I became an academic in order to be a better activist, rather than the other way around. I was influenced by the civil rights movement and the student movement. I saw how much people in an academic setting could produce when students at the City University of New York and San Francisco State University, with the support of faculty and community, won campaigns for more fair and open admissions, ethnic studies, and financial aid several decades ago. This led me to the conviction that people could win change, that academics could be helpful, and that structured institutional racism was at the center of inequality in the U.S.
In addition to talking about her own background as a scholar-activist, she gives a bit of advice for other scholars:
If you’re going to be active in the community, you have to be willing to put your academic interests aside a little bit and think first about what the community wants and needs. We often have career priorities that are not matched up with community needs.
Service in the academic trifecta of “research-teaching-service” generally refers to service to the department, university, and discipline. Service to the community beyond the ivory tower may make you seem like a good-hearted person, but is not presumed to count toward tenure and promotion.
And, activism? Who (publicly) does that in academia? Unfortunately, for many young scholars like myself, this dynamic means you often feel alone in wanting to actually do something with your scholarship for people other than scholars and your students. It means having to seek out examples of scholars who pursue difference-making work — often those are not people at the most prestigious institutions.
While there are many ways to be an activist, I feel it is time to update our list of ways to be an academic to include activism. To continue to say the two do not mix is to deny that so many people come to academia (particularly people of color) with the hopes of becoming “a better activist”