The 2023 Payton Lectureship featuring Dr. Anita Hill: Social change is a relay, not a marathon

Dr. Anita Hill in conversation with English professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins at Bridges auditorium (Sarah Ziff • The Student Life)

With regard to transformative shifts in society, Dr. Anita Hill wouldn’t say she identifies as an optimist, but is ever hopeful to overcome a number of impossible challenges.

On Oct. 28, Pomona College invited Hill to speak on civil rights in current politics, education and greater society in the United States for the sixth annual Payton Distinguished Lectureship.

Hill is a renowned law professor at Brandeis University, most well known for her role as a witness in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, accusing the now Supreme Court justice of sexual harassment. As an activist against gender-based violence, Dr. Hill has chaired the Hollywood Commission, an effort to fight harassment in the entertainment industry.

One of the organizers, KJ Fagan, the senior director of Public Programming and Strategic Initiatives at Pomona, explained why Hill was chosen for this year’s lecture.

The idea for inviting Anita Hill came from President Starr,” Fagan said. “Professor Hill inspired President Starr to become a college professor and has been one of her role models for feminist activism.”

The lecture featured a discussion between Kyla Wazana Tompkins, an English professor at Pomona College, and Hill.

Tompkins began by asking Hill about her experiences as a first generation college student with 13 siblings.

“[My mom wanted] to make sure that every one of her children had an opportunity to go college … she did not get an education and that fueled the fire,” Hill said. “What we realized was that getting in is not the only thing … A sense of belonging … that’s what allows for a successful experience in college. And that wasn’t always there.”

Tompkins followed with a question about the historical importance and consequences of Hill’s testimony during the appointment of Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991. Hill responded that although Thomas was confirmed, her testimony led to political action, specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1991 as well as a more racially and gender-diverse Senate body in the decades to come.

“For the first time now, we have a national plan to end gender-based violence,” Hill said. “It was never on a political agenda.”

“[Testimony] is your one chance to control the narrative,” Hill said. “My goal in using my voice was to challenge their assessment of his character and fitness for that lifetime position … The win is measured by whether or not what you have said resonates with people.”

She added she is continuing to push President Joe Biden for greater legal protection against gender-based violence.

“For the first time now, we have a national plan to end gender-based violence,” Hill said. “It was never on a political agenda.”

She also shared her wisdom on the process of creating social change for future generations.

“I used to say that I thought it was going to be a sprint and then I left law school and I thought, well maybe it’s gonna be a marathon,” Hill said. ”Now I realize that it’s a relay; that we are really here to pass on [progress] to the next generation … Change [is] about never resting and keeping your eyes on that long-term goal.”

Tompkins closed off the discussion by asking Hill about what she hopes to leave behind for future generations.

“You don’t get to design your legacy,” Hill said. “You work for what you think is right and let history speak … Honestly, this was not the plan, but it is exactly where I am supposed to be. Hopefully, when it’s all done, this will include a body of work that will speak for itself.”

A Q&A followed the conversation between Hill and Tompkins. One question came from Vernon Crawford, a cybersecurity manager at University of Southern California, who described becoming inspired by Hill’s 1991 testimony.

”32 years ago, my colleagues and I saw this wonderful, intellectual Black woman taking on the establishment in a calm, intelligent way … it’s a very big get from Pomona to have you here,” Crawford said.

Crawford then asked for a selfie with Hill.

After the talk, Ella Tzeng PO ’27 described admiration for Hill’s command of humor.

“She’s very secure in her place there and [that skill is] something that I really want to have,” Tzeng said. “I guess everyone jokes, but seeing someone like Anita Hill just joking and being a human being [was surprising].”

Hill ended the talk by reflecting on how society as a whole has the ability to keep on fighting against unjust political forces, strongly believing change is within reach.

“You need to have your head and you need to have a good heart,” Hill said. “But you also need to have something deep inside of you that I call the spirit. The fact that we are all here having a conversation, asking the questions … really is an indicator that if enough people ask for the change and then demand it, it will happen.”

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