recipe for activism

If you are upset by the way things are in the world and you want to change them but you don’t know how or you are afraid of what it may take, look for inspiration. Find others who are engaged despite what they may lose, find others who act despite what they don’t have, find others who know how to do it because they’ve done it before.

Try to meet and learn from these people in person.

If the state of the world troubles you, the only thing that will change it is joining together with other people. Doing that  (even though it might seem scary) can produce joy and some inspiration in and of itself.

There are always people resisting, joined together in struggle, and it’s amazing how inspiring their actions are once you find them.

Just Call Me They

The work of being trans is constant. It is tiring. It is exhausting. And it doesn’t really have to be that way. Is it too much to ask people to pay attention to me as a human being when they interact? To use my pronouns, use my name, and to do both correctly a majority of the time? It is not too much to ask, because how can I keep going in a world where that is too much to ask of the fellow human beings with whom I interact?

Taking people seriously as human beings starts with recognizing and learning how we are referred to in speech. This is not a preference. This is not a special request. This is a normal request for being treated with dignity like a human being and let me tell you, it is hurtful and embarrassing and offensive and infuriating and disempowering all rolled into one when it almost never happens. It is dehumanizing.

Let’s start with the name. I am a white person born in the US; unlike a great many people who must never even hear their names said correctly let alone spelled accurately, I belong to the dominant culture. Even so, my very white Irish German name, Meghan Krausch, is apparently not white bread enough and so I have spent my entire life checking every program, table of contents, and website in which it has ever appeared to see if they got it right. It has not gone well. For this and other reasons, I tried dropping the second half of my first name. But no, people cannot just call me Meg either. They want to try to call me Meghan anyway, usually failing.

Why am I going on about my name? Because I think this is related to people’s issues respecting each others’ pronouns. We insist in imposing our own cognitive schemas on other peoples’ selves. We do not take the time to copy down someone’s name as it is given to us, or to listen when they say it, or look at how they sign their own name. Instead, we are in a rush to fit people into a pre-existing box (in my example: ‘oh! I know that name: Megan’).

So as my name is violated in print, as others’ names are violated even more often and viciously, I am misgendered constantly. In situations where I might expect it, in situations where it was an honest mistake, and in situations where there is no excuse.

I get that there is a social transition. I get that this requires resocialization. And I do in fact understand how deep that socialization goes. I really, really do. In fact, I understand more than most people how early we are socialized to believe in the gender binary; I would argue that we are introduced to the binary before we even leave the womb. I am not sure I even believe that anyone can be perfect at using nonbinary pronouns in a society which is still cissexist.

But it is devastatingly apparent to me that most of y’all don’t even try.

In researching this post, I found this story about nonbinary or genderqueer K-12 teachers who use the honorific Mx. There was a lot that resonated, but thing I identified with most was the teacher who said this:

“I had moments where I thought: I’m too much work, I’m asking too much of my colleagues and students, and that as a teacher I’m there to serve, and part of serving others is not always putting yourself first.”

I fight this impulse every day. Of course “they/them/theirs” is a political choice, just like not eating meat or riding my bike instead of driving. But it also feels like home. It feels comfortable. It feels like not faking being a girl and being worried that I would be caught as a fake. And it’s no more of a political choice than using “he” or “she” or eating meat or driving a car, which are also all political choices.

The work of being trans is constant and exhausting only because other people make it that way. It doesn’t have to be anything other than just being.

Here are some resources for those who have questions about trans pronouns, being good accomplices, and what to do when you screw up:

transsaurus-rex

Saturday Rec: Fiction I Read in 2018

To celebrate the end of the year I’m recommending a whole slew of things to read! This is a non-exhaustive list of the novels I read this past year that I loved and would love for you to read. Why read fiction, you ask? Please watch the fabulous (and dearly departed) Ursula K LeGuin at the National Book Awards in 2014 explain that it is in part because we “need writers who can remember freedom” (transcript here).

  • LaRose – Louise Erdrich
    • I’ve read several of Erdrich’s books and I plan on eventually reading all of her work – but slowly, so I don’t run out of it.
  • The Killing Moon and the Shadowed Sun (The Dreamblood Duology) – NK Jemisin
  • She Would Be King – Wayétu Moore
    • A magical realist tale of the founding of Liberia. I actually recommend not reading any more summary than that.
  • Troubling Love – Elena Ferrante
    • A painful but beautiful novel about the sudden disappearance and loss of the narrator’s mother in Ferrante’s signature style. I think I have now finished Ferrante’s catalog and I feel a bit lost.
  • Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
    • A book about four generations of a Korean family from before the two Koreas and their migration to Japan. A great transnational novel on race, identity, and migration.
  • Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver
    • I’ve read and loved all of Kingsolver’s work and this is her newest.
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
    • A very beautiful and surprising novel about nonbinary genders and the militant struggle in Kashmir.

If Ursula K Le Guin did not convince you, my favorite academic advice columnist has also recommended reading fiction among many other wonderful suggestions for those experiencing “outrage fatigue.” Here’s to imagining (and building) a different world in 2019.

leguinbookawards

Ursula K Le Guin at the National Book Awards in 2014.

Do Not Bow to the King: I will not wish George HW Bush or any other powerful leader the peace in death they denied to others

Hopefully people have already seen some of the pushback on the sainting of George Herbert Walker Bush because of his legacy of human rights abuses in Panama, pardoning Iran-Contra conspirators, allowing people to die needlessly of AIDS, lying to the U.S. public about the invasion of Iraq, his involvement in Plan Condor, and his racist Willie Horton ad, to name some. But regardless of the specific person or their place in history, invariably it seems to go like this: some major political figure dies and the social media RIPs start rolling in. “I didn’t agree with you on everything but you were an honorable person and I respected you. Rest in Peace.” If we consider ourselves political at all, and if want to be capable of resisting injustice, then we need to stop automatically paying our respects to politicians when they die.

First of all, the fact that someone had grace, or carried themselves with honor or manners, is not a good reason on its own to show them respect. In fact it usually just means they are rich and powerful (or “patrician”).  Have y’all never seen Gone with the Wind? Those white people of old carried on in high fashion and extremely mannerly ways! Their white supremacy was extremely high fallutin’! I do not however respect it, or the people who perpetrated and participated in it, just because it demands respect. It was something extremely ugly dressing itself up in nice clothes and an elaborately coded system of manners and interactions. Do not fall for this.

Second of all, in the case of a deceased head of state or politician, when we say we disagree with their “policies,” we are actually talking about human lives, and often their deaths. I refuse to reduce human to policies. And while the politician may no longer be in power, the effects of their policies are usually still with us. In the case of George HW Bush, I saw several of the same people express sadness about his death who are also angry about Trump’s handling of the “migrant caravan” from Central America. The thing is that by and large it isn’t Trump’s policies that have created the migrant exodus (because he hasn’t had enough time to do that kind of structural damage), but those of previous administrations. The migrant exodus actually has a lot to do with George HW Bush. As president he escalated the devastating War on Drugs, which continues to devastate people throughout Latin America, in addition to the devastating “anti-communist” violence and coup d’etats he perpetrated as vice president and Director of the CIA. The legacy of this violence, in addition to actions by other leaders including Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama who facilitated the 2009 coup in Honduras, has created the structural instability leading to the mass exodus of refugees from Central America today. So, how can we say that we respect Bush but be in solidarity with the migrant exodus or people in Central America today? You can’t.

Finally, and perhaps most simply and importantly: if we aspire to resist the policies of our government when they are wrong and unjust, we have to stop our habit of automatically bowing to the King! We are not obligated to express sadness when a former head of state dies. We are not obligated to say they had good qualities or were a good person or look on the bright side. Ask yourself why you are doing this. Is it possible it’s because you’ve been conditioned to respect authority? Or to respect those who seem “patrician”? If it makes you uncomfortable to speak ill of the dead, then try practicing just not saying anything. After all, a public political figure is different from a neighbor down the street or another person that you know. They and their family will never know what you said. Their legacy is a matter of making the historical record, not simple politeness. But most importantly, if you practice bowing to the king over and over, even when you think it doesn’t mean anything, you will never be able to disobey his orders when given, no matter how unjust they are. And that is supremely dangerous.

Lessons from the UW-Superior “Halloween Axe” One Year Later

Just over one year ago, everything changed for me and many others in the community of Superior, Wisconsin. Without faculty, student, or staff input, three administrators were able to eliminate and threaten a full one-third of the academic programming at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, including most of the liberal arts in which it offered majors and most of the critical disciplines on campus. A few months later, an eerily similar list of program eliminations was announced at UW-Stevens Point. A newer, more final version of these cuts was announced yesterday. The Stevens Point proposal will be the first direct implementation of UW administrators’ new power to fire tenured faculty without declaring financial exigency.

Perhaps at the end of one year of mourning UWS, it’s time to move on to the next i see human but no humanitytragedy. After all, we were not the first victims of austerity measures in higher ed, and unfortunately we won’t be the last. Plus it’s over. The drastic cuts at UWS, along with the clumsy and deeply damaging restructuring of the entire 2-year college system in Wisconsin, have already happened. And Wisconsin has even finally ousted Governor Scott Walker in favor Tony Evers who was the lone voice of opposition while on the UW Board of Regents. But on this one year anniversary, it also seems useful to ask what can learn? How do we pick up the pieces and survive, both as local communities and within the more decentralized community of academia? A few things are for certain: the devastation of higher ed is not confined to Wisconsin, and the election of Tony Evers won’t be enough to roll back the damage done to the once great system of public higher education in the land of milk and honey.

In personal terms, the last year has been one of massive upheaval on both a private and professional level. I was driven out of my tenure track job in my fourth year which in turn meant geographic relocation. I sold my first house shortly after buying it, and started over in a new city, yet again. I was not alone in this. As I began to speak out publicly against the unethical and unconscionable decisions and public statements made by the university’s top administrators, I did not anticipate the level of absurd and petty harassment that I faced throughout the year for which there was no formal remedy.

The more that I was harassed, along with a few others who were also singled out, the more that a climate of fear seemed to prevail around me. Much of what happened to me was risky to speak about in writing or online. Let this be lesson #1 for others: open the lines of communication often and early between departments and among faculty, staff, and students, so that it is harder to single people out. Make time and spaces for in person meetings. Check in with people regularly who are on the forefront. Be aware that distancing yourself from people makes it easier for them (or you) to become targets for administration. Pay for personal memberships to the AAUP and/or a labor union (regardless of the status of legal bargaining rights) because their experience and assistance is invaluable in this situation.

My situation culminated at the end of the year when I should have been able to focus on supporting anxious seniors with their thesis presentations and nervous first year students with finishing classes. I was actually accused of committing “fraud” against the university. For what? I don’t know. How was the case resolved? I don’t know. I can only assume I was cleared because I was never reprimanded in any way. I was summoned to a meeting (at a time I was unavailable), I was not allowed to bring a witness, I was told I could not be given any information about the accusation in advance, and then I was informed that I had failed to comply. When I requested a copy of the report I was told it did not exist because it was submitted online. With some anxiety, I packed up the most important things in my office and took them home in case the university continued to ignore any semblance of due process and made a decision to suddenly terminate my employment. I tried to thread the fine line of my legal obligations to a workplace that clearly did not feel the need to observe basic legal obligations to its employees. Lesson #2: the university will not do the right thing (but you will survive somehow anyway). 

This story probably sounds extreme as you read it, and you may be thinking “that could never happen at my university.” But people never seem to think it’s going to happen to them, against all the evidence. Let that be lesson #3 from the Halloween Axe: it can happen to you, and you should already be organized to stop it. A great example of this problem is UWS’ own Dean Yohnk, the Dean of Academic Affairs at UWS who sold himself to UWS as a liberal arts champion less than 2 years earlier and then participated in these cuts. Yohnk managed to somehow parachute out of UWS and into UW-River Falls still as an advocate of the liberal arts. This is major head in the sand thinking on both sides. According to Yohnk, he had no part in the cuts and wanted to get away from that environment. So you go to another school in the UW system, still headed by Ray Cross and the Board of Regents? Good luck with that. And what is the hiring committee at River Falls thinking to accept someone who just lit a match and ran from the next door neighbor’s house? Lesson #4: be informed about the news in higher ed so you know what campus environment someone is coming from and you are prepared to understand their role in it when they arrive on your campus. And lesson #5: wishful thinking is dangerous. Don’t do it. Dramatic neoliberal austerity measures can happen at your university and they will, unless you organize against them. Let’s throw in lesson #6 here: elites network across campuses so we should too.

Actually, another thing to learn from what happened at UWS is lesson #7: these cuts have probably already started at your university or in your state. They don’t just fall out of the sky. They are ideological and they are part of a much longer game plan that takes many years to come to fruition. Look at all the planks in the plan to kill the Wisconsin Idea that needed to be laid before the final blow could be dealt to UW-Superior:

 

  • Act 10 eliminating collective bargaining rights for public workers;
  • weakening and effectively eliminating tenure protections throughout the state so that faculty throughout the university can be fired regardless of tenure without formally declaring financial exigency (not to mention the chilling effect);
  • changes to the hiring of chancellors and hiring committees (these have the effect of chilling efforts to call for resignation of current chancellor(s) because faculty are afraid that whoever is hired next will be worse, as they are assured of having no voice in the process);
  • dramatic changes to Chapter 36 and essentially eliminating the role of faculty in governance of the university;
  • free speech rules implemented via the legislature severely limiting the possibility of student protest on campus;
  • implementation of faculty post tenure review.

The cuts at UWS were only possible after all of this had been implemented in addition to devastating system wide budget cuts over a period of six years. There are many lessons to be drawn from this fact, but one important one for me is lesson #8: we have to somehow fight every austerity measure, even if it’s a losing battle. Don’t hand over an inch, because we are really always fighting the next battle. If we accept one measure without comment or struggle (as we did with many of these, knowing the Regents, legislators, administrators and often public were aligned against us), the right wing ideologues hell-bent on eliminating higher education will know that we aren’t organized to fight the next austerity measure. During my time in Wisconsin, I watched the implementation of several of these rules go on without comment or struggle from faculty who little imagined how they would be impacted later. And the result was that when the Halloween Axe fell, most of the faculty didn’t really understand what had happened to their tenure in Wisconsin, or what had happened to shared governance, or how would it actually affect them and not just their least favorite colleague. They knew enough to be scared but not enough to know what their rights still were or on what grounds we could fight. There was just too much catching up to do. Learn from our mistakes and find out what the reality is on your campus before there is a crisis. And inform and organize your colleagues now.

There are so many more things I learned in the last year as an academic, as an organizer, and as a community member of Superior than I can share in a single essay. I’m still mourning UWS and I’m honestly pessimistic about the long-term future for the community of Superior and northern Wisconsin more generally because something beautiful has in fact been lost. But I also know that marginalized communities can and do find innovative ways to survive and even, within pockets, thrive. Long term stability and permanence are myths that should never be counted on, especially within the dual realities of capitalism and climate change. While I mourn UWS, and while I mourn the broader closure of access to the public university to so many, I also look toward free schools, community run schools, and other models of more liberatory education. The public university has never been the only model of education so I choose to finish here with lesson #9: our dreams should always be too big for their institutions.

Everything for Everyone!

Art by Ali Cat. Leeds at Entangled Roots Press licensed Under Creative Commons License “CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.”

stop apologizing for other people

Recently I’ve noticed a disturbing trend so I’m going to suggest a simple rule: stop apologizing for other people.

Stop making excuses for power, for whiteness, for masculinity, for heterosexism, for ableism, for colonialism. When you apologize for someone else you become part of the problem. You are working to maintain those systems instead of actively working to dismantle them as you should always be trying to figure out ways to do.

If people were sorry for their behavior, they would apologize for themselves. If you want to change a system, support those who are challenging power. Always. When you jump in to make excuses for someone else, a few things happen:

  1. The person perpetrating the micro aggression or oppressive behavior does not have to account for their own behavior.
  2. The person who has actually been harmed is silenced and shamed by seeing that you and others stand against them, regardless of what you actually say as you are making excuses. You may think that you are seeking a compromise, harmony or some kind of middle ground, but the effect of what you are doing is actually further alienating a person who has actually been harmed by sending the message that you (and others in the group) will stand with power and make excuses for it.
  3. You cut off the ability for anyone to learn and grow from their mistakes. Learning is a painful struggle. We could all work on not letting our own fears get in the way of others’ learning process.

Race, gender, sexuality, social class, ability, and nationality are all attributes that exist within systems of power. They are not individual characteristics that we possess in a vacuum and it’s impossible for any of us to be unaffected by the larger unjust systematic power imbalances around us. Working to decolonize ourselves, dismantle patriarchy, unlearn racism, and just not enact bullshit on each other in activist and other daily spaces is an ongoing process, and we are all going to make mistakes. But it is essential in that process to not only allow people to make mistakes but to point them out and even more so to support the person who is brave enough to point out the mistake since likely they are the one who has been harmed by it. It is not piling on to simply agree with or support a marginalized person pointing out a problem. All you have to remember is this: do not make excuses for power.

a brick wall with a graffito that says just "sorry about your wall"