Transforming society at the roots: Laura McTighe discusses role of research, collaboration in guiding social change


Wednesday, November 15, the College of William and Mary’s departments of religious studies and Africana studies hosted a talk by assistant professor Laura McTighe from Florida State University. The talk took place in James Blair Hall as part of the “Race and Religion Speaker” series and focused on interdisciplinary ideas about religious and racial connections and the enactment of social change through solidarity.

McTighe studies the intersections of race, religion, gender and abolition, focusing on the American South. Her highly interdisciplinary approach to understanding prevalent social topics earned her the 2021-22 University Teaching Award for Community Engaged Teaching. 

Recently, McTighe released her first book titled “Fire Dreams: Making Black Feminist Liberation in the South.” She also received two separate $250,000 grants from the Henry Luce Foundation for projects related to her areas of study. 

Seeking to bridge the gap between scholarship and activism, McTighe has worked to build up communities impacted by HIV and mass criminalization.

The talk began with McTighe addressing some of the most common associations people make with the word “abolition,” and how most individuals are not familiar with the idea of the sacred being related to social movements. She posed the prevailing question of her presentation:  “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?” 

“I want to start by saying that we can’t answer it by going large scale in the future far beyond where we are now,” McTighe said. “We have to answer it by being in the relationship, right here and right now. And let me tell you why. Abolition is a vision, but it’s also a practice. It’s a vision of a world without prisons, and it’s the practice of how we live in that world.” 

McTighe noted the importance of addressing systematic structures that perpetuate social division. 

“Abolitionists aren’t talking about simple alternatives that put Band-Aids on problems but leave the violence of the world as it is,” McTighe said. “Instead, abolitionists are trying to transform our society at the roots. To seek out the systems and structures that produce violence, to reckon with the terror that policing, surveillance and imprisonment have brought in our lifetimes, and to build with love a world in which we can keep all of us safe.”

McTighe defined her research as collaborative and time-transcending. She noted a divide that exists in religious studies between theological education and the secular study of religion, offering her own work as a compromise. 

“Rather than training students to practice a specific religion or a study of those who do, I work with my students to develop and practice deep moral commitments beyond the institutional spaces and structures of religion,” McTighe said. 

Collaboration plays a vital role in McTighe’s research, relating to an ongoing process of reconciliation and transformation. 

“My research explores race and religion in America with a clear and unwavering commitment to social transformation,” McTighe said. “My research is deeply interdisciplinary and also deeply collaborative, unfolding through decades long partnerships with social leaders. Together, we analyze the complex injustices that are shaping our world, and we explore how we can use religion to dream beyond what is and build together what must be.” 

McTighe recently collaborated with the group Women with a Vision, publishing “Fire Dreams: Making Black Feminist Liberation in the South.” The book tells the inspiring story of the WWAV organization,  which was first founded to address the HIV epidemic in Central City, New Orleans in 1989 and later helped rebuild following Hurricane Katrina. 

“With nearly all material traces of our decades of work destroyed, we held on to what could not be extinguished: our stories,” McTighe said. “Telling stories together was life-giving. Doing so built a shared understanding of what really happened after the fire, and those truths drove our work to collect every life-giving ember that we could find.” 

“There are so many lessons in the story, and one in particular that I want to draw is that we don’t need to have the answers. We only need to be willing to learn from each other and figure them out,” McTighe said.

The WWAV organization remained persistent in its mission to address the social conditions that impacted its communities by building relationships with marginalized women and communities of color. Using the example of WWAV, McTighe emphasized the important role of relationships and solidarity in the process of making genuine change.

“This focus on relationships is precisely what I mean when I say that abolition is sacred work” McTighe said. “In 1989, the Women With a Vision foremothers were doing abolition. They were doing sacred work.” 

McTighe also discussed the issue of mass incarceration in the United States, noting that the country is no longer a nation with prisons, but rather one in which punishment is woven into the fabric of society. 

“These violences of the U.S. prison nation are the afterlives of settler colonialism and chattel slavery,” McTighe said. “They are mechanisms for which our incarcerated loved ones are separated and scattered in far flung towns nationwide. And they also show us how the U.S.’s entire infrastructure now revolves around punishment.”

A series of principles have guided McTighe through her research process, particularly one principle based upon author and activist adrienne maree brown’s emergent strategy principle of moving at the speed of trust. 

“Move at the speed of trust,” McTighe said. “If you trust the people, the people become trustworthy. And I love this pairing because it speaks both to the pace of this work and also to the faith that is required to do it.” 

For McTighe, learning from the traditions, world and people around us is pivotal to making progress. 

“There are so many lessons in the story, and one in particular that I want to draw is that we don’t need to have the answers. We only need to be willing to learn from each other and figure them out,” McTighe said.

Anne Ryan Gareis ’25, a student pursuing a major in religious studies at the College, weighed in on McTighe’s talk. 

“I like that she was really blending the academic with activism and not trying to keep it separate or to keep her personal experiences out of the conversation and that she was really encouraging us to think about what is personally going to work for our lives in order to project that larger vision into the world. Gareis said.

Associate professor of religious studies Patton Burchett referenced the impacts of McTighe’s work in academic and day-to-day settings. 

“I think many of us are excited to see increasingly how granting agencies are interested in and want to see work even from the humanities that actually has on the ground impacts,” Burchett said. 

McTighe concluded the talk by taking note of the role of her research, which gave the audience a new perspective on a variety of interdisciplinary ideas related to race, religion and more. Her expansive research contributes to a world of growing knowledge that seeks a transformative future. 

“When I think of abolition, I think of you,” McTighe said. “I think of me. I think of my students. I think of my community in New Orleans. I think of the people of Baltimore, where I was born and raised. I see the world we are trying to build, unfolding around me every day. I see us dreaming, failing and learning the practices as we assess our failures. I see us shifting and adapting, growing into horizons that weren’t even visible a year ago. I see it because we’re already doing it, and because we’re already doing it, we can grow it bigger.”

CORRECTION (12/6/23): This article was updated by Sarah Devendorf, the Standards and Practices editor to fix a few notable transcription errors in this piece. For example, she changed “What can we imagine for ourselves” to “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?” in paragraph 5. In paragraph 6, the word “evolution” was replaced with “abolition.” In paragraph 14, the word “member” was replaced with “ember.” In paragraph 16, the phrase “…the abolition of slavery.” was replaced with “…that abolition is sacred work.” Lastly, in paragraph 18, the phrase “Southern inhumanism” was replaced with “settler colonialism.” It should also be noted that adrienne maree brown uses intentional lowercase in spelling her name so that had to be corrected in the article. Also, her principles are called “Emergent Strategy” and not “individual strategy. “




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here