College of SBS alumnus of the year Opal Tometi, who is one of three co-founders of Black Lives Matter, gives life advice to the SBS graduating class of 2016.
When Opal Tometi was a UA history major, she had no idea that just a decade later, she would help create a social movement that would thrust her into the national and global spotlight.
“Little did I know, in 2005, as a fresh graduate that I would be catapulted to the center of one of the key political movements of our time,” Tometi said. “Little did I know that I would not only use my history degree, but actually make history!”
Tometi is most widely known for her contributions to the Black Lives Matter movement. With Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, she co-founded the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, the defining social movement of her generation. In 2015, BLM was named as a runner-up for Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
Tometi is currently executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), which is the leading national organization working to coordinate immigrant rights and racial justice across African American, Afro-Latino, African, and Caribbean communities.
Tometi is the recipient of many significant honors and awards, including an honorary doctorate from Clarkson University. She was an invited keynote speaker at the United Nations and is featured in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. She was named one of Glamour magazine’s 2016 women of the year, and along with her BLM partners was recognized as one of the top 50 world leaders by Fortune magazine. The Los Angeles Times recognized Tometi as a “new civil rights leader” in 2015 and that same year she was number 10 on the Root 100 list, which honors the nation’s most influential African Americans.
In recognition of Tometi’s influence, she was named the College of Social and Behavioral Science’s 2016 Alumna of the Year.
“Opal Tometi is a brilliant example of how UA alumni are impacting the entire world,” said Melinda Burke, president of the UA Alumni Association. “We are honored to recognize Opal Tometi as SBS Alumna of the Year for her tireless work on behalf of opportunities for every individual.”
“The College of SBS is tremendously proud of Opal,” said John Paul Jones III, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Through her work at BAJI and in the formation of Black Lives Matter, Opal has applied the lessons of history to better understand race and social justice in the United States. Her efforts have made a tangible difference in the lives of many, especially the most marginalized. From hands-on assistance to immigrants through her work at BAJI to forging a new civil rights movement, Opal is a superb exemplar of the People College’s mission of education and engagement.”
Advice for Graduates
On December 16, 2016, Tometi — who grew up in Phoenix, Ariz. — was the convocation speaker for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. A proud Wildcat, Tometi said she cherished her years in Tucson. She was a member of Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority and of Chi Alpha, a Christian student ministry.
“Like some of you, I didn’t even know what I was going to do with my degree!” Tometi said. “However, the skills to obtain it did teach me some things I will use throughout my entire life, like how to research, and how to account for what happened in the past.”
Tometi advised students to take stock of their history. She relayed her story of being raised by Nigerian parents who immigrated to the United States, of her mother’s “fierce intellect,” and of her hard-working father, whom she called her “first true example of a feminist.” She said that her family history shaped her beliefs “that women are worthy, and capable, and that my own life mattered.”
“Each of us inherits certain privileges, beliefs, and resources, and unless we do the work of examining our past, distilling the values, choosing the ones we want and deliberately discarding the others we know don’t serve humanity – we’ll find ourselves repeating the same errors of the past,” Tometi said.
Tometi implored graduates to create and live new stories. She recalled launching her first online social media campaign on MySpace to demand a television station to stop using the term “illegal” to describe undocumented people.
“I had become passionate about the use of language in a history class on the Holocaust, where I learned that genocide didn’t happen overnight. It was gradual and seemingly ordinary. And it began with language about Jewish people, and their value in the world,” Tometi said. “I was determined to apply my history lesson to write a new future. And this same logic led me to partner with two other organizers to co-create the Black Lives Matter platform and chapter-based network.”
Tometi finished her speech with a call to action.
“As graduates from the UA with degrees in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, you too are equipped with some of the most transformative knowledge to create a new world. Your degrees have disproportionally gifted you with the tools to be social architects. You have the capacity to imagine and build an entirely different world. One where we finally have a functioning, vibrant democracy that works for all of us, where the breadth of our human experience and the beauty of our spirits are embraced and we are all able to thrive.
“There is nothing inconsequential about being alive in this moment in history and possessing the type of information you have. But here’s the clincher – you must apply the lessons you have learned here ethically, and with heart. You are each called to lead with courage and with grace…I trust that you are the class of Freedom Fighters and World Changers that we’ve been waiting for!”