When word went out that Naomi Klein, left, and Salamishah Tillet, right, would be joining the Rutgers faculty in fall 2018, anticipation of their arrival quickly grew. After all, these two public intellectuals were well-regarded scholars, authors, and media commentators shedding light on the political, social, and economic issues of the day. Since assuming their positions, they have more than met expectations—Klein as the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and Tillet as the Henry Rutgers Professor of African-American and African Studies at Rutgers University–Newark. 

September saw the publication of Klein’s book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (Simon & Schuster, 2019), her latest call to action to confront the accelerating threat of climate change. In it, Klein cites a nonbinding congressional resolution introduced this year that would harness the vast resources of the federal government to initiate a contemporary version of the New Deal. It would promote a sustainable economy based on economic, social, and political justice while alleviating the mounting damage wrought by a warming planet. 

For the causes dear to her, Tillet has relied on multiple media outlets and methods in developing her reputation for advocacy and change. A frequent contributor to the New York Times and other publications, she has called out racism and misogyny in championing the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. After being sexually assaulted herself, Tillet teamed up with her sister, photographer Scheherazade Tillet, in the early 2000s to create the multimedia experience “Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS).” Another passion of hers since arriving at Rutgers–Newark has been founding and directing the New Arts Justice Initiative at Express Newark, the university-community collaborative that brings students, faculty, and residents together to promote change in the city through supporting the artists and activists who are addressing the issues of race, gender, sexuality, and the value of art in public spaces. 

“As a resident of Newark, I’ve been able to see the city go through social and economic changes,” says Tillet, who is also the associate director of the Clement Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience. “As a scholar and as a writer, I’m interested in how you really make a difference in the community in which you live.”

Klein and Tillet discuss the challenges and rewards of their intellectual pursuits, the joy of teaching students at Rutgers, and being a part of the communities of New Brunswick and Newark.

An Interview With Naomi Klein 

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: Who did you write On Fire for and what do you hope it will accomplish?

NAOMI KLEIN: I think that my project focuses on broadening the tent. How do we reach people who still tell themselves “I’m not an environmentalist,” or those who are intimidated by the science, or working on other social justice issues already but don’t see a connection? I’ve been doing a lot more with people working on poverty alleviation, improving transit, housing, food justice, and all kinds of labor issues. This book reflects that work to find a common thread. I think a big take away from On Fire is that we are never going to get anywhere if we try to have a competition between issues that are existential to the people experiencing them. To some, there’s nothing more important than climate change, but if you’re a single mom with three kids juggling three jobs to put food on the table and struggling to pay rent and worried your kids might be shot on the street, those are existential crises for you.

RM: You have been sounding the climate crisis alarm for more than a decade. Many tenets of the Green New Deal are not new. What is different about this moment? 

NK: It’s a breakthrough because there haven’t been powerful political figures who’ve championed this framework before. The “Squad”—the four progressive congresswomen including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—and the Sunrise Movement demanding bold action on climate change have created such momentum that most Democratic presidential candidates have made the Green New Deal central to their platforms. CNN had a climate-focused town hall event on September 4, and MSNBC hosted two events later in the month. It's gone from a bumper sticker slogan to a line in a speech to something that needs substance behind it.

RM: In On Fire, you draw parallels between today’s Green New Deal and FDR’s New Deal and how the crises of that era galvanized Americans and made the sweeping policy proposals acceptable to them. What would need to occur for the Green New Deal to become a reality? 

NK: The best-case scenario is that we end up with a Democratic candidate who is a champion of the Green New Deal and has a track record of fighting policy battles against wealthy and powerful interests. None of this happens without a pretty epic struggle with the fossil fuel companies and the banks that finance them. We need a president who has a real mandate to do what FDR did—to use those first 100 days for a flurry of lawmaking and constituency building—because there will be fearmongering and there will be pushback. To build those constituencies, it’s important to make the benefits real in people’s lives right away so that they see what we are getting, such as good jobs in their communities, better schools, health care, and transit. If we get it right, the cost of the transition to a post-carbon economy won’t be passed on to working people. There will new rules and restrictions. Some will be hard, but there will also be huge benefits.

RM: Rutgers is your first experience teaching students. How are you working your research and writing into your teaching? 

NK: I love teaching Rutgers undergraduate students in communication and women's and gender studies because the subjects I’m focusing on are issues that undergrads are grappling with all the time: How to prepare for the job market? How much time should they spend on social media? Is it shaping the kind of person they’re becoming? I’ve learned a lot from my students about how much pressure they are under, the role of social media in their lives, and the kind of priorities they want to set. I’ve learned how important it is for undergrads to overcome that sense of inevitability when you teach them about really big problems. It can be disempowering if you’re not simultaneously exposing students to people who are trying to change the world and succeeding. One of my big takeaways from teaching is that I want to get the balance better. I’ve learned the importance of highlighting early in the class that there are countervailing forces and people working to change these rules. 

An Interview With Salamishah Tillet

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: Two decades ago, you relied on your craft to heal yourself after being sexually assaulted, and you wound up healing national audiences in the process. What was that journey like for you?

SALAMISHAH TILLET: I started therapy, journaled about my experience, and in 1997 I published my story in my feminist campus newspaper, Generation XX. I called it “Hollow, Body, Skin, and Bone” after lyrics from a Tracey Chapman song that I listened to on repeat when I was in the depth of my depression and trying to find a way back. The next year, my sister Scheherazade went to school in Boston and spent a semester studying social documentary photography at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, where she was encouraged to find a subject to pursue: someone who meant something to her. I became her muse. 

A few years later, she turned her photographs and my journaling into “Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS),” a multimedia performance that uses poetry, art, music, and dance to explore this difficult subject and to model healing. We found it to be effective for not just the victims, but also bystanders and allies. From this act of sisterly compassion and artistic vision, we transformed this most painful of human experiences. In 2003, we founded A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to empower young people to end violence against girls and women.

RM: What is your goal at the helm of the New Arts Justice Initiative?

ST: The New Arts Justice Initiative is an incubator within Express Newark, which is a university-community collaborative. Among other things, it is committed to black feminist approaches to art’s relationship to place, social justice, and civic engagement—in Newark and beyond. Our name is inspired by the 1968 film The New-Ark, created by poet, playwright, and activist Amiri Baraka and his Spirit House, a space that focused on racial justice, urban public theater, and political consciousness-raising in Newark in the 1960s. New Arts Justice believes Newark is an artist-activist city at its core, so we support socially engaged artists and scholars who understand that although we can have legislative changes, we can’t do much without changing people’s hearts and minds. 

In October, we opened “A Call to Peace,” a public arts exhibition that we curated in Newark’s Military Park with Express Newark and Monument Lab [an independent public art studio based in Philadelphia that facilitates conversations about the meaning of monuments]. We posed a central question—“What is a timely monument for Newark?”—to contemporary artists Manuel Acevedo, Chakaia Booker, Sonya Clark, and Jamel Shabazz who have created their own temporary monuments exploring the legacies of slavery, war, and peace. We also invite all students, educators, and community members to answer this question by submitting their own monument proposals, attending our Monumental Conversations with artists, scholars, and community members; and visiting the interactive research “lab” at Military Park. My wish is that citizens of and travelers in Newark begin to relate to one another and our public spaces in more deliberative, thoughtful ways. 

RM: Your upcoming work—In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of Alice Walker’s Masterpiece—will be published in 2021. What inspired the book?

ST: As a 15-year-old reading this book, I found the language of black feminism. And I’ve returned to it over and over at various stages of my life and phases of my own healing as a rape survivor. The book, the movie, and now the musical continue to give people a model for breaking silence and beginning the healing and forgiveness through the character of Celie who finds her voice. It is one of the most revolutionary and experimental novels of the 21st century. My book is part cultural criticism, part memoir, and it will feature original interviews with Alice Walker, Quincy Jones, and Oprah Winfrey as a meditation on how that book changed my life, those of millions of people who’ve encountered it in their own journey to self, and American society.

RM: You earned a master’s in teaching from Brown University and taught middle and high school English before attending Harvard. What do you apply from that experience as a professor today?

ST: If I was going to spend the rest of my life in a classroom, I wanted a grounding in the art of pedagogy: you have to be a lot more dynamic and creative in the classroom. For me, every student is a gift. It’s the role of the teacher to figure out how you can relate a subject to that particular gift. A good teacher tries to figure out where students are as opposed to some grandiose notion of what they should know. I still try to have a more student-centered classroom. 

RM: What drew you to Rutgers University–Newark?

ST: In part, it was because of the energy, enthusiasm, and excitement found at a school that sees itself as an anchor institution for a community and a city. I’ve long been committed to trying to understand how art, activism, and social justice are related to one another and can activate one another. Newark is a city that has vibrantly cultivated those conversations, while Rutgers–Newark is trying to ground those connections for its students, our city, and beyond. And as a resident of Newark, I’ve been able to see the city go through a variety of social and economic changes. As a scholar and as a writer, I’m interested in how can you really make a difference in the community in which you live. I can honestly say there is no other school in the country that is doing so much innovative work to center social justice in its DNA. I feel like I have so much to learn and share here. It is a really good fit for me.