Zakiya Luna, Associate Professor of Sociology and Dean’s Distinguished Professorial Scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, is an exemplar within the field of sociology in terms of both research and praxis. In addition to her admirable accomplishments—co-editing the seminal text Black Feminist Sociology: Perspectives and Praxis, as well as writing the incredibly timely Reproductive Rights as Human Rights: Women of Color and the Fight for Reproductive Justice—those around her emphasize her focus on putting theory into practice while supporting and cultivating the strengths of everyone she works with.
Luna, now entering her second year as a faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, is deeply appreciated by her students and research assistants for the robust mentoring she offers. One such student is Natalia Gonzalez, doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, who worked as a research assistant for Luna on multiple projects during her undergraduate years at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Gonzalez says that Luna didn’t just tell her what to do—instead, Luna taught Gonzalez how to conduct research. This mentoring, Gonzalez says, prepared her for graduate school by showing her what research in the field of sociology entails. Luna helped in myriad other ways, as well, teaching Gonzalez how to apply to graduate school, how to secure funding, what fellowships to pursue, and what conferences to apply for. Gonzalez says that this mentorship has been key and has “had a profound effect” on her life.
The type of mentorship Luna offers can play a pivotal role in minoritized students making it to graduate school, Gonzalez points out. Samantha Cheney, now a master’s student in UCLA’s School of Public Health, agrees, saying that she is in her current program due in large part to her work with Luna. Cheney says Luna helped members of her research team establish a background in methodologies and research in general so that they understood the process of research as a whole. Luna gave the team articles to deepen their understanding, and the team met frequently to discuss what their findings might mean. Cheney now plans to work within intervention programs which focus on reproductive justice.
Luna values the opinions of her students, making a habit of asking for their input on her research and her classes. Cheney, who worked with Luna both as a student and as a research assistant during her undergraduate years, says that Luna “works to cultivate students’ interests,” supporting them by giving them opportunities to explore their own passions within her courses. For one example, students in Luna’s social movements class are required to attend local social movement meetings of any kind, then use that information to guide them as they develop their own social movements in a final project. When working with Luna as a research assistant, Cheney says, Luna helped her to learn and grow personally, building on and expanding her current interests.
Black Feminist Sociology: Perspectives and Praxis, co-edited by Luna and Whitney Pirtle and published in 2021, is the first volume of its kind, covering “foundations and futures” of Black Feminism within the field of sociology. Luna reports that it has already been adopted as a course text in several colleges and universities, including Morehouse, Stony Brook, and the University of Southern California. Maria Johnson, PhD, Founder and Chair of the Black Women and Girls Fund—and contributor to the volume—points out the “groundbreaking” role of this book within the field of sociology. Even though the field considers many aspects of culture, she says, much of the work continues to be “siloed” rather than intersectional. The book, she says, “cuts across generations of Black feminist thought,” spanning from early thinkers to new voices.
Additionally, Luna employed a Black feminist approach to writing. Johnson says that Luna was intentional about the full process, including how the communication emails and call guidelines were worded to be collaborative and “kind”—a word often not associated with the academic publishing process. Jasmine Kelekay, PhD, post-doctoral scholar in the Department of African American and African American Diaspora Studies at Berkeley, who had previously worked with Luna in her Mobilizing Millions research, already knew that Luna ensures that her research teams “get engaged with interesting questions.” Kelekay notes that Luna also strives to ensure that her research team members are compensated for their work. Such support is doubly important for people of color within the academy, who often face higher barriers to university acceptance and attendance than their white peers. Kelekay later became Luna’s research assistant for Luna to work on Black Feminist Sociology. Kelekay says that it was a “powerful” experience to be part of the team of the two editors and two graduate students; she calls the process “transparent, collaborative, and respectful” for all participants. Additionally, the experience was “huge” for her professional development, since she saw the inner workings, from structuring and disseminating the call to choosing and arranging the submissions.
Reproductive Rights as Human Rights: Women of Color and the Fight for Reproductive Justice—published in 2020 and now on Oprah’s list of books to read post-Roe—examines the range of issues involved in the reproductive justice movement. So often, Luna says, the conversation around reproduction focuses narrowly on abortion, but people encounter an entire range of reproductive issues. She points out that women of color—Black, Chicana, Indigenous—have been engaging in activism around reproductive issues since the 1960s, though the term “reproductive justice” was coined in 1994 by Black women attending a conference who pointed out that “choice” doesn’t get at the range of reproductive concerns that people regularly face. Their goals were articulated succinctly by SisterSong—a reproductive justice collective run by women of color—in 1997: “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” While women of color began this work, Luna says, the issues are relevant to everyone of all genders and races; people have to think about so many issues at the same time: health, healthcare and access, birthing care, fertility treatments, economic security, employment, and the list goes on.
These ideas are beginning to resonate more broadly. Luna says that national legislators are beginning to use the phrase “reproductive justice,” and a group of reproductive justice advocates met with President Biden in May of this year to discuss these concepts. SisterSong’s succinct statement gets at a broad swathe of concerns, such as human rights and allowing people to “flourish in a world they wanted to create,” Luna says. This work continues; SisterSong was able to return for an in-person conference last month, and attendees were able to interact with people “holding the wisdom of decades” as well as people who are working in multiple movements to strengthen connections with other pressing issues, such as environmental ones.
In working with these ideas in her classes, Luna helps students make the connections to biologic, economic, political, and social dimensions of these issues. While these aspects may seem abstract at first, they have concrete impacts on people’s lives. Additionally, Luna’s students explore questions of “Why are things the way they are?” and “How can we change on the ground?” In her work with reproductive justice and in studying social movements, Luna says that it is important for people to see how these ideas apply outside of the university setting. As she points out, “policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum”; people need to understand all of the points of view and how the issues are being discussed.
Embodying Black Feminism
Johnson says that “what’s really fantastic and special about [Luna] is that she combines deeply theoretical research” with the application of those ideas in working with social movements and issues of race and gender. Johnson says that Luna is mindful of using her research in practice; she both publishes in high-profile journals and leads in the public sphere, serving on boards and speaking publicly about reproductive justice. In these ways, Johnson says, Luna demonstrates how women of color build coalitions while simultaneously developing recognition of women of color as thinkers. Luna balances between thinking about theory, praxis, and advocacy; Johnson says that building connections and sharing information in multiple ways are a “core part of being a Black feminist.”
Kelekay appreciates the way that Luna and Pirtle practiced Black feminism in their process of developing and publishing the book. She felt “genuinely nurtured,” which can be an uncommon experience for women of color within the academy. Through Luna’s example, Kelekay says, she has learned how to practice her convictions, how to put them into action in her teaching and of research. This example, she says, is “positive and empowering.” Kelekay says that the mentoring relationship she has with Luna hasn’t dissipated after the book project ended. She states that “this praxis is important—it isn’t simply because Luna is generous or nice (though she is)—this is the work. It’s not just the subject of the work, but how the work gets done.” These approaches include being transparent, accountable, and figuring out together how to respond when there are roadblocks. Additionally, Kelekay says, this approach includes “radical inclusion”; Luna doesn’t establish negative hierarchical power relations. Working with Luna has inspired Kelekay to be guided by the same convictions.
Johnson says that women of color are still underrepresented within the field of sociology, even in feminist journals. Often, she says, sociology as a field is interested in studying people of color but seems to be less interested in hearing from scholars of color. Through her work, Luna has helped to create space for herself and others in the field, both on conference panels and in publications.
Learning from Luna’s Example
Luna embodies and exemplifies practices that can benefit scholars in all disciplines and universities of all kinds. Inspired by her example, Gonzalez would encourage university administrators to recognize the importance of mentorship in the service work that faculty members take on. Such mentoring is often not formally recognized in tenure and promotion decisions, but it can expand the people and perspectives included in every field of study. Cheney recommends providing more opportunities for professors to meet with and really listen to their students. Kelekay points out how well Luna’s personal mentoring style, innovative scholarship, and community-engaged praxis fit very well in a private liberal arts setting; she is excited to see what Luna will be able to do with the opportunities this setting will afford. Administrators of higher education may imagine that those they hire have admirable qualities as individuals—and Luna certainly has those in spades—but when those individual traits are aligned with community-building ideals, such as those found within Black feminism, and supported by the academy, true social transformation can result.