Justice, Transformation, and Love: CFA Honors Dr. Cecil Canton’s Decades of Racial and Social Justice Advocacy
“Justice is everybody’s right and everybody’s fight.”
Dr. Cecil Canton had an audience concentrating on his every word. For 15 minutes, life-long educators and labor unionists, family and friends, and anti-racist and social justice advocates took in Canton’s latest lecture, lessons, and stories.
He’s offered brilliant wisdom for years. Decades even.
“You have mentored us. You have shown us that we can do it. You have shown us that it is really not about changing individuals, it is about changing structures,” said Charles Toombs, CFA President. “Because of the seed you planted — there are so many of us here — we are trying to carry that work forward.
“And we are making an impact nationally. Every national labor union – and certainly, education labor unions – they are following our lead.”
For years, his students listened intently inside his Sacramento State classrooms where he taught criminal justice and analyzed contemporary American corrections theory and practice. His peers in labor across the country listened as he championed reforming systems of oppression and injustice.
And inside California Faculty Association offices he advocated against the union’s own anti-Blackness and white supremacy culture. At the time, few colleagues listened. Many with disdain and hatred for a Black professor speaking truth to power.
Now, years later, Dr. Canton is still here, and on a February afternoon in front of CFA’s mural of union activism, the educator and racial and social justice leader who transformed this higher educational union into a better one was recognized with the dedication of the Dr. Cecil E. Canton Social Justice Room.
“Let me repeat, justice is everybody’s right,” Canton spoke as dozens echoed proudly as he repeated the next part, “and everybody’s fight.”
“We can never forget that because that’s what animated it for me.”
Canton is indelible and impactful in his advocacy for a more perfect union, a more just university system, and an end to systemic racism, white supremacy, and cis-heteropatriarchal systems of oppression.
His union celebrated him for his long-lasting and irreplaceable contributions to CFA’s transformation to an anti-racist and social justice union.
“This is a multicultural nation. We all have a stake in this. Black folks have been the ones who have pushed for democracy,” said Canton.
It’s a year in the making since the announcement for the former Board of Director member and chair of the then-Council for Affirmative Action, the now Council for Racial and Social Justice.
“We lifted our gaze and focused our will on democracy and justice,” said Canton during his speech. “To be a more perfect union is to be a more democratic and inclusive union. To be a democratic and inclusive union is to be an equitable and just union.
“We could have bailed on the struggle. We could have given up the journey. We could have settled for being just another service union. But we didn’t. But we didn’t.”
Canton’s colleagues and friends – now leaders of the union he transformed – honored him through joy and laughter, through acknowledgment of the struggle he endured for them to lead.
“It was Cecil who always made sure to check-in on me. It wasn’t a check-in on ‘how is CFA going?’,” said Margarita Berta-Ávila, CFA Associate Vice President, North, who also worked with Dr. Canton at Sacramento State. “It was a check-in on ‘how are you doing, the person?’ Because we know that this work that we are doing – anti-racism and social justice, countering the days in and days out of white supremacy – is taxing. Every single day. Our body carries it. And Cecil has always (checked-in on me).”
“We have created a space where more voices, more people can actually contribute to what a higher education labor union has to be today,” said Toombs. “It can no longer be the way it was.”
“I saw your struggle, and you made clear to some of us your struggle and the pain and the strife and the strain in taking this union out of white supremacy, because we were marinating in white supremacy,” said Sharon Elise, CFA Associate Vice President, Racial and Social Justice, South. “You (Cecil), you were the bridge. And what you have given us is something that will go on and on and on.”
After speeches, Canton and his wife, Lynn, cut the ribbon to CFA’s newly minted Dr. Cecil E. Canton Social Justice Room at CFA Headquarters. Then, friends asked for written notes in copies of his book, Journey Toward a More Perfect Union; Dismantling Racism: Becoming Anti-Racist. It was Dr. Canton’s gift to past, present, and future CFA members, a historical collection of how CFA became an anti-racist and social justice union.
“We foregrounded our (anti-racism and social justice transformation) resolution to let the world know that we were committed to this new direction,” wrote Canton in chapter 16 of his book. “In that way, we made ourselves accountable to one another. It is easy and safe to keep your hopes, dreams, and goals to yourself. If you fail to achieve them, no one knows it but you.
“However, when you announce your hopes, dreams and goals to the world, you make yourself authentically accountable for achieving them.”
A lifetime of educating – and a book we’ll read for decades to come. His latest lesson is one we’ll continue to replay.
“I remember, Margarita asked me. She said, ‘Cecil, what’s the next thing? What do you think is the next thing?’ And I told her, ‘That’s for you to do. That’s for you to do,’” said Canton. “When it was in my heart to do what I did, I did it. Now it’s time for you to do it. And it may be in a whole different direction. Maybe something you’ve never, ever considered, but it will be right for that time.”
If you missed CFA’s Ceremony to Honor Dr. Cecil Canton, we will have the full video of the ceremony linked in upcoming Headlines.