Doing the Work

When applying to tenure-track faculty positions, my first statement on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) simply detailed stuff I had already done in this domain. Actions speak louder than words, I thought. But when I showed it to my friends, one said, approximately, “I see what you’ve done, but I don’t know why you’ve done it!” And so I wrote the paragraph below, and came to refer to it as my “manifesto paragraph.” I’m quite happy with how true it still feels to me.

Several principles underlie my work in the domain of fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in academia. First, I focus my efforts on equity and inclusion because I believe that it is neither ethical nor effective to recruit people from underrepresented groups into a community that has not historically been designed for them without also ensuring that they are supported and advocated for. My approach is necessarily symbiotic with efforts to increase diversity, and thus ensures that I do not suffer from the illusion that I can do this work alone. Second, I believe that, though discrimination itself is systemic, it takes principled and concerted action from individuals making up the system to change it. I therefore work with community members to build the tools and structures that support taking such action, in addition to taking action myself. Third, I view any community through the lens of power—who has it and who does not, and how the lives of the less powerful are impacted by this distribution—and use my own standing in a community to facilitate the empowerment of its marginalized members.

Since writing and submitting the job applications that included this paragraph, I’ve had a lot of time to think about how these statements engage with the daily work of making academia more equitable. And what I’ve come to realize is that in order to write and evaluate these statements we have to shift from the mindset of leadership and into the mindset of community. If we think only of leadership, we lack perspective on our capacity to influence the world and on our responsibility to do so. I want us to strive to be knowing cogs in this machine of societal change.

This idea of being a knowing cog crystallized for me in several ways. The first was the experience of seeing a fellow postdoc, a man, leverage his privilege, power, and confidence in support of me as I advocated for gender equity. His actions amounted to two extremely simple but well-timed sentences which led a group of us to make the decision that needed to be made and which I, in the circumstances, could not have made alone. It was the most tangible example I’ve seen of the work of allyship. In that moment, I felt a strong sense of solidarity with my colleage, as we pushed our community a little closer towards justice. And yet his actions were so small and context-dependent, their outcome nothing more than the absence of an awfulness. This combination is hard to explain. I have no idea how he might write about this moment—its motivations and its repercussions—in a DEI statement, or if its importance would be recognized by those evaluating these statements. I’m doubtful that the description of such actions, this work of a knowing cog, would lead his evaluators to check any boxes on their rubrics.

The second crystallization happened in a seminar on equity and inclusion. In the question-and-answer session, someone (a white man) made the predictable comment that surely one could not expect all of us to be experts in DEI work, so evaluating job applicants on such expertise was unreasonable. Someone else (a woman of color) responded carefully that if we didn’t expect everyone to do this work, it would continue to fall, over and over again, to those of us with the least power, and our efforts would not be valued, and so nothing would change. It was in this tension that the idea of being a knowing cog further solidified in me—while not all of us could be experts, all of us needed to do the straightforward and yet so difficult work of pushing against unacceptable status quos. We don’t always need creative solutions or flashy interventions. We do always need a continuous commitment to trying, and trying better, failing, and failing better, in all the little and big ways that add up to something bigger.

The third crystallization has been longer, slower, and steadier in its growth. It began when I started organizing for graduate student unionization at Harvard. I joined this effort just before the first vote on unionization, urging colleagues in my department to go vote and to vote in favor. I joined in, with no training and a slim grasp of how unions worked, after a couple of conversations in which people told me “oh, you’ve made a better case for unionizing than the people who are actually part of the union!” In other words, I joined this collective action because I was being told that I was special, that I could demonstrate superior skill. Sure, I was committed to solidarity and change, and my motives were wholesome, but I was pushed to do something potentially uncomfortable by the comfort of feeling special. Since then, two years of organizing with the University of California Postdoc and Academic Researchers Union (UAW5810) has shown me that being special is overrated. Stepping out, over and over again, to send an email, have a conversation, yell a chant, hold up a banner, knock on a door, hand out a flyer—actions that any other organizer can do with as much skill as me—has shown me that actually doing the work is so much more important than being uniquely skilled at doing it. What matters to how I effect change is my unique position in society, and not my specialness. What has made me good at this work is knowing why I do it, and using that knowledge—of my values, my politics, my goals and hopes—as the reason to do it over and over again.

Twelve-step programs speak of “being right-sized,” of our need for perspective on what we can and can’t change in this world. Nothing is more humbling, and nothing is more empowering. The work of organizing, of pushing for change, demands that we find, each in our own way but with each other’s support, how to be right-sized. Come, let’s all do this together.

Manifesto for Equity in the Academy.

  1. Responsibility It is neither ethical nor effective to recruit people into a community that has historically been designed to exclude them (us) unless we ensure support for them (us). Such advocacy is distinct from, but symbiotic with, efforts to increase diversity; do not suffer the illusion that one can do this work alone. 
  2. Change Discrimination is systemic but it takes concerted action by individuals to change it. Work with community members to build the tools and structures that support such action.
  3. Power Always be ready to view a community through the lens of power. Who has it? Who does not? How are the lives of the less powerful impacted by this distribution? Use your standing in a community to facilitate the empowerment of its marginalized members.
  4. Emotion This work is as much about feelings as about logic. Relate to one another with intention. Listen, to each other and to the voices in our heads.
  5. Perspective Remind yourself constantly that this work is not glamorous; we are not special for doing it. Change your internal narratives through a combination of diligence and compassion.
  6. Commitment Do the work for today, for tomorrow, and for the future. Play the long game, but never let it excuse delaying what needs to be done today.

 

(Many thanks to Ned Burnell—for pushing me to write the manifesto paragraph in my DEI statement and his enthusiasm for manifestoes more generally, for editing this piece, for helping me be more explicit and thoughtful about my politics and responsibilities, for deep insights into organizing, and for making all of this fun! Thanks to Didem Sarikaya, Yong Zheng, Max Lambert, Sam Hopkins, Malcolm Rosenthal, Becca Tarvin, and Cathy Rushworth for conversations that shaped these ideas. Thanks to every single organizer in UAW5810 for showing me what solidarity can mean).

 

2 thoughts on “Doing the Work

  1. Pingback: Doing the Work, part two. | Ambika Kamath

  2. Pingback: Doing the Work, part three. | Ambika Kamath

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