sadness and struggle

I’ve been trying and failing to finish a lot of writing over the last few weeks. I have felt overwhelmed, with a lot to say, but at the same time not quite able to edit and polish and publish what I’ve got.

Today, after once again writing about 1,500 words without finishing a post, I finally picked up Cindy Milstein’s Rebellious Mourning and read the first essay, Benji Hart’s “Feeling Is Not Weakness.” In it, Hart talks about how sad and depressing it is to connect the dots on the systemic violent oppression of black and brown people. Hart says they feel guilty for being sad, because Hart knows one of the functions of the system is to create demoralization. Sadness makes it feel like this campaign of demoralization is working. In Hart’s words:

“I feel guilty for being demoralized. I should be angry. I should be fiery with unquenchable passion. I should be as relentless as the state. If I am sad, the state has won. If I am sad, the fight is over”(p. 20).

I too feel sad. And I had not realized until just at this moment that I have had writer’s block because I didn’t want to write anything out of my sadness. I didn’t want to let Husky, or city council, or Walker, or Trump, or whoever control my life and my successes and make me sad. I didn’t want the state or capital to win. But feeling sadness when confronted with tragic realities is what makes me human. It is what makes me strong. Hart puts it like this:

“Experiencing hurt around the realities my people and I face is more than understandable; it shows that I have not given in, not accepted the current, violent reality as inevitable, not forfeited belief in my own right to life.”(p. 21)

A compañera of mine put it another way:

“We’re in the heart of the Empire,” I said.
“You’re wrong,” she said, “the Empire has no heart.”

My sadness does not mean the battle is lost. It means I’ve refused to lose what’s at the core of struggle and what we struggle for: my dignity and humanity. My belief that better worlds are possible. My compassion for others. My willingness to see and face systemic injustice. My meaningful connections to people living precarious lives of all kinds. My hope that people can be better people, and that they can find the will and courage to stop enacting their power over others. It’s only when I become so cynical that I lose these things that the fight is over. Sadness is not the sign the battle is lost but the sign that it is still raging, and the sign that I am still willing to fight it.

a blue arm and a white arm hold hands across a paper background with foundation and charity names. the paper is torn to reveal the words "True Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." - Martin Luther King, Jr

Art by Kevin Caplicki for the Poor People’s Campaign, available at Just Seeds Collective.

the first few days

On Thursday morning I was in my upstairs office, writing. My house shook around 10 am. I called downstairs to my partner, who ran upstairs. We both thought the other would know what had happened. Had I dropped something really big on the floor? Had a really giant truck passed by? Neither of these seemed to explain why our windows and doors would shake, but we didn’t hear any sirens and nothing else happened, so mildly unsettled, we went back about our business.

I keep thinking about the part of Wormwood where Eric Olson describes Seymour Hirsch walking into the family’s house and announcing, “You must be the most uncurious family in America.”

At 11:30 I received an email from campus with a link to a news story with the first description of the explosion that had taken place at 10 am. The first news reports listed 20 “casualties,” (later revised to 16 injuries), and I immediately noticed that no one on the hours of news coverage or during the press conferences, was using the word Enbridge or mentioning the pipelines which lead to the plant. In fact, like many other people in town, I thought right up until Thursday that Enbridge owned that refinery, based on my impression from driving on the road next to the site. Apparently, Enbridge owns the tanks right across the street which somehow did not appear in any of the coverage.

I got ready to head to campus for my afternoon classes, simultaneously watching TV and checking social media for updates. I was already seeing several people commenting on the good news that no one had died, which seemed far too early to me. There had not yet been a report that they had accounted for all the workers, people had been taken to the hospital with an unknown severity of injuries, and the fire was still going. Soon after there were more explosions, and it was clear the fire was not out.

I arrived to campus a little after 12:30 and the mood was surreal. Apparently on campus the buildings had not shook and most people I talked to had the sense that it was not that serious. At 11:43 AM, the campus alert system sent the following message: “Explosion at the Husky Refinery. Law enforcement has stated that the fire is out. Campus will resume under normal operations,” which must have contributed to this mood.

I found myself wondering how people in Chernobyl had behaved (and also worrying that I was overreacting). I wondered why we weren’t a little more prepared for what to do. I worried that people were so quick to move on and not at all cautious about the air quality. Walking to my 1 pm class I received a text from my partner indicating that talk of evacuations had begun.

When I got to class, I did my job as a professor of sociology and cautioned my students about some of the dangers of happy talk. We discussed the fact that the refinery disaster perhaps concerned us more than we thought. An athlete told us that they had been asked to go in from the soccer field earlier that morning. I tried to find the line between pretending everything was hunky dory, and creating panic. I trusted that if we were evacuated we would certainly know it. We had just been in that classroom during a tornado drill a few weeks earlier, after all, and every device in the room began making alerts, not to mention that human monitors went room to room to make sure everyone had left. I thought if the computer was on in the room it would show an alert, and we all turned our phones face up. I was sure an evacuation of this level would be announced over the loud speaker as well, and I assured my students of this fact.

I cannot now say whether or not I am ashamed of this rather minimal trust I had in the institution to inform us of what was happening. I feel like a fool who should have known better, but on the other hand, these situations for good reason cannot be left up to individual faculty members to decide. We do not have all the information and should not need to gather it. We were put in an awful position. I heard from several faculty who said they held class because they were worried that if they didn’t their students wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. That’s the problem when institutions do not provide the support we need in an appropriate time frame — they leave us all to make decisions on our own and none of them seem like the right one.

We went on with our class business until about 1:45. Someone noticed they had a lot of messages on their phone first, and then we all looked down and saw that we had a lot of messages from family members and from the university alert system. Our family members wanted us to evacuate or to know if we were OK. The university alert system messages we had received since our class began said:

1:10 PM Info UWS Office of Public Safety has received is that the UWS campus is NOT under an evacuation order. Continuing to monitor and update as needed.

1:41 PM SAFE ALERT: UW-Superior is NOT within the evacuation zone. There has been some misinformation in the media about the evacuation zone.

Authorities state the evacuation zone is 10 miles south of the refinery, 3 miles east and west of the refinery and 1 mile north of the refinery, which is 28th street. We are closely monitoring the situation. If you do choose to leave campus, please use caution and avoid the impacted area.

These strangely defensive alerts were our only source of information for what to do on campus. Several of my students live in a dorm which was .3 mi outside the evacuation zone at that time, and they wondered where they should go instead of home. No one knew. Another student confirmed that WITC, a campus located spatially within our campus, had closed for the day. Still another student who shares caregiving responsibilities for small children began to worry. She checked her phone, and found that the schools had indeed closed and evacuated, but the children’s mother wasn’t sure at that point exactly where the kids were because the school had not activated their alert system. This was the point where the class began to collectively panic and feel that we were not being told what we needed to know and where to go. A resourceful student made a few phone calls and determined that unofficially students who were unable to go home were gathering in the student union. Here’s what the view was like from campus at that point:

Husky refinery smoke in the distance

Picture taken from UW-Superior campus while classes were still taking place during the Husky Refinery disaster, April 26, 2018.

If the plan was not to cancel classes in order to stop a traffic jam and to complete a more orderly evacuation, why not send email with more guidance for faculty letting us know to bring people to the student union as things escalated? Why not give us a few resources to help us keep things calm? Leaving us with no plans and suggesting that we somehow hold class while students are not sure if they can return home and their children are being evacuated to unknown locations does not make any sense. This was at 1:45. The next set of classes on Thursdays begin at 2:30 and classes were not officially canceled until 3:10. By 4:13, UWS was declaring itself to be in the evacuation zone as well.

I had no idea what to do or where to tell anyone to go. I did not know how to help the students evacuate, although we practice tornado drills every year (tornadoes are exceedingly rare in our region). Our university is located under 3 miles from a refinery; this is a known quantity. There is no reason not to practice or disseminate information about what to do in the event of this kind of disaster other than perhaps the desire to make us feel safe about some things (like pipelines and oil production, who are large donors to the university) and direct our focus on worrying about other things.

After my class dissolved early, I canceled my next class. Then I went home, packed my things, and evacuated myself to Duluth. On the way out of town I received the notice that classes had finally been canceled. Once in Duluth, I went to some stores and tried to do something relaxing for a while. I took this picture from the malt shop, as a sad comparison to so many beautiful pictures I’ve taken of the most amazing lake in the world:

Refinery smoke over the water

Picture of the Husky Refinery disaster from the Duluth shore of Lake Superior on the afternoon of April 26, 2018.

I got to my friends’ house and ate dinner. We watched the news on and off, but tired of the coverage. The last we had heard, the fire might rage for days, even weeks. Around 7 pm, someone came home and said, “Didn’t you hear? The fire’s out.” We turned on the news, and sure enough, we saw that the fire had been declared out, and Superior residents were told we could come home as early as 9 pm. An information number was given out, which we wrote down. We turned off the coverage again, since we’d been watching it for hours at that point, and we spent time with our friends.

At about 11:30 pm Thursday night we headed out the door to come home to Superior. At the door our friend said, “Oh! we never thought to double check if it was OK to go back.” “It’s OK,” we said, “we’ll call or something in the car.” We listened for news in the car but couldn’t find any local coverage on the radio. On the bridge I called the information line that had been given out only 5 hours before. It rang a bunch of times, then someone picked it up and hung up on me.

I do not know if I was just tired, or if wishful thinking got the best of me. But we went ahead and continued on home to Superior, since the phone call was just a double check and the evacuation seemed like it had already been called off. Imagine my horror when I was already in my house, checked the internet, and realized that the evacuation had been more or less called back on. This is the real risk of rushing to give people good news. It puts people in danger. It put me in danger.

That night and the next day I found that for some reason between 6:30 pm and 11:30 pm, some of the most critical hours for sharing information during the evacuation, when people like me were away from our homes and our usual sources of information and routines, the city and county announced two numbers for residents to call and then quickly closed these numbers. Instead, they directed people to call a hotline run by the Husky Refinery itself. They also announced that “The fire is extinguished. Residents in the evacuation area are asked to remain away from homes for at least another 2 hours (21:00 CST)” then announced at 21:20 CST that the evacuation order was still in place. It’s true that it doesn’t exactly say you can go back at 9 pm. But common sense dictates that an update was needed before 9 pm, not after, so I imagine that was an oversight that encouraged others to return too quickly as well. A press conference and update was announced for 10 am Friday, then it was announced that everyone could return at 6 am. I couldn’t figure out where everyone was even getting this news from. It turned out I was out of the loop in part because I wasn’t following the correct Facebook account. I follow the City of Superior on Facebook, not “Jim Paine, Mayor of Superior.” I only wish I were joking.

I spent the next day feeling as if I was in a freefall. It makes you feel insane when everyone is telling you everything is fine but there are clearly chemical gases being spilled nearby. When you are supposed to hold class with a giant black cloud looming on the horizon and the hospital is being evacuated, it’s hard to know what’s real. When most of the talk you hear is about what a good job everyone did but your experience was terrible (and dangerous), it is literally maddening. I heard a terrible story about what happened to the patients at the VA in Superior. I know other people who came home on Thursday night only to find out belatedly they shouldn’t have. Other people’s homes shook so violently that pilot lights went out, and it took them a few days to notice the gas leak in their empty homes. The air of finality of the pronouncements from the mayor’s office and the lack of questions on all sides contribute to my fear that none of these problems will be dealt with in due course. The last updates were Friday at noon, stating that the “I am in Superior and returning to the refinery site now, breathing the air myself. We will continue monitoring the air but the source of the danger has passed,” indicating no future investigation toward any of the long term health and environmental problems we face.

We know now that the major risk was hydrofluoric acid. We did not know that in my classroom at 1 pm while that fire was raging in the distance. Perhaps it is wise public policy to keep people where they are since we cannot all get out of town on two bridges fast enough when a toxic gas explodes; most of us would have died in our cars in traffic no matter what. Does that mean though that we should have so little plan and so little training that most of us run to our windows when we hear an explosion? Does that mean we should call people back to town before the fire is really out? There were many risks to be managed on Thursday and Friday in addition to all of the health and environmental risks that remain to be managed. Some of those were handled well. The HF tank did not explode. No workers died. These are, in fact, very good things. But some things were handled poorly and they were in fact foreseeable things. There’s no reason the city of Superior can’t operate its own helpline, or at least have a voicemail message giving the most current update and directing people to the proper information and emergency numbers.  These things should not be handled by the company, who does not have our community best interest at heart.

There’s no reason we can’t speak critically about what did and didn’t go well and work to keep doing better. We need to know what happened in order to be better prepared for the future. Perhaps people would not panic in emergencies if we were not lulled into complacency in the first place. For me the first step is no more HF in my community. I don’t want to live in a “kill zone” any longer.



Saturday Rec: Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pairs well with: organic foods, soil-testing kit, and solitary activities once you become unpopular for wanting to make space for the truth and criticizing “Pinktober”

This is another documentary based on a book, an academic text by Samantha King who also appears in the documentary. The film covers the problems with reducing fighting breast cancer to buying stuff with pink ribbons on it and includes many of the problems people have with the Komen foundation. More interesting, however, the film is a powerful discussion of the ways that relentlessly positive thinking is really harmful to people. It shows persuasively that when we focus on positive thinking, we center quick and easy solutions and end up missing real solutions, which are harder and take more time. We do not think about what causes cancer (e.g., living near oil refineries), and how more people are getting it. Instead we focus on finding it early on as if it were an inevitable fact.

Most strikingly the film includes interviews with women dying of breast cancer who discuss how there is no room for them or their experiences in a “movement” which only wants to hear happy stories and see pink objects. Where can one process the experience of dying from a horrible disease if people only want to hear about happy things? How can this be a “good” way of dealing with a disease if there is no room for the people actually experiencing its effects in an authentic way?

A great film for understanding how focusing only on the positive can literally harm the people around you.

Eulogy for UWS

I did not plan to be a college professor when I entered my PhD program in sociology. I was interested in more directly community engaged work and writing. I fell in love with teaching during my fieldwork at a movement run high school for adults in Buenos Aires, where I co-taught social sciences in a classroom populated primarily by young women who lived in the neighboring shantytown. But even so, I was highly suspicious that this experience could be replicated inside of a bureaucratic institution of higher education in any meaningful way.

It was only toward the end of my tenure as a graduate student when I saw one particular job listing that I decided to look for jobs teaching at the university level. The job was at the University of Michigan-Flint, a regional comprehensive university where my mom had graduated when I was a kid.

Looking at the posting brought back a flood of memories of attending classes the few times she didn’t have childcare, and had to take me to classes with her. These days are burned into my memory, because the visual inspection, behavior talk, and overall prep was intense! I must have been in about second grade, and I can remember my mom talking me into wearing my best clothes by telling me this is what all the “college girls” would be wearing. I know I was much more dressed up than I usually got just to go to my own school. Now I can see that my mom was worried about being embarrassed by having me or us look too poor, since having to bring your kid to class is already a bad way to stick out at college. Once I can remember getting a new toy doll just in order to go to class to be sure that I wouldn’t become restless during the lecture. Although I was generally a pretty good kid, I still remember the very serious talk I got before going to those classes about how essential it was that I be absolutely good.

I have told this story to more than one student at UWS, because I wanted these students to feel welcome in my classes and on our campus. And I always tell them their kids are welcome in my classes, because I know they will behave. After all, I know exactly the serious talk they got before coming to the class. I have wanted to be part of expanding these students’ access to education, their access to big ideas, and part of expanding their world. My mom’s life circumstance forced her to leave high school but her child is a college professor, in no small part because of my exposure to the importance of College, capital C, through her and her persistence in completing it.

I didn’t get the job at U of M-Flint, but after I saw that listing I knew that I wanted to teach students like my mom. Not just students with kids, but nontraditional students; students who never thought they’d find themselves in a university for a variety of reasons including race and social class; students who are afraid that if something goes wrong, someone will figure this out, and they won’t be let back in. UW-Superior has provided a tremendous environment for doing this, because it is open enrollment, has small class sizes, has a public liberal arts college mission, and my department is very supportive of deeper methods of teaching and learning. All of this is unsustainable with the loss of any faculty voice in the running of the campus, the partnership with for-profit companies who will put pressure on the campus to develop easier curricula for faster degrees regardless of what is being learned (if they haven’t already started), and the elimination of nearly all the liberal arts disciplines on campus. There is no longer any institutional support for these experiences.

I have been able to be a part of amazing transformations in my few short years at UWS that are considered impossible in most educational environments, and I will be grateful for that experience. But I will mourn the tremendous loss for all of us in the region at the abandonment of that mission, and I will not participate in the charade that it has not been abandoned. This is no longer the UWS where I hoped to spend the next twenty five years teaching.

picture is of 25 handmade headstones with the names of academic programs set out in a univeristy building. in the background is a cardboard casket flanked by paper flowers.

Headstones for each cut major and minor program and a casket for the University of Wisconsin-Superior we knew and loved. The funeral was held Saturday, April 14, 2018. Photo Credit: Trudy Fredericks.

Ongoing assassinations and violence in Honduras: Carlos Hernández

A selfie of Carlos Hernandez wearing a white Oxford shirt.

Carlos Hernández, killed in his law office in Tela, Honduras, on April 10, 2018.

Last week, another person two degrees of separation from me was assassinated in Honduras. His name was Carlos Hernández, and he was killed in his law office in the municipality of Tela. He was the lawyer of one of five people who have been criminalized for defending the water in their community as part of an encampment they have sustained since May 2017 against intense persecution. I have met all five of them.


I have visited their encampment.

He is not the first person to die in relationship to their small community’s struggle.

It is unlikely we will ever know exactly who his killer is, and even less likely that person will face any judicial process because rates of impunity in Honduras for homicide are estimated at over 90%.

It is heavy to feel so surrounded by death. I cannot imagine how it would feel if I were actually living among it daily, breathing in its possibility at every turn. The violence is so frequent even among the people to whom I am directly connected that I fear that my friends and family are becoming tired of hearing about the deaths and death threats to my compañerxs in Honduras, and will stop being willing to act. I do not wish to center myself, but rather hope to connect myself personally as an act of solidarity, enabling others to also feel personally connected and invested in the lives of others.

Carlos Hernández was young. He was the lawyer for the mayor of Arizona, Arnoldo Chacón. Chacón is one of 5 members of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ – Movimiento Amplio por Dignidad y Justicia) who have been formally accused of “usurpation” for stopping the state of Honduras and the company INGELSA from developing a hydroelectric dam on the Río Jilamito.

These community members have sustained “Camp Dignity in Defense of the Río Jilamito” since May 2017, defending their water and community from attack by a foreign company. All 5 of the accused, along with the many other members of the community who have participated in the encampment, have been subject to threats and attacks over this time period. Yet they persist. They arrive, daily, in shifts, making sure the camp is tended at all times. They make food for each other, take care of each other, make decisions together, and they confront the alliance of government and private capital which not only criminalizes this care-taking activity but dares to call it usurpation.

I first met these community members after they had completed just a few weeks of their encampment, at the end of May 2017. The camp is humble but cozy, and the reception they gave to our large Witness for Peace delegation of 22 U.S. citizens was deeply welcoming. We ate soup together, we chatted, we played games, and took pictures. They found enough chairs for all of us and hardly a chair for anyone else, and we could not manage to convince anyone to swap places and take a seat in our places. Of course. It would be rude to sit while an honored guest was standing.

Picture is of a banner, sign, and Honduran flag that cover barbed wire and make up a barricade

Barricade at Camp Dignity in Defense of Water and Life at Rio Jilamito

The people who spoke that day to us are the very same people who have been criminalized and whose lives have been threatened since then. I would like to use their names and to show their faces to humanize these every day rural people who have decided to take such enormous risks to protect the water in their community, but I am afraid that it may put them in more risk. I would like to humanize them, to counter the implicit suggestion that they are terrorists for impeding economic development – to which they did not consent and from which they will not benefit – but the very act of doing so may harm them further.

The assassination of Carlos Hernández can only be understood as part of a larger system of structural and political violence which runs deep. He was killed in a country which has recently inaugurated a fraudulent President, and this presidency and regime (and the support it receives from the United States) is inseparably related to the skyrocketing rates of violence. (I plan to write more about exactly how all of this is connected but have linked to some excellent existing analysis above by Radio Progreso, Jesse Freeston, Sandra Cuffe, and Ryan Morgan to get that conversation started here.)

Even in the face of incredible odds and almost unthinkable danger, the community at Jilamito continues to maintain their active resistance to INGELSA and its hydroelectric dam project. Their resistance shows us all that it is possible.


Click here for a list of concrete actions you can take in solidarity with people in Honduras.