When meeting Marley Dias, you might get the impression that she’s like most college teens. She studies diligently to ace her midterms and finals. She visits family and friends during the holidays. She also might give a speech at the White House alongside Michelle Obama.
Outside of her work as an advocate, educator, and producer for Netflix, Dias, 19, is a sophomore at Harvard University who enjoys challenging herself and thought-provoking debate.
While she made a name for herself at the age of 11 with the launch of #1000BlackGirlBooks, Dias’s journey in advocacy started long before she was born, as both her parents held strong views around activism, identity, and education.
Her mother, Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, is a Jamaican immigrant and her father, Scott Dias, is a fifth-generation Cape Verdean American.
The two met in Massachusetts and gave Dias the middle name Emerson after Ralph Waldo Emerson, an essayist, abolitionist, and poet who was a leader of the transcendentalist movement which believed there was inherent good in people.
Dias’s mother named her Marley to commemorate her Jamaican heritage through the legacy of Bob Marley, a cultural icon from the island nation.
“I think just having the name Marley as a Jamaican American is super powerful because it just brings pride and connectivity automatically when I meet Jamaicans that like my name,” she said.
Dias found herself drawn toward the reggae musician and songwriter’s outspoken personality and unifying messages. His poster covers her bedroom door, reminding her of the legacy in which she carries with her namesake.
Dias’s mother founded an organization called the Grassroots Community Foundation. At just five years old, she witnessed her mother launch a public health and social action platform out of their home. Her mother went on to create a leadership camp for young Black girls which has now expanded from New Jersey and Philadelphia to Jamaica and Ghana.
A handful of years later, Dias would find herself following in her mother’s footsteps and making a difference for young girls just like her.
After growing frustrated with her school’s reading selection, Dias voiced her thoughts to her mother. Instead of writing a letter to her teacher or visiting the principal, Dias’s mother asked her what she intended to do about this problem.
“She equipped me with the ability to understand that every person is so unique in their greatness,” Dias said about her mother. “That when you put the words to articulate it, you need to just spread that gift rather than try to prove anything with it.”
From there, Dias would go on to launch the #1000BlackGirlBooks initiative to collect and donate 1,000 books that featured Black girls as the main protagonists. Dias would go on to collect over 15,000 books for schools and libraries across the country.
According to Dias, her mother passed on to her the value of reciprocity and the belief that every individual deserves love and access to ways of making them heal. By launching #1000BlackGirlBooks, Dias found a way to give young girls like herself access to those things that would affirm their self-worth.
“I just want people to be able to have the access to be curious about identity. To be curious about the world. Not to have answers, but to have questions,” she said.
Reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
As Dias continued her education, she came across the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose speeches and writings continued to teach her about the value of reciprocity. In reflecting on her early years of education, Dias recalled having a precarious view of Dr. King’s work because of the way his life has been covered.
“I felt for a long time that he was a figure that sort of tried to subdue many of the messages of Malcolm X or more revolutionary thinkers of the time. I felt that that was a dangerous assumption, a miscalculation [that] I made because of the lack of access to diverse literature I had, even in his own works,” she said.
Whether it was his views on Vietnam or his letters from jail, Dias believed that Dr. King’s message and ideology has been diluted, misrepresenting what he fought for in the Civil Rights era.
“It’s oftentimes why I feel like, as activists, we steer away from equality, because Dr. King’s words were used to create an image of assimilation,” she said.
Dias has continued to explore her relationship with the works of Dr. King and is excited to share some of her reflections at the upcoming 34th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast on January 15.
University of St. Thomas professor and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative, Dr. Yohuru Williams, will be moderating the conversation with Dias during the breakfast.
Tying the Civil Rights Movement to today’s activism
This past semester, Dias took a course called “Jim Crow: Histories and Revivals,” which examined the parallels between Reconstruction, the Civil Rights era, and today’s political landscape.
She found a lesson in Dr. King’s strategy. “He was still willing to give to the crises of other people simply on the basis that they embodied white supremacy. [This] is a mechanism that we as Black people and all oppressed peoples have to employ more,” she said.
Dias believes that as long as the oppression of Black people is viewed through the lens of battling against anti-Black policies and not accurately labeling it as white supremacy, we run the risk of being able to explore the struggles of other groups, creating a missed opportunity in creating solidarity movements.
Political strife in higher ed and breaking the glass ceiling
University campuses have become a flashpoint for the political debate surrounding the conflict between Hamas and Israel after the Oct. 7 attack launched by Hamas which killed roughly 1,200 Israelis and the bombardment of Gaza, which has led to the death of over 23,000 Palestinians.
“Being a Harvard student this semester was—it was definitely a semester I will never forget,” Dias said.
As the debate raged across college campuses, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s presidents came under fire during a congressional hearing about antisemitism on college campuses.
Claudine Gay, the 30th president of Harvard University, and the first Black woman to hold the position, resigned from the job after receiving backlash for her testimony in Congress and because of charges of plagiarism.
Dias shared that the conflict taking place in Palestine and Israel has been weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of students, some of whom are just forming their own political identities.
“I’m so genuinely disheartened by what has happened in the world. I think there’s a recognition that as young people and as college students this is the first time where you get the opportunity to sort of step into your political power,” she said. “I also think that this has given an opportunity to allow people or potentially set up for further exploration into uncovering the history of our world.”
Dias took solace in the fact that there was now a spotlight on these issues around the world, some of which she and her peers weren’t as aware of such as the conflicts in Sudan and the Congo.
In hearing about Gay’s resignation, Dias believes that is the unfortunate reality of how institutions treat Black women once they break the glass ceiling. In her words, “It shatters back down on them.”
“When we see examples of black women and girls who are ascending to the heights of these institutions, following everything that we seemingly think America would want out of a successful person. And once they reach those heights it seems as though they are turned on and unsupported by the very same people that have voted them in,” Dias said.
When the Supreme Court repealed affirmative action, Dias penned a piece in Rolling Stone stating that the court was working to push Black women and girls to the margins.
The actions of the court and the circumstances that pushed Gay out of her role at Harvard are, in Dias’s view, examples of why seats at the table will no longer suffice, but rather a sign of the need to uproot the structural racism that punishes Black women for ascending too high.
The best course of action, according to Dias, is simply to vote.
“The only way we can really change that is by voting. As much as it might seem difficult to explain or to express to young people at this point in what we’ve seen from all sides, voting is the only way that we can do anything to counteract the permanence of that glass ceiling,” she said.