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Research & Inquiry April 26, 2021

‘Activism in Practice’: Yanna Lambrinidou ’89


Yanna Lambrinidou ’89 believes that teaching and action are deeply intertwined, and that the two should be lifelong endeavors. A Washington, D.C.-based scholar and activist serving as this year’s Lucille Geier Lakes Writer-in-Residence, Lambrinidou has a particular interest in lead in U.S. drinking water. She’s also devoted to examining the connections between those who we define as “knowledge-makers” and those whose knowledge we marginalize in the process.

Knowledge-making, Lambrinidou says, is often viewed as an individual accomplishment of members of the expert class, but should be recognized for the “teamwork” it involves across all sectors of society. She’s structured her seminar this semester, “Writing for Change: Community Engagement, Activism and Social Justice,” to highlight this philosophy.

“Collaboration is built into the workshop’s syllabus,” says Catherine Lomoe-Thompson ’21, a senior anthropology major. “We frequently have esteemed guest speakers, which makes the class feel connected to a larger activistic and intellectual community.”

Sophomore biochemistry major Angela Chavez ’23 echoes these sentiments. “This class has changed the way I think about my role as an academic and an activist,” she says. “In order to combine those worlds, I need to listen to communities and use my identity power to advocate for them, rather than acting like I will be the one solving the problems.”

Lambrinidou recently reflected on her path to activism and her experience teaching at her alma mater.

What drew you to this position at Smith?

I’ve given a few talks at Smith in recent years, and was touched by students who asked me how they can do what I do. It struck me that there is thirst for lives that allow for application of one’s knowledge to real-world problems in order to make a palpable difference….I realized then that the course I'm teaching was going to be an opportunity to turn inquiry into action.

How did you first become interested in activism?

I was born into the Greek military junta of 1967–1974. My parents were both members of the resistance movement, but my father died two months before I arrived. I remember spending almost every night of the first few years of my life in our living room with my mother and her allies planning their next action. I think this experience shaped my approach to life—envisioning, or having the courage to envision, a better place for ourselves and doing whatever it takes to get us there.

When did you realize writing could have a serious impact?

After graduating from Smith, I worked for Amnesty International. This is an organization that employs letter-writing to pressure governments to respect human rights.

The power of writing touched my life personally in 2014 after being invited to the EPA National Drinking Water Advisory Council Lead and Copper Rule working group, to develop recommendations for how our federal regulation—designed to control lead in drinking water—would be revised. As the deliberations unfolded, I realized I had no choice but to write a dissenting point of view, which I thought would be a royal waste of time since it was going to be ignored. And it did get ignored by EPA. But I was so surprised by the impact it had on others who were fighting for clean water, too.

In large part because of this dissent, I was invited by the then-governor of Michigan to help draft a new, state-specific Lead and Copper Rule. The effort was collaborative, and my contribution, I felt, was small, but Michigan now has the most stringent lead-in-water protections in the country.

Were there any defining moments in your life that led you to the causes you’re most involved in?

For my graduate dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, I conducted extensive interviews of families that had a child with cancer and were trying to navigate our medical system. They had all immersed themselves in research and had developed a level of expertise that, in some cases, surpassed that of the experts. For me it was life-changing to witness their discoveries, and to see the accompanying resistance of the system to even consider the potential merits of their knowledge.

How can young people make a difference in causes they're passionate about?

I think making a difference necessitates a period of inquiry—having the courage to question what is—and to imagine futures that one wants to see. Work doggedly for these futures: build coalitions, get together with others, support movements. Get to know people who are on the front line—and learn from them how to support, and amplify and build on their work.