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On Twitter, @louise_seamster wrote, “Sometimes someone dies and you realize you were planning on them being alive forever.” Yes. That resonated.

So much of who I am today is because of bell hooks. When I first started graduate school, she spoke to my heart. She saw me. She validated me. She showed me the way. She accepted me for who I was, with all my flaws. She saw the possibility in me, and she raised the bar for me. She expected more from me than anyone else and far more than I expected from myself. She told me that I could do more, be more, contribute more.

So many of the decisions I have made in the last 25 years are because of bell hooks—whether I have realized it or not.

The combination of the news of 800,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. and the passing of bell hooks in one day was just too, too much. She was by my side every time I taught race and ethnicity. She made this white woman brave enough to think she could teach race. She taught me that race is more than a system of privilege and oppression, a system of stratification. She taught me about the complicated relationship between race and culture—that the identity part of this system of privilege and oppression can bring joy and pride, and she gave life to the theories of intersectionality.

bell hooks and Michel Foucault came together in my mind and heart to forge my worldview.

She taught me to always seek a deeper understanding, to complicate things rather than simplify them, to take time, to listen, to be curious, to keep going, knowing that you will never finish. She gave meaning to the theoretical concepts of ongoing work and unfinished projects. She gave me the ability and self-confidence to approach Judith Butler and Edward Said with a critical gaze.

Forever indebted.

Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.

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