Losing the University

The university was never meant to be a place for liberation and social justice, but from its start was built for straight, white, able-bodied, cis-male elites. Rod Ferguson reminds us in his work We Demand that the fact that many of us associate universities with something else – with diversity, with the possibility for envisionining anticapitalist politics, with social justice movements – is in many ways the product of student struggles. Universities themselves have resisted these associations. Ferguson recalls for us that in 1970, four students were killed at Kent State University by the National Guard. Ten days later, police shot approximately 400 bullets into a women’s dorm at Jackson State University, killing two students. The reaction to these murders by dozens of college presidents was to “petition their state legislators not to curtail but to augment police powers on their campuses”(15-16).

The point is that I know the university is not nor has it ever been this romantic perfect place. I remind myself of that fact constantly. I was never planning on making a life here in academia in the first place; I didn’t feel like it was my life’s mission to teach undergraduate students and I have always felt like there are much better and more direct ways to make social change than education. This makes it easier to remember that the university has always been flawed, it wasn’t meant for anyone other than straight white male elites, and if some of the rest of us have managed to increasingly arrive in the past 100 years, especially the last 50 years, it has been for the most part, an anomaly. And it has been the fruits of our struggle. They didn’t want us here in the past and they don’t want us here now. They have never wanted us here. Ferguson says

For university and political elites, then, the social categories ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ were never meant to inspire appreciation for the student movements, movements that might shed light on social inequalities and recommendations for transcending them. “Tolerance” and “diversity” were instead ways of saying “Society must be defended”—that is, protected from the student, who was understood to be a criminal from the start. (2017: 23)

In other words, it is not necessarily a tragedy to lose this place because there are and have always been other ways of doing this. Marginalized communities have always found ways to educate themselves, and those ways, being designed by and for liberation, have more liberatory potential than any institution which has always fought to keep us out.

But knowing all of that doesn’t seem to be helping me feel less sad right now. It doesn’t seem to be helping me much at all. The fact is that I feel I’ve benefitted enormously from my time in and around universities and it seems like many of my most marginalized students have done so as well. While these other forms of learning and education, free schools and free universities and popular educational models which I’ve been a part of, can be much more liberatory in the end, I’m afraid they will still be much more limited in their reach than the good ol’ public university in its heyday was. (Because was is really starting to seem like the operative concept here.)

Ironically, I mean, I wouldn’t even know about free schools without my exposure to the university… that’s certainly not true for everybody. And it needn’t be true. But I think it points to why I feel hope lacking in this moment. I feel a light going out. And sure, that light was really dysfunctional in the first place but it was granting wide access and possibility and acting as a funnel, at least for many students, to something much better, to much more critical ideas and action. How many of us were radicalized in the university? Of course there are other sites, other methods, other ways, but undeniably, this sucks.

The loss of access to critical thinking, to liberal arts, to social justice oriented classes throughout Wisconsin (and probably eventually elsewhere), is without a doubt, a loss of something, for some folks, who were in fact benefitting. Even if we do succeed in creating liberatory alternatives, it’s hard for me to imagine they will have the same reach and impact as the public university in its heyday. But I could be wrong. Perhaps I just need to dream bigger. I hope so. Perhaps I just need to get started on the experiment.

Black and white screenprinted poster of a soldier holding a sign that says "I just wanted to go to college." Text at bottom of poster says "End the poverty draft. Stop the war economy."

Image created by Eli Wright at Justseeds Collective for the new Poor People’s Campaign.

Stop Telling Me I’m Brave: On Courage and Being Set Apart

As feminists we know it’s important for us to have each other’s backs in a shitty heterosexist world. We have often done this by reassuring each other that we are strong and brave people. The thing is, after the year I’ve had, I’m not sure telling our friends over and over that they’re brave works the way it’s supposed to.

When you call someone brave you pretty much mean to say that they’re doing something that you’re not sure you would do in their situation. And that’s a compliment, but it also pushes that person away from you by making them different. When I spoke out openly about my experience as a stalking survivor and the incredible failures of the institutions that were supposed to protect me, it started to feel less like “brave” was about having my back and more like no one else was “brave” enough to have my back.

It started when I was doing things that did not feel like they even involved a choice, let alone courage. What I learned in surviving stalking is that even if you think you don’t want to go on, you pretty much do because there just aren’t that many other choices available. With the exception of suicidal depression (which I’m not minimizing, but I didn’t have), you will have to get out of bed sometime. I missed more days of work than ever before, but still I couldn’t just stop going altogether. I wasn’t so out of it that I couldn’t calculate those risks. I kept putting one foot in front of the other and showing up. Surviving.

My acts are not what I would characterize as “brave” necessarily. They are acts of resilience, like the acts that human beings who have survived worse things before me like intimate partner stalking, colonial wars, and daily racist police violence. Human beings are, at the end of the day, apparently pretty good at surviving some pretty terrible things, but that doesn’t make us all brave, and being called brave, when I was busy just surviving stalking, was almost like salt in the wound. Because all I felt, all the time, was fear.

I advocated, loudly, for my safety in my campus workplace. And, because I am a feminist activist, I did this in a way that I hoped would benefit future stalking victims and tried to point out how inevitable it is that this problem would happen again. I published my story with a major web outlet clarifying why I thought we needed better procedures on our campus not just for myself but for all of us, and called out my campus for their shameful disregard of the safety of my body and their refusal to “set a precedent.” I went forward with this story publicly even after I was issued an ultimatum insisting that it needed to be published anonymously or it could not be published. In each case, I was told by my friends and colleagues that my actions were very brave but in each case, I felt like I was simply doing the only right thing.

When my friends were calling me brave, it really felt like they were just letting themselves off the hook for not taking actions that were similar to mine or, worse, for not joining me in solidarity in the ways that they might have been implicated. I do not think my friends consciously meant anything negative when they told me I was brave. I think they really meant it. But what it usually means to say someone is brave is – what I heard–was, “oh wow, you have so much courage. I could never dare to do that.” What I needed to hear was: “man that situation sucks! Let me join you in this struggle.”

As a feminist method of support, bravery seems to work okay when we assign the label to ourselves. The women who wrote the groundbreaking All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave obviously got a lot out of it. There were times when I liked the idea too, but only when I decided on my own to do something that I felt was brave. When the idea of bravery backfired, it was when someone else called me brave. Like a lot of terms, there’s a big difference between applying it to yourself and having it applied to you by someone else.

The concept of bravery though is one that always sets people apart. It’s an idea that’s usually associated with extraordinary individuals. Extra-ordinary. And maybe that’s why it hurt me so much, because I was already feeling so isolated. Bravery just seemed to set me even further apart from the pack.

But there are other reasons to avoid setting people apart, even when they haven’t necessarily survived something traumatic. If we want to build social movements that will change the world, we will need groups of people, not a few extraordinary individuals. I don’t dispute that to do this work we will have to be brave, but maybe we need to stop calling each other brave. Instead we have to find ways to be brave together. The first step to doing this will mean not holding each other up on pedestals too tall to reach but alternatively trying to learn how we can better support and understand each other’s necessary and chosen risks. Here in the United States the cliché is that one person can change the world but the reality is that it takes many people to change the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not boycott those buses on his own. Assata Shakur didn’t break herself out of jail. Although in the course of history we’ve exalted only these single individuals, their names would mean little without the movements full of other people around them. If they had been set apart in their own time as singularly brave individuals, as merely exceptional people, we wouldn’t even know who they were today because nothing would have been accomplished.

I know by telling me how brave my actions were that my feminist friends were trying to be nice and supportive. I can see that I was moving from surviving to advocating and that people wanted to pat me on the back for that forward movement. But what I want is to change the world, and for that I need my friends to join me, not laud me. I want my acts, just like my feminist ideals, to become ordinary, not extraordinary.

solidarity is our weapon

“Solidarity Is Our Weapon. International Women’s Strike.”