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‘We must choose to not lose sight of the world we want to bring into being’

MSVU prof gives convocation speech at Acadia while receiving honourary doctorate

El Jones, associate professor at MSVU in Halifax, received an honourary doctorate of letters from Acadia University at convocation on Friday, May 17.
El Jones, associate professor at MSVU in Halifax, received an honourary doctorate of letters from Acadia University at convocation on Friday, May 17.

El Jones, doctor of letters. Advocate, poet, professor.

On Friday, May 17 at Acadia University in Wolfville, Jones convocated with graduates from the Faculty of Professional Studies and the Faculty of Education.

Jones is receiving an honourary doctor of letters for her teaching–she has taught at Dal, NSCC, King’s, SMU, Acadia and currently MSVU, where she teaches in the Department of Political and Canadian Studies. She is also recognized for her depth of academic research and writing which focuses on social justice issues, including feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

Jones is a masterful writer and spoken word artist. From 2013 to 2015, she was Halifax’s Poet Laureate. After which, Jones was a resident at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. This winter, she was a fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Animal Rights Law researching how police dogs are honoured and used to support systems of state violence and control.

She has published two books: Live from the Afrikan Resistance! which is a collection of Jones’ spoken word poetry grounded in the culture and voice of Black Nova Scotia; and Abolitionist Intimacies, which is a collection of prose and poetry looking at the movement to abolish prisons through a Black feminist lens.

On Friday morning, Jones held the attention of the convocation hall at Acadia, filled with students in ceremonial gowns and hats beside robed members of faculty and staff. A poet, activist, journalist, Jones spoke for nine minutes in this moment of academic ritual and regalia…about what she never learned.

“I never learned–and I hope to never learn–to stay silent about injustice.”

Jones begins by taking everyone back a few years, to when she was commuting over an hour by car to Acadia in the mornings she taught an English class at the school in Wolfville, and how she used that time alone to cry. “I had just started working closely with people in prison, and I was deeply involved at the time in fighting what I felt was the wrongful conviction of a young African Nova Scotian man.

“Every day, I heard about injustices and conditions that enraged, traumatized, and haunted me...I would give myself that time to break down, and then get out of the car, try to hide it away, and go and teach.”

Jones is speaking directly to the graduating class when she says that,over the past few months, we have been told that it is our words and not bombs that are harmful and violent.

“In the past few weeks we have watched students—students like you—who are standing against a genocide be beaten bloody and arrested by police called by their own universities against them, simply because they can no longer stand by and say nothing while Palestinians are murdered.

“This convocation is taking place at a time where every university in Gaza has been destroyed, where academics, writers, and journalists have been killed in unprecedented numbers, and where every cultural institution has been decimated.”

As students, faculty, staff and others are told to stay silent on Palestine, “to not risk our careers, or our awards, or our dinner parties, or our reputations because it is too complex to speak, or it makes others unsafe, or we might appear to be hateful,” it is precisely at this time when speech is tested, “and you will find,” says Jones, “if you do speak, that this testing never ends.”

“It is at this time, more than any other, that we are called upon not to say what is pleasing but what is right.

“It is times like now that we are tested, where the values we say our education stands for—humanism, reason, justice—are challenged, and where we must find the courage to speak, and act, and live with integrity, compassion, and humanity.”

The Breach has published a full transcript of Jones’ speech here.

Over this week and next, King’s and Dalhousie will host their own convocation ceremonies. A live stream of King’s encaenia ceremony from Thursday May 23 is here and Dalhousie’s live stream of convocation ceremonies running from Tuesday, May 21 till May 31 can be found here.