A Staunch Advocate for a Better Amherst College
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:33

Many Amherst students use their four years entirely for personal development, paying little attention to how their time here affects Amherst or society at large. They see what Amherst can do for them but not what they can do for Amherst. Among her peers, Larissa Davis is probably one of the College’s most vocal critics.

But above all, her acknowledgement that Amherst is often an imperfect place pushes her to do what many others do not: to put her community before herself and actively change the institutions around her.

Many know Davis as an active voice in various facets of Amherst, both academic and social, but, unlike many students, Davis does not passively take part in existing Amherst social structures. She actively criticizes them and asks how they can be improved. Many students at Amherst see themselves as committed to institutional change in the big picture, but few marry their abstract commitment to real-world change. Davis has done exactly that in the place where she most immediately saw its necessity: at Amherst itself.

Drawn in by Diversity
Four years ago, Davis did not see herself as someone who was prepared to critique Amherst or society. She was originally drawn to Amherst because of what she perceived as a deep, institutional commitment to diversity that suited her own interests.

The love of diverse experiences that fueled Davis’s willingness and drive to critique began before she came to Amherst, and it has a deep background in her experiences as a child. A military child, Davis was used to exploring diverse cultures and moving from place to place.

“I was born in Washington State (South Kitsap stand up!), but moved to Taegu, South Korea when I was six, followed by Yokosuka, Japan when I was nine and finally Charleston, South Carolina when I was 16. In between those permanent moves I spent quite a lot of time in California and Louisiana,” she noted proudly.

No doubt, these experiences of “bouncing from overseas base to overseas base,” as Davis put it, stoked a fire in her for new experiences and ultimately drove her to Amherst: a college that seemed, at the time, to suit her commitment to and love for diverse experiences.

Davis admitted that her interest in social justice was vague upon arriving at Amherst, and her desire to further explore different fields of reform eventually settled her on a path toward emphasizing education reform as the key mechanism of social equality in the U.S. Her favorite classes at Amherst, Race and Educational Opportunity with Professor Hilary Moss and Democracy and Education with Professor Barry O’ Connell, betray her interest in education.

Davis’s desire for change extends beyond education, however, to broader economic and justice reform, likely along the lines of what she learned in her inside-outside class Historical Perspectives of the U.S. Economy and Criminal Justice, taught by Professor Martha Saxton. Her interest in history was sparked by an International Baccalaureate teacher in high school, and this, along with the classes she enrolled in at Amherst, prompted her to major in History.

Always seeking new experiences, Davis paired this with an Asian Languages and Civilizations major, which allowed her to focus on classes in another world region to complement her mostly-U.S. focused history career. Above all, though, Amherst allowed Davis to more fully connect her love of history to modern social justice reform and to challenging institutional structures to create change, even if this meant serving as one of the most vocal critics of the College when it did not live up to its stated intentions.

Davis soon discovered that she was not content to simply explore wider notions of reform in the classroom. Rather, she was also deeply committed to using what she learned to challenge the institutional structures of Amherst in a variety of ways. Starting her first year, Davis became involved in organizing Black Alumni Weekend and “breaking out of the Amherst bubble by going weekly to Dean Tech in Holyoke.” She was also a Peer Advocate for Sexual Respect.

By her senior year though, Davis had taken on numerous other commitments, including serving on the Executive Board and being the Vice President of the Amherst Political Union.

A Force for Change
In many ways, though, these experiences were not as fruitful to Davis as her more informal commitments: those which moved her outside of Amherst institutions and into the realm of grassroots organizing. As she noted, the “informal ‘activity’ that I have dedicated the most time to outside of the academics is organizing around the Multicultural Resource Center on campus. I have been involved to a lesser extent in organizing around sexual assault issues on campus but where I have been involved I have been fully committed.”

As such, Davis is not afraid to provide harsh words for the College.

“I find that Amherst has changed less than some of the people in it. The institutional structures, barriers, are still in place, however, a number of the students who have gone through it have changed internally,” she said.

She said that in the end, “the students involved in organizing around sexual respect and the MRC are about making this institution better and rather than feigning that significant differences do not exist, which does nothing but oppress the non-dominant cultural and other aspects of the campus, to acknowledge the differences and learn how to recognize and work through them.” To this extent, Davis, clearly a proponent of grassroots efforts, engaged in protesting college policy throughout her senior year with the goal of making Amherst more conducive to learning and openly sharing diverse experiences. And she did acknowledge some positive change at Amherst.

“For students now who are striving to change the institution, and actually make it a place where we turn our representative diversity into substantive diversity and hold each other accountable for perpetuating justice rather than elitism, the soil is more fertile for us to take root,” Davis said.

Davis has in her years here been a powerful advocate for change and an advocate for broader notions of diversity that promote not only bringing students together physically, but also mentally and emotionally, as well as challenging dominant perspectives on society.

“She is, without a doubt, a positive force for change at Amherst. Super-smart, dedicated and always well-prepared, [Davis] brought much needed clarity and insight to the work of the committee,” Professor Ronald Lembo said about working together on the committee to hire an interim director for the Multicultural Resource Center. “In the process, she helped to instill real meaning to the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion,’ something which the College could use more of. No doubt, she will be missed.”

Davis’s passion for change extends beyond Amherst, as reflected by her summer experiences. After her first year, she decided to focus on educational reform as her new passion and interned with the Mississippi Teacher Corps, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of education in some of the most disadvantaged schools in the country. This experience not only allotted her an opportunity to focus on the public good, but it was transformative as well.

“I had a vague interest in racial and social justice, but by the end of the summer I was unequivocally committed to social justice through education,” she said.

Davis made sure not to focus too narrowly on education, though, which is why after her sophomore year she decided to intern with the Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn from South Carolina’s sixth district on Capitol Hill, which bolstered her interest in politics and allowed her an opportunity to get an up-close picture of how the government functions and the obstacles which face those committed to change. After her third year at Amherst, she decided to focus more on her own research after having had experiences both in top-down and grassroots reform. She received a research grant for preparing for her senior thesis and served as a Montgomery Summer Research Fellow at the Amherst Bar Foundation. With these experiences, Davis decided to turn back to education for her senior year while working on her thesis. She looked into school integration in Charleston, S.C., ultimately hoping to explore the complicated and often contradictory means by which communities react to policy measures with respect to integration and education. Davis’s thesis is ultimately a critical one, and one which relates to not only Charleston, but also to smaller communities such as Amherst College and larger ones such as the entire United States.

Personal Influences
Davis’s interest in diversity wasn’t merely academic, but hit much closer to home and extended into her personal life. While she said that Amherst has made her “more articulate, confident and critical,” she acknowledged that much of this was because of “micro-aggressions” she faced on campus, or non-physical aggressions between members of different races and cultures which pervade everyday society.

“My friends who were ‘already there’ before me helped me to feel more confident and comfortable expressing views, often critical views, outside of just papers for classes or in small groups of people who already understood completely,” Davis said.

Davis further stated that “the friends that I have made and who have supported me at this institution are the ones that I value the most.” While she matriculated to Amherst for its rich representative diversity on campus, she notes that “it has truly been (her) friends of color and other women on campus” to whom she feels closest. Ultimately, this means that to Davis the College is failing to truly promote diversity in a way that crosses deeper, more ingrained mental and emotional borders. This is precisely why it is primarily those students who have experienced “micro-aggressions” first-hand with whom she “had countless hours of conversations with about difficult and triumphal experiences on campus and beyond, studied with, philosophized about life with, ate with, organized with, and affirmed the presence of others with.”

For her friends, the feeling is mutual.

Abigail Bereola ’15 heaped praise on Davis: “[Davis] is a powerhouse. She cares deeply about her friends and about issues on Amherst’s campus, working tirelessly for what she believes is just and against what she sees as unjust. Amherst will be worse off without her.”

Davis shows no signs of ending her commitment to social justice, planning next year to begin a Coro Fellowship in Public Policy and Public Affairs. On leaving Amherst, Davis describes herself as “uncontrollably eager” to “get out of the residential campus bubble” and to “choose to live in a place where I cannot feign that poverty does not exist,” something Davis feels Amherst did not completely commit to. To her, it is grassroots social movements and policy work, as opposed to classroom learning, through which real change occurs, and she couldn’t be more excited to move in this direction.

Davis’s future plans will push her further down the path of social change and remind her why so many found her a positive and integral force for change at Amherst. Davis was seldom content with merely taking classes here. She devoted her time to changing Amherst in numerous ways and explored social reform from many different angles. On change at Amherst, Davis is cautiously optimistic.

“I hope the changes since I was a first-year student, particularly in the past year, are indicative of Amherst being on the cusp of actually starting to believe every life has a consequence,” Davis said.

But at the same time, as many around her know, as long as there are people like Davis at Amherst and in the world, there will always be advocates who will stop at nothing to see that the change they desire is implemented in society and to make the world a place more dedicated to social justice.