As a former professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Sharif's focus was coursework centered on race, food, settler colonialism, war and migration.
The school sat down with Sharif to discuss academic methodology and long-term professional goals as an educator at Arizona State University.
Question: Please introduce yourself; where are you from?
Answer: My name is Lila Sharif. I am a creative writer, educator and activist. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California (Tongva lands), and have also lived in the Middle East. My parents are from Palestine, which has inspired my work on land, culture and food, especially for displaced and colonized peoples today. I'm trained as an ethnic studies scholar and sociologist, I use an interdisciplinary approach to thinking and writing about land, food and culture in a way that connects local experiences to global processes of power — and how people work against settler colonialism and racism in life-affirming ways and in everyday practices.
Broadly, my work conceptualizes land, food and culture through a global Indigenous perspective that focuses on Palestinian experiences in the homeland and diaspora. My first solo-authored book is about how the olive — which has been cultivated in Palestine for 7,000 years — mobilizes decolonial aspirations for Palestinians worldwide. I have published essays as well as poetry in both academic and public journals.
Q: Can you tell us about your professional and academic background?
A: Before arriving at ASU, I was an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the department of Asian American studies. I enjoyed teaching courses on race, food, settler colonialism, war and migration. I am so excited about offering new and exciting courses at ASU at the School of Social Transformation! I graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in sociology before earning a dual PhD in sociology and ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. I had the honor of working with path-breaking ethnic studies scholars there, including Dr. Yen Le Espiritu. For my dissertation, I completed ethnographic research in Palestine, Jordan, and the United States, as well as cultural studies analysis of the cultural, material and historic significance of olives from Palestine.
At ASU, I will be completing a book on the topic and teaching courses in global Indigenous studies, decolonial methods, transnational feminisms, food and race, critical refugee seediest, ethnic studies, and Arab American and Muslim American experiences. I can’t wait!
Q: What’s something you learned during your professional or academic journey that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: My research confirms the resilience of the Palestinian people in their struggle for their homeland as well as against empire and racism. More broadly, it reminds us of the everyday work people of color and Indigenous people do to insist on better lives for themselves and their families, especially women in these communities.
Q: What types of social problems do you work on? Why do you think they are important?
A: I am concerned with the ongoing exploitation of the world’s Indigenous people and the lands they hold sacred. I am also concerned with race, forced migration (refugees), and other forms of structural violence that are based in systems of racial capitalism and settler colonialism. These are important because they impact people in every way and they need to be analyzed carefully. This kind of work also allows us to envision better worlds and futures for ourselves and the environment.
Q: How did you become involved in this type of work? What inspired you to continue working for social change?
A: I began my academic career at Santa Monica Community College, where I studied sociology and joined the anti-war effort. I organized with BIPOCBlack, Indigenous and People of Color classmates, as well as folks from Palestine, Native America, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Mexico. We read political theory, discussed current events and organized marches, rallies, protests, teach-ins, die-ins, workshops, lectures, vigils and other events all over Los Angeles. That experience early would ultimately shape my life, work, identity and vision for a more just world.
Q: What are some of the approaches and methods you use in your work and teaching?
A: I am a humanities-centered social scientist that uses archival research alongside geographic information systems, critical theory and ethnography to answer questions around Black queer communities’ relationships to spaces, places and landscapes. In the classroom, I am very big on popular education and Black feminist pedagogies where we use our lived experiences as a tools to understand class material.
Q: What organizations or individuals outside of ASU do you interact with?
A: I am involved with The Critical Refugee Studies Collective — a group of interdisciplinary scholars who advocate for and envision a world where refugee rights are human rights. As someone whose family has been displaced, this is both a passion project and an intellectual hub. We have just written a book out this month called "Departures."
Q: What do you like most about this work?
A: What I love most are connecting with students and thinking critically, creatively and compassionately about how we want to make and sustain better worlds and futures for ourselves and our communities. I also love collaborating with colleagues on exciting projects, and look forward to doing big things at the School of Social Transformation.
Q: What are some of your long-term professional goals?
A: I would like to build a network of Indigenous activists and communities from different backgrounds and lands who come to ASU to share their histories and connect with one another and with students.
Q: What advice do you have for students?
A: When you get stuck, start with what you know.
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