University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill scholar Patricia Parker to discuss work of amplifying stories of oppressed

Patricia Parker

Patricia Parker is a critical communications scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, whose research focus is on social justice leadership and decolonizing organizational communication processes. Her lecture at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the theme of “What We Got Wrong: Learning From Our Mistakes,” will emphasize the importance of learning from lessons in the past as they relates to race, gender, and power.

Parker takes the spot of previously announced lecturer Donovan X. Ramsey; Ramsey’s book, When Crack was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era, is still considered a 2024 Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection.

One of the reason’s Parker accepted the invitation to speak at Chautauqua was the theme and its description, as it spoke to themes “that are very important to my work.”

“I felt that I could speak on this theme of what we got wrong, learning from our mistakes, and this question of ‘Maybe there are things that we’ve gotten wrong throughout history,’ ” she said. “… I think we’re in a moment now where we really do need to learn from some of the lessons of the past in our history.”

Parker is co-chair, with Jim Leloudis, of the university’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward. She said they offer two very different perspectives: He’s a historian, keen on documenting archives and she is a communications scholar, interested in the stories that we tell ourselves — and who gets left out of telling those stories.

Her current work is focused on descendent communities — those who are descendents of enslaved people — particularly on university campuses. There’s value in “excavating the apparatuses that bury some of the stories, and then amplifying the voices in stories of people who have not been able to tell those stories,” Parker said.

This past fall, Parker received the Thomas Jefferson Award, one of UNC’s highest faculty honors; it’s awarded annually to a UNC faculty member who has “best exemplified the ideals and objectives of Thomas Jefferson,” according to the UNC website. Parker said she contemplated what it meant to receive the award, named in honor of a man who would never envision her being at UNC — never mind being given the award.

Parker said she finds  inspiration in Ella Baker’s legacy during the 20th century because of her work in civil rights and human rights activism; she was a major force in shaping the Civil Rights Movement and worked during the Jim Crow era as national director of the NAACP’s various branches in the Jim Crow South. The role of the NAACP in that time was essentially to connect with the chapters, but not really engage with their stories; Baker had a significant impact in centering the focus on people who were on the front lines of the work. Parker takes her cue from Baker, to go “straight to people and to believe in the power of people.” 

Parker is the author of Ella Baker’s Catalytic Leadership: A Primer on Community Engagement and Communication for Social Justice, a case study translating Baker’s community engagement philosophy into a catalytic leadership practice. 

Parker follows some of Barbara Ransby’s biographical work on Baker, connecting Baker’s work to the work of philosopher Antonio Gramsci. In doing so, she illustrates how inequitable power dynamics have immense impacts.

“In going into these communities — and people will have different responses — but there are some people who are asking questions, who understand power,” Parker said. “That’s the first thing, is creating spaces where people are able to ponder aloud among others who are experiencing the same thing. What is happening and how is power circulating?”

Ransby characterized Baker as an “organic intellectual” as “her primary base of knowledge came from grassroots communities and from lived experience,” Parker said. The activist defied “respectability norms” with her outspoken nature and the way she challenged centralized authority. Her work still has an impact now, Parker said.

Baker wanted people to understand that they did have the power to counter violence through organizing. These participative spaces in service of the collective is where the most power comes from, Parker said.

“These participative spaces, where people are coming to consciousness, provide the tools of democracy: listening to others, being able to advocate, being educated on the issues, and teaching others about what’s happening with those issues,” Parker said, “then learn how to take that collective power in service to our democracy.”

And when there are unjust laws, Parker said, that’s where Martin Luther King’s Principles of Nonviolence come in.

Parker sees the power in her work as part of a legacy she’s inherited as an African American woman.

“What I see my work doing is following an approach that is hopeful and provides hope in the midst of what seems like impossibilities,” Parker said. “That is something that I feel is a legacy that I’ve inherited as a descendant of people who were enslaved and people who were kidnapped and brought to this country. And somehow their daughter is living the desire that they had, that they had no hope of seeing come to fruition in their day — but they had that hope. I feel like I’m carrying that legacy within me, and so that’s why I do this work. I am being a faithful daughter to a tradition that was left to me.”

Tags : CLSCmorning lectureMorning Lecture PreviewPatricia ParkerUniversity of North CarolinaUniversity of North Carolina – Chapel HillWhen Crack was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era

The author Gabriel Weber

Gabriel Weber is a graduating senior who is majoring in journalism and minoring in philosophy along with political science at Ball State University. This is her first year as an intern at The Chautauquan Daily. She is thrilled to be covering the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Chautauqua Chamber Music; her experience as a mediocre cello and trumpet player provides a massive level of appreciation and respect for these talented artists. A staff writer for Ball Bearings at her university and previous writer for the Pathfinder, she is a native of Denver, raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Gabriel is currently based in Muncie, Indiana, with her (darling) cat Shasta; she enjoys collaging, reading and rugby.