former president of Olivet University and a pioneer in higher education. In 2006 he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association Alumni Merit Award for the School of Education and Social Policy. Past speakers have included author Tara Westover; Anthony Jack, associate professor at Boston University; Mary Daly, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Eve Ewing, associate professor in the Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity at the University of Chicago; and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America.

About the IPR Distinguished Public Policy Lecture

IPR is one of the country’s oldest and most prominent interdisciplinary social science research institutes. Its Distinguished Public Policy Lectures first started in 1994 and are given by prominent individuals who can speak to the use of research in policymaking and other issues. Past lecturers have included Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank President and CEO Raphael Bostic; Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute at the time; and incoming Brookings President Cecilia Rouse, who was dean of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs at the time and a former White House economic adviser.