Doing the Work, part two.

(here’s part one from February; this essay stands alone too).

In this moment, in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd by police and nationwide protests in support of Black lives, many of us in academia are waking up to the need for anti-racism. Others of us, who’ve been doing this work of moving away from injustice and towards equity in academia for a little while longer, are somewhat buoyed by the energy. We’re working hard to direct the current momentum into channels that will sustain for more than a few days, weeks, months and that will yield systemic change. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to transform this moment’s energy into the enduring work of lifetimes.

(Part of why my biologist brain loves this question is that the answer hinges on the spanning of scales—short-to-long and past-to-present-to-future time scales, small-to-large spatial scales, individual-to-collective-to-systemic scales of organization. And this, precisely, is why becoming an activist and becoming trauma-informed has alchemized how I think as a scientist. Stay tuned for some weird academic work that arise from this transformation, as well as longer creative non-fiction writing about it.).

My more immediate reason for writing this essay, though, is to explore the annoyance I feel about my fellow academics seemingly directing so much of the energy of this moment towards reading books about anti-racism (I wrote that sentence a couple of weeks ago, now even the book reading seems to have died down, at least according to the twitter and instagram posts). Before you get upset at me, I promise you I have nothing against books. As Victor Ray and Alan Aja put it in a recent perspective, “Nothing warms our nerdy professorial hearts like seeing people buy books, and we understand the need for knowledge to attack entrenched social problems (please keep borrowing, exchanging and buying books, everyone)…But,” they continue, “we also are aware of the limits of the education-as-cure-for-racism trope when it is uncoupled from commitments to redistribute resources.” Reading a book, or many books, is not the same as action, though we academics can readily delude ourselves into thinking that understanding a (complex) problem is no different than solving it. I’m going to repeat that so we can all take it in—understanding systemic injustice is not equivalent to dismantling it.

So in this moment, we have lists of books to read. We also have lists upon lists of actions to take. And what I’m interested in is the psychological and practical gap between them—how do we become the kind of people who are committed, who are intrinsically motivated to recognize where we can and must act against our individual self-interest (i.e. leveraging and dismantling our privilege) for the sake of the equity and justice we claim to believe in? How do we become the kind of people who see lists of actions as inspiration but not a how-to manual? How, in other words, do we do the work, especially once the moment has passed, once the books read and the lists of actions either checked off or forgotten or no longer relevant?

I want to speak to these questions, as a human and an academic. I think my voice might be useful here is because doing the work is, in large part, about reconfiguring one’s mind, and because I’ve seen in myself the wild transformations that can happen to a person when they commit to reconfiguring their mind. I love how Gil Scott-Heron puts it in this clip, where he says “The revolution will not be televised…that was about the fact that the first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you’re living and the way you move. So when we were saying that the revolution will not be televised, we were saying that the thing that’s going to change is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film.”

So how can one reconfigure one’s mind? The desire to reconfigure your mind stems from discovering where you do not want to be. You’ve recognized that something about how you think and feel and show up in the world is not okay, and needs to change. You’ve hit some kind of bottom, be it big or small, and you’re finally saying, “Enough.” But the process of reconfiguring a mind is not just a turning away from—your mind also needs something glowing to grow towards. As I put it recently, “seedlings live in tension too, between the soil and the sunlight that nourish them, equally and inextricably.” In this metaphor, you are a seedling, your mind rooted in the present soil and growing towards a distant sun. You never reach the sun, and yet it shapes exactly where you go. You could ignore the sun and keep growing towards soil, wondering why you aren’t seeing more light. How you grow is going to depend on the other seedlings around you, plus the rocks and caterpillars and gardeners with an agenda of their own. Sometimes, you won’t really see the sun for days on end. And yet, you must keep growing.

To extend the metaphor, imagine, specifically, that your mind is the seedling of a vine that wants to grow towards justice. What you need is a frame to grow on. In my life, this frame has been, again, a list. Not a list of books or actions, but rather, a list of core principles and principle-driven practices. Simple statements of what I believe and who I want to be, but don’t yet fully know how to act according to. Not so vague as to be unhelpful, not so specific as to be inapplicable beyond a particular situation or moment in history.

The list around which I have built my practices of equity and justice was created by Lizzy Cooper Davis and Eleanor Craig, educators whose anti-racist values and practices have, in turn, been shaped by their work with and learning from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (Lizzy and Eleanor), the Urban Bush Women (Lizzy), the Network/La Red and the Asian American Resource Workshop (Eleanor). When Lizzy and Eleanor shared this list with us participants in a workshop on Identity, Privilege, and Power in the Classroom, I knew I had to hold on to it. Most entries on it didn’t make much sense to my logical mind, but they resonated with something deeper inside, and so I kept the list and pinned it above my desk. I looked and looked and looked at the list, and slowly, these words began to emerge unbidden into my mind when I was far from my desk. Listen for understanding rather than potholes, I’d suddenly think during lab meeting or a seminar. Or I’d come back to my desk, glance at the list, and recent experiences would wholly reconfigure themselves in light of an entry on it. I read Know you, too, will be triggered with a sigh of relief, after I did a poor job of moderating a conversation on inequity in academia. In recalling these principles and practices at relevant moments, I had begun the slow, patient, unglamorous work of reconfiguring my mind towards embodying justice.

And so here’s the thing. What popped into my head and changed my actions at a crucial moment was not a treatise, not an understanding of a nuanced argument laid forth over 200 pages, but a seemingly simple little statement of my core values that I had inadvertently committed to memory. In this way, Lizzy and Eleanor’s list has been the framework that has helped me orient my life towards equity and justice. Here is the list in full:

Identity, Power & Privilege in the Classroom: Core Principles and Practices Offered

  • Tend not just to the way you engage when difficult moments arise but to the way you set up the classroom environment and follow-up on the class’ work.
  • Remember there is no quick fix.
  • Be curious about what people bring into the room and invite your students’ whole selves to be present; No topic or classroom is neutral.
  • Experiential knowledge is as valuable as book knowledge.
  • Multiple truths can and do exist.
  • Co-create group agreements.
  • Remember that safe space is not necessarily comfortable space.
  • Consider naming your interest in these issues as part of setting up your classroom environment.
  • Assume best intent and separate intent from impact.
  • Value dialogue over debate.
  • Listen for understanding rather than potholes.
  • Don’t take on more that you can hold and don’t ask the group to take on more than it can hold; Draw on your resources.
  • Practice being accountable to people over institutions.
  • Commit to recognizing and undoing the manifestations of your own oppression; Know you, too, will be triggered.
  • Commit to continual reflection on your power and privilege as a teacher. Understand it as a process and know that you will make mistakes.
  • Be generous and forgiving with your students and with yourself.

Each time I read this list, a different part of it resonates with me. I am far from feeling fully at home in any of these principles or practices, but they now furnish and color the environs of my mind. The one I think about most often in the context of science and scholarship is Multiple truths can and do exist. The one I think about most as an organizer is Practice being accountable to people over institutions. The ones I think about most often in the context of deepening relationships are Safe space is not necessarily comfortable space coupled with Be generous and forgiving with others and yourself. The ones that reminds me how far I still have to go, how much more I have to learn and practice, are Commit to recognizing and undoing the manifestations of your own oppression, Commit to continual reflection on your power and privilege, and, of course, Remember that there is no quick fix. In this way, everything I do attempts to embrace identity, analyze power, and acknowledge privilege. Most of the time, a principle will pop into my head when I just did the opposite of what it suggests, at which point its useful to remember to Understand it as a process and know that you will make mistakes.

So in this light, I hope it’s clear why I think reading all the books, or even education more broadly, does not constitute sufficient action. This resonates with something Imani Perry said the other day, “Trainings and consultations will not dismantle racism and racial inequality. In fact, we have to consider how they might prop up racism, giving participants a false sense of virtue and a tidy way to disengage from the harder work of creating new & just social arrangements.” The lists of actions could be useful nonetheless, because there’s a bunch of stuff you can do (like calling your representatives to push for policy change) where it can be helpful to do the thing you’re told to do by thoughtful, justice-minded-people, regardless of your motivation. But lists of actions can be co-opted—there will be people who work to check these boxes to assuage their own guilt or to accrue social capital, but who don’t actually commit to inner change and continued principle-driven action. These people become a better-disguised part of the problem (many thanks to Divya M. Persaud for a twitter thread that helped clarify this thought for me!).

A list of principle-driven practices is harder, perhaps impossible, to co-opt, though that makes them prone to being ignored altogether. And also, we can’t wait for everyone to have the same principles guiding their lives before we take action, because that will never happen. And there is always some room for pragmatically tempering one’s expectations. As Roxane Gay puts it, “Something about this moment feels different, but I am not sure anyone knows how to move forward in ways that will effectively eradicate racism once and for all. I am not sure that the people who most need to do that difficult work have any incentive to change.” But let’s return the focus to you—if you believe you want to do this hard work but aren’t sure how, consider making this list of principles and practices the core of your anti-racism toolkit.

P.S. So much gratitude for all of you who have helped me grow and grown with me this past decade. This essay is a capsule of my love for you–you all know who you are. Thanks, of course, to Lizzy and Eleanor for their work as educators and for permission to share and build on their list. Please cite them and the organizations they acknowledge when you use this list. Please reference this blogpost for any ideas from it (beyond the list/other references) that you may incorporate into your work.

P.P.S. I’m still offering academics the opportunity for one-on-one (or several-on-one!) conversations to brainstorm strategies for effecting change towards equity and justice in your workplace; if you’re interested, send me an email! I’ve done/plan to do about fifteen so far, I’ve found them delightful 🙂   These conversations are no longer on offer except follow-ups for those of you who have chatted with me previously.

Another important P.S. If you found this or any of my social justice work helpful, please consider donating to the following organizations–the ones mentioned above by Lizzy and Eleanor, as well as two Berkeley institutions that are near and dear to me, that help to keep me healthy, happy, and able and willing to do this work. 

Pacific Center for Human Growth

Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

Urban Bush Women

The Network/La Red

Asian American Resource Workshop

Craig and Cooper Davis

1 thought on “Doing the Work, part two.

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

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