Women’s History Month: Highlighting life-long activist Melina Abdullah

Headshot of a woman

Headshot of Melina Abdullah. Credit: Cal State LA website.

Zoe Little and Mia Alva

Melina Abdullah, a Cal State LA professor, activist and one of the founding members of the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Black Lives Matter movement, is credited for helping spark the recent racial reckoning. “She is responsible for cultivating a whole new generation of scholar-activists at Cal State LA and worldwide,” said Pan-African Studies department chair Nana Lawson Bush.

Growing up in Oakland, California in the ‘70s, Abdullah said that being an activist was part of her generation. Since activism was always a part of her life, she adds that she never had a moment where she realized her love for it.

“I’ve been raised to use my voice. I see an injustice, I speak up about it. If there is something that I think needs to happen in the world, I work towards it,” said Abdullah.

Abdullah added that she attended her first protest as a young child and later, activism followed her to Berkeley high school, which at the time was the only school in the country with a Black Studies department. “Black studies saved my life,” added Abdullah.

Due to the struggles she saw in her community and what she was personally going through, she said that she felt that pursuing a path in African Studies was what she had to do. She was learning about African American studies in the ‘90s from her professor and was able to “learn who we are as black young people and harness our power and create change in our communities and neighborhoods.”

Abdullah also added how many of her professors in her life made her the person she is today. She decided to become a teacher because of her professor, Russell Adams, who mentored and guided her into teaching.
When teaching, Abdullah said she is true to her disciplines. “Activism and organizing has to be a part of what I do in the classroom. I have to bring the classroom out in the streets, either in real-time or virtually given the pandemic,” she added.

Abdullah said she thinks ethnic studies should be required nationwide in school systems since it calls to model the freedom and justice people want to see in the world.

“We need to have an open university where all students have open access,” said Abdullah.

Professor Staci Mitchell, an alumna of Cal State LA, had Abdullah as a professor and stays connected with her to this day.

Mitchell said that one of her favorite moments with Abdullah was as a student. “I got to watch and learn how she never overwhelmed her students with her knowledge or overpowered the discussion,” she said. “She always created and maintained a space for students to figure it out on their own.”

“She has an indefatigable passion for justice without self-regard for the cost on her own life,” said Bush, the Pan-African Studies department chair.

He said that one thing he has learned about activism and protesting from Abdullah is that, “If you don’t fight, you have almost no chance at winning. But, if you fight, you will win.”

Abdullah has impacted the lives of those on campus and as one of the founding members of the Black Lives Matter movement, she has also impacted the Los Angeles activist community.

Black Lives Matter came together in July 2013, when George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s case was announced. After the news broke, Los Angeles, as well as cities all around the country broke out into large-scale protests with thousands taking to the streets to protest the ruling.

After three days of protesting, Patrisse Cullors, brought Abdullah and others who were protesting together. They pledged to “create a movement,” says Abdullah, “not a moment.”

Abdullah said she wishes more people knew about how involved Cal State LA students and professors were in the creation of Black Lives Matter.

“There were thousands of people in the streets, including me, people like professor Staci Mitchell, [and] dozens of folks from Pan-African Studies,” said Abdullah.

With such large support from the Cal State LA community already, Abdullah decided to forward a text to her students asking them to meet her for the first meeting of the movement.

“There were about thirty of us who had worked at part of that initial meeting. About half of that original number of Black Lives Matter members were actually students from Cal State LA’s Pan-African Studies Department,” said Abdullah.

Abdullah has brought her passion for community engagement and fighting for what you believe in to Cal State LA. “Dr. Abdullah has made an impact on Cal State LA as a professor by speaking up. It only takes one person to speak up against issues on campus and as a professor, whose role is not necessarily to speak up for students; she’s been advocating for students since day one,” said Associated Students, Inc. President Diana Chavez.

Dr. Abdullah has now been nominated alongside the rest of the Black Lives Matter movement’s original founders for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

They were nominated by Petter Eide, a representative of the Socialist Left Party of Norway, who said that he believes they deserve recognition for the worldwide racial justice movement that they sparked after the death of George Floyd in May 2020, according to an article by CNN.

“It’s a wonderful acknowledgment, but we’re not in it for these kinds of accolades and so we had a moment to pause and go, ‘Well this is a big deal,’” said Abdullah. “But we also have to remember that there’s a struggle on the streets, and we’re not going to abandon that struggle.”