This blog was previously published on the Drew Social Justice Leadership Project blog space.

As another academic year comes to a close, many of us in academia are attending graduations. Routinely the dean, president, or honored guest reminds the graduates to thank their family and friends for supporting and encouraging them as they completed their education. The same individual, then, invites the students to thank their faculty members without whom they would not be able to achieve their degrees. It is in these moments as a faculty member that I am reminded of my own educational mentors. 

Graduate education is an elite pursuit. In the United States, only 9% of the population has a Master’s degree and less than 2% have a doctoral degree.Because so few benefit from the privileges of higher education in the U.S. and globally, it is all the more reason we should ask ourselves: To what end do we deploy this privilege? 

The teachers throughout my life who have influenced me the most and encouraged me on my academic journey self-identify as womanist and feminist. This means that I have in fact been shaped in a particular academic culture. Similar to other graduate level academic experiences, rigorous research, clear writing, and innovative thinking were requirements of advancement. And yet, that was not sufficient. Womanism and feminism are not merely theories to study and employ in knowledge production. They are embodied advocacy stances that require commitments to particular communities. 

During this peculiar time of year when graduation tends to overlap with celebrations of mother’s day, I am reminded that many of the womanist and feminist foremothers who forged a path for my own work and commitments to flourish did so within and far beyond the walls of academic institutions. They worked at or started nonprofits, like WATER and FaithTrust Institute; served government offices; provided religious leadership as ordained clergy or within parachurch organizations like the World Council of Churches, National Council of Churches, United Methodist Women, and so on; and lead activist movements, even when they did not intend to such as the Reimagining Conference. Some even trace the lineage of religious womanist and feminist inspiration to scriptural figures, as demonstrated in a new book by Katey Zeh, Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution.

Whether it is in classrooms, pulpits, courtrooms, or protests, feminist and womanist scholar activists have reshaped the landscape of theological and religious studies. We owe a great debt to these many foremothers. In 2011, Melanie Harris and I, brought a group of colleagues from our generation together to recognize the importance of a variety of foremothers in the scholarship and activism in which we engaged. In Faith, Feminism, and Scholarship: The Next Generation, we recollect on a similar volume published in 1988 by Letty M. Russell, Kwok Pui-lan, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, and Katie Geneva Cannon entitled Inheriting Our Mothers’ Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World PerspectiveThe volumes are different in at least one significant way, the scholars in the earlier volume explain how their biological mother’s influenced their scholarly and activist commitments including the inheritance of religious beliefs. In the more recent volume, we focus on our “academic” mothers who taught and shaped our scholarly voices and womanist and feminist commitments in religion. 

Who has shaped your education? How will you honor what you have received in giving to others?