Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power addressed “Resisters in Dark Times” in her first talk on Wednesday evening as this year’s speaker for the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Power shared the stories of activists in three difficult times in American history: the periods of Japanese internment, anti-communist hysteria, and the AIDS epidemic.
The event was co-sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and Stanford in Government (SIG).
Tales of activism
In the first part of her speech, Power focused on the history of students sent to Japanese internment camps, many of whom were from the Bay Area.
“Here at Stanford, more than 30 Japanese-American students were sent to camps and forced to abandon their studies,” Power said.
She shared the story of Harvey Itano, a second-generation Japanese immigrant who was a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, when he and his family were detained and sent to the Tulelake internment camp in Northern California.
“From the windswept barracks of Tulelake, [Itano] filled out and posted applications to medical school,” Power said. “Had it not been for the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council [NJASRC], Itano may never have been able to get permission to leave the camp.”
Amid Japanese internment efforts by the U.S. government, activists established the NJASRC to help students in Itano’s position continue their education. The Council secured clearances allowing students to leave the camps, funds to support their education and assurances they would be accepted in their university communities.
According to Power, Itano eventually earned two doctoral degrees and became a medical researcher. A breakthrough in his research at the California Institute of Technology ultimately pioneered improved treatments for genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia.
Itano was one of over 4,000 Japanese students who were freed from the camps to pursue higher education thanks to the NJASRC’s social, political and financial support.
Power turned next to the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. She raised Robert Hutchins, then-president and chancellor of the University of Chicago, as an example of how one individual sparked a larger movement against injustice.
When the Illinois Seditious Activities Investigation Committee began targeting faculty, administrators and students at the University of Chicago, Hutchins argued that their idea of “guilt by association” was un-American, she said.
Over time, other administrators and professors at the University of Chicago followed Hutchins’ example, speaking out against the Committee and in support of Hutchins. Ultimately, no one at the university was punished by the Committee, a success Power credited in large part to Hutchins and the activism he catalyzed.
“Imagine for just one moment how different that period might have been if other institutions had been as unified and principled as the one led by Chancellor Hutchins,” Power said.
Power’s last example of resistance in times of darkness was activism during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which she argued Ronald Reagan’s administration and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) handled poorly.
“At a time when the average AIDS patient was surviving for less than three years, the government’s lack of urgency was a death sentence for those affected,” Power said.
She added that the advocacy group ACT UP was instrumental in civil disobedience and public awareness efforts.
One of its founders, Mark Harrington, led the group’s Treatment and Data Committee. Despite the fact that most members of the Committee were artists, not scientists, they taught themselves the necessary vocabulary and science to challenge the Centers for Disease Control, which alleged that just 26 people were living as long-term AIDS survivors in the U.S., a number Power said was drastically lower than the reality.
ACT UP’s activism eventually led the FDA to make treatment available to more people at a lower cost, as well as to research the disease more seriously.
Power concluded by emphasizing the ability of small groups to effect big changes.
“Even though the resistance could not right the entire system, just think of the lives that were changed by these efforts,” she said. “Think of the exponential impact a few dozen determined individuals – people who held firm to their principles even when most Americans did not – […] had on the lives of others.
Response and discussion
In the discussion following Power’s lecture, Stein Visiting Writer Rebecca Solnit urged listeners to reject the common idea of the single, male leader and to instead celebrate the many, diverse activists who have changed history.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a great activist, she said, but he did not lead the Civil Rights Movement alone.
“Some of the most crucial things that happened [in the Civil Rights Movement] were led from behind, sparked by people whose names we don’t use,” Solnit said.
Solnit’s response focused on the ability of “nontraditional groups” to effect change. Solnit touched on the women who created the #MeToo movement, as well as the young people who have spoken out about gun control following the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Solnit said she sees these current movements as part of a “remarkable moment of resistance” and is hopeful for the change they will bring.
In discussion with Solnit, Power also called attention to her role as a powerful woman on the world stage, especially in the context of Donald Trump’s election.
“I’ve had a lot of very bad ideas in my life, but none worse than deciding to have an election party in November 2016 with all the women ambassadors from the U.N.,” she said.
On the night of the 2016 presidential election, as it became clear that Trump would become President, Power said she felt “so disappointed and so surprised.” Guests went home and Power’s family went to bed, and eventually only Gloria Steinem remained.
While Power was feeling disheartened, she noticed how Steinem seemed unsurprised and unfazed by the election results. Power said Steinem was ready to keep fighting for women’s rights instead of wallowing in disappointment.
“She was just back to business,” Power said.
Connecting her personal experiences to more recent events, Power encouraged high school students demanding stricter gun laws to find inspiration in the work of previous generations of activists.
“The thing about young people is – almost by definition – they have no fear,” Power said.
Madeleine Musante ’18, who attended the lecture, said she liked the “hopeful yet realistic” tone of the evening.
“I appreciated that [Power] acknowledged these groups [of activists] were not able to eliminate the problems without more widespread support,” Musante said.
Nevertheless, Musante said she was troubled by Solnit’s suggestion the U.S. has accomplished much as a country amid the #MeToo movement and Parkland shooting.
Before the event, SIG Chair Alexis Kallen ’18 told The Daily that Power serves as a role model for aspiring leaders such as herself.
Referring to a previous interview with Power, Kallen said, “I asked her about being a female in such an international space, where people are coming from backgrounds where they don’t think women should even be speaking. And yet, she’s sitting there, leading.”
Power addressed young people’s desire for visible change in her conversation with Solnit.
“We won’t get the immediate returns, but we have to know that we have these forbearers who have accrued wisdom,” she said.
Power will give a second lecture on Thursday titled “Diplomacy after Darkness” at CEMEX auditorium and lead a discussion seminar at the Schwab Residential Center this Friday.
Contact Sarah Ortlip-Sommers at sortlip ‘at’ stanford.edu and Mini Racker at mracker ‘at’ stanford.edu.