Who Let An Activist In Here?!

(Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, 2005)

I have made compromises along the way — bit my tongue here, chosen success over authenticity there — in order to advance my training and career in academia.  With few people who look like me as mentors and professors, I suppose it seemed foolish to completely forgo any kind of caution and compromise.  Yeah, let’s go with that excuse.

But, the joke is often on me as my disguise as an apolitical mainstream scholar is recognized by colleagues and students as just that — a disguise.  I could not totally hide my activist self even if I tried; and, admittedly, I have never made the full effort to do so.

Who Let An Activist In Here?

Look at where I am in my career.  There is no need to brag here, but my accomplishments should not be overlooked.  In an era of second, third, fourth… rounds in the job market, with the majority of instructors holding contingent positions — unfortunately, disproportionately Black and women scholars — I am in a tenure-track position, fresh out of graduate school (which I finished “early”).  Add to that my marginalized social location, and my research interests in discrimination, sexuality, and the intersections among race, gender, social class, weight, and sexual orientation.  That is along with a list of service experience on my CV that clearly reflects community service — lots of it.  And, with a very public and provocative reputation on social media.  And, to my relief, securing this job has not turned out to be an error on the university’s part; they knew what they were getting and actually wanted someone like me.

I am here — a 28-year-old fat Black queer intellectual activist sociologist, in a tenure-track faculty position at the #25 liberal arts university in the US — after a series of compromises peppered with activism, advocacy, and authenticity.  It is not the path I intended, and I carry scars and regrets from it; but, I did the best that I could through the hazing process of graduate training.  I am keenly aware of the demands to conform, shut up, disappear, stress, jump and ask, “how high?”.  But, it has taken some time to recognize how professors, mentors, friends, and family supported and encouraged me to subvert, resist, demand change, speak up, and pave my own trail.

Activist Gone Academic

In the era of social media, regularly presenting and describing one’s self is now a regular task.  Since I joined Facebook in 2003, I have often described myself as an “activist gone academic.”  Now, a decade later, I am surprised I even had a sense of what these distinct identities mean, and a fuzzy sense of the loose relationship between them.  To give myself a little more credit, one of the major reasons for deciding on sociology as my major was to become a better, more informed activist.  That later served as one of the major reasons for pursuing a PhD.

Along the way, I had faculty and student affairs staff who supported my advocacy efforts and, more importantly, supported my effort to bridge academia and activism.  As a member of the campus activities organization, I created the “Cinema Series” — a monthly film series on social justice-oriented films (e.g., Crash, Brokeback Mountain, North Country) followed by Q&A facilitated by a professor.  As I co-led a campus group to advocate for greater services and resources for LGBT students (particularly the creation of an LGBT campus resource center), I had the support of a number of faculty.  Beyond those directly involved, I had a couple of professors who allowed me to use this initiative as a part of the major paper for their class.

The critical point where I was encouraged to bring activism and academia together was my sociology honors thesis.  As the initiative to create the “Rainbow Center” (LGBT campus resource center) stalled, I turned my attention to completing an honors thesis to increase my appeal to graduate programs.  Initially, I proposed studying LGBT activism on campus.  My advisor, Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to focus instead on a topic that would 1) provide further evidence for the need of an LGBT campus resource center and 2) advance my academic career.  So, I decided on the most obvious: attitudes toward lesbian and gay people among students.  With the mentorship of my other advisor, Dr. Ilsa Lottes, I published my thesis in the university’s journal for undergraduate research, presented it at the undergraduate research fair, and then she and I published another paper in the International Journal of Sexual Health.  These mentors demonstrated that academia could, indeed, serve as a vehicle to create social change.

And, Then Grad School…

A former professor of mine from my graduate program wrote a blog response to me about activist efforts in academia: “Why activism and academia don’t mix.”  I would say this sentiment generally reflects the department’s views on activism.  Oddly enough, there is (limited) support for public sociology.  However, the message that was sent to me was to limit how much service you do, keep it a secret, and producing knowledge (not producing change) was our top priority as researchers.  So, I followed suit — I kept my (community) service private and learned how to “mainstream” my research.  After all, graduate training is part training and part professional socialization.  We are resocialized to become scholars, not just to do scholarship.

I am not certain whether my grad school advisors would want me saying this publicly.  But, what the hell.  They deserve credit.  For all of my selling out, frustration, struggles, etc., I had support, even in graduate school, in developing an activist-academic career.  It all started with admitting me into the program!

An excerpt from the personal statement I sent along with my grad school applications:

My goal for pursuing Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Sociology is not only motivated by my desire to further my research experience and my ability to contribute to existing research, but is also motivated by my desire to become a knowledgeable, effective educator and mentor for future students and scholars. Having realized my passion for working with students outside of the classroom, eventually I hope to serve as a director of an on-campus resource center, such as the Women’s or LGBT Centers. More broadly, I hope to become an experienced scholar within the study of sexuality and related issues, and of Sociology, to increase the number of such scholars, thereby providing future students with a larger pool of potential advisors, hopefully preventing the feeling of “few and far between” that exists now.

Maybe the program saw me as “moldable.”  It is not as though I said I wanted to run a not-for-profit or become the next Dr. Martin Luther King.  And, to be fair, I do not know what my undergraduate advisors said in their recommendation letters.  And, the admissions committee waded through hundreds of applications, possibly not fully grasping what my personal statement is really saying.  But, they had some indication from the start of who I am and what my passions are.

It seems the support I received to develop a career as an activist-academic did not exist during the early years of graduate school — the nadir of my training.  But, that time was mostly spent in classes and serving as a teaching assistant.  I was merely a student — angry and a potential drop-out — in those days.

The support emerged in the latter half as I began doing my own research.  It was subtle, only visible to me after some time.  For one of my advisors, “my #2” in my mind, it crystalized for me as we were talking through what would become my first solo-authored publication.  “Wait… so this paper is pretty much about intersectionality!?”  Without skipping a beat, and without a hint of surprise, my advisor said, “yeah!  because that’s what you’re interested in.”  My surprise that I was being encouraged to so directly tie my passion to the research I was doing reflects a number of years of feeling the two could never co-exist.  Sure, intersectionality is a theoretical framework, not an activist initiative, per se.  But, in this conversation, it became apparent that this advisor’s approach to mentoring me intentionally drew in what I was passionate about (both as a scholar and activist).  And, the surprise to my surprise said so much — what other way is there to mentor a student?!

It took all six years, literally until the day I graduated, to see it with my main advisor.  It was never explicitly acknowledged, and it never took the form I would expect.  But, that is exactly why I did not see it.  Yes, for all of my critiques of the pressure I felt to “mainstream” my research, I can actually see the positive intentions behind it.  There was a great deal of “tough love” that aimed to push my efforts to make change via research on the biggest scale possible.  There was sort of an unspoken “go big or go home” — that being cutting-edge and critical are meaningless if it stays on the margins.

In a way, this reflected what I would call “slow-boil activism.”  I have certainly encountered a number of academics who push gently, evenly, and slowly so that they may advance to a more powerful position.  My own critique of this is how much one must bite their tongue and compromise to stay on this path, and that waiting to make a big difference in 5, 10, or 20 years is a gamble on time not promised to you.  But, I would be a hypocrite to disparage this approach because, in many ways, I am enacting this strategy on my own career.  My point, here, is that my chair, in his own way, was also supporting me in my development of an activist-academic career.

Concluding Thoughts

And, now, I am a professor at an institution that wanted someone who would bring about change.  I am not expected to hide my blogging and community service, as these are actually embraced; these were the strengths that were appealing when I interviewed.  Of course, I am certain the other appeal is that I have a strong research record.  (As I said, my career is one as an activist-academic.)  Now, I am in yet another chapter of my academic career in which the activist is supported.

I have already made the point that academia and activism do mix.  What I wish to emphasize here is that, though not always made explicit, I have benefited from the support of mentors and advisors who think so, too.  These were people who knew from the start who I am and what I am passionate about.  There may have been some potential advisors and mentors who avoided me because they took the position that activism and academia don’t mix; but, I had plenty who encouraged me to make the two mix in my career.  Contrary to the anti-activism norms that exist in many places in academia, there appear to be a few who, to some degree, are willing to support the bridging between the two.