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Remembering the Legacy of E.J. Brisker

Emanual J. (EJ) Brisker Jr., ’70, passed away on September 21, 2023, at the age of 80. The Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity and the University of Washington owe Brisker a debt of gratitude for his activism as a student, and beyond, that led to the establishment of OMA&D and laid the foundation for many of our access programs and the programs that support educational opportunity for students on the UW Seattle campus to this day.

As one of the founders of UW’s Black Student Union, Brisker was a leader and central figure in much of the history around the 1968 sit-in/occupation that took place in then UW President Charles E. Odegaard’s office. He is remembered by his friends and peers as possessing a sharp intellect and for his big-picture thinking. Cindy Domingo, the wife of the late Garry Owens recalls her husband’s words, “Garry always said that EJ Brisker was the most brilliant man he ever knew. EJ’s role in advancing the ideological and theoretical development of those in the black power movement at the UW during the 1960’s was unmatched by anyone.”

As much of an intellect as an activist, Brisker inspired personal development in others insisting that it would help them better advocate for not just the advancement of Black students on the UW campus, but also other underrepresented and marginalized groups. Fellow founding member of the UW BSU and friend to Brisker and author of Revolution to Evolution: The Story of the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity at the University of Washington, Emile Pitre, ’69, writes, “It became clear that the struggle involved other races and ethnicities. E.J. Brisker was the revolutionary theorist who stimulated the group’s revolutionary conscience by encouraging the group to read such works as The Autobiography of Malcom X (Alex Haley) and Before the Mayflower (Lerone Benett).” As quoted in Revolution to Evolution, Brisker remembered the intentional intersection of intellectualism and activism in the BSU strategies. “People were under the impression that BSU was a rebel-rousing group with no true sense of direction, but we were an intellectual group that acted with purpose.”

Over the years Brisker and his legacy of civil rights activism has been recorded and recounted by authors and historians. UW Magazine, The Seattle Times, The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, The Seattle Medium and many more have reported on his actions as a student and how he and others set the foundations for more equitable access to education and meaningful student support services. Paul Fletcher, a fellow activist commented, “His life and his contribution definitely made, and continues to make a difference, for all those thousands of graduates of the University of Washington who attended the UW after 1968, you have benefited from being in a multicultural environment. The UW is a better institution as a result.”

For 55 years, the University continues to transform in many of the ways Brisker and his fellow BSU founders had envisioned. “EJ and the 1968 BSU’s early activism to create new pathways for minority students to attend the UW has paid off in ways that can never be measured,” said Rickey Hall, vice president for OMA&D and University Diversity Officer. “Over time thousands of students that would have never had the opportunity to attend the UW have successfully earned their degrees – much in part thanks to EJ and his activism as a student. The trajectories of countless families have been altered and improved for many generations to come. EJ’s passing is a tremendous loss and OMA&D sends our thoughts and condolences to his family and friends.”

From his obituary in The Seattle Medium, “EJ showed us that Black people could build power through unity, intelligence, and tough organizing.  He spent his last years reading, advocating, and working on connecting people for the UW Reflections event in May 2023, the Little Willie John Project, the Law Channel Project, collaborating with the Smithsonian, and countless other projects.”