Last month, Marvin Krislov, President of Oberlin College, responded to African-American student demands by refusing to look at them. His reasoning was that a list of demands, "explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement." Just last week, the president of Brown University, President Paxson, published an article about a new diversity action plan in which she publicly supports "constructive irreverence." Is there a right way to agitate for sweeping change?
We are a mother and daughter in academia (professor and student, respectively) both white, both activists for diversity in STEM. During the winter break, we talked about the campus diversity movement and the notion of "collaborative engagement." (We think Krislov's response probably won't lead to it.) We also talked about our own experiences and challenges in allyship across movements, and how we need to move forward.
Beth: I'm really interested in the student diversity movement right now. It seems like there are appropriate demands for improving respect for everyone and also for greater diversity among faculty. My own experience shows the value of working collaboratively and over time with multiple campus groups to achieve goals. It sounds as though the President of Oberlin didn't feel like the movement there resulted in a conversation but rather in directives. What's the student perspective?
Tess: There is so much anger and justified anger on campuses these days, predominantly from people of color. I've been involved with some of these discussions and activities - not many - in making campuses more supportive and accepting of people from different backgrounds. Right now, it is hard for me as a white woman to be a part of the race conversation even though I think that there are useful parallels between the race and gender movements. For example, the low numbers of people of color and women in senior faculty and leadership positions is important to both groups, and we can work on this together - as well as a host of other issues that both groups face including imposter syndrome.
Beth: Interesting; so why is your activism generally more focused on gender issues?
Tess: For me personally, gender is easier to work on and I feel that people are more receptive to me as that activist because I am a woman in STEM and people can envision me in that role. The current activist movements around race on campus seem framed around justified anger. As women, especially women in STEM, we're angry too about how we are treated, but organizing efforts and events generally remain separate.
Beth: I've had that experience too as a faculty activist where I am not directly involved with the movement about race. Sometimes I have felt that women of color want me to be an ally, but not part of the movement. For example, women of color set up a separate association, Minority Women Faculty, on my campus and come to meetings of all women faculty but only women of color may participate in their meetings. I understood that members of the group wanted a space to talk about issues that are specific to their concerns. Is this related to your experience? Do students seem like they are working together across race or gender? Are students working with faculty or administrators?
Tess: Well, sometimes. Allyship takes time to develop, and we, as students, don't have a huge amount of time within university communities! We do have the desire to engage with our learning and the intense friendships and connections we do form in our journey through college provide an opportunity for allyship. Students can be powerful allies. Maybe students are the not so secret ingredient that has been left out of many conversations. Student anger and emotion can be leveraged to make sustainable change.
Beth: What do you mean by allyship? Is that different from being an ally?
Tess: Yes, there's a big difference. Like Jay Dodd eloquently said, "Allyship, in its best form, is constant work." It's the difference between identifying as an ally - someone who supports change versus someone who is part of a long-term process where trust and accountability are developed.
Beth: Oh I get it. It is the difference between lending support every once in a while versus being an integral part of the process. I never thought of myself as a part of a process until someone said to me - Oh Beth, you really are an activist for diversity. Hearing a Latina faculty member say that surprised me and made me think of my activities and myself differently. But I also realize that I do identify as an ally; though, allyship is the real goal. It can be challenging sometimes to develop allyship. I remember a conversation at a committee meeting - the group was appointed by the president of the university to come up with activities to improve campus climate for women and minorities. A veteran activist in the LGBTQ community was getting really agitated and saying we must do this and we must do that! I said to her, I am an associate dean and am living and working in this structure. Some of the things that you are saying are not really practical or doable. And she looked me in the eye and said something to me that resonated and helped me understand why that kind of emotion and those kinds of "crazy" ideas can be useful at the end of the day. She said, you know Beth, there is a role for inside agitators and for outside agitators - we just play our roles differently. For me, that was a really useful moment to understand that being part of an administration, I could not be inflammatory, but I could still make changes by being a part of that complex system. But I had to do it differently. It also means that sometimes allyship can be challenging, but worthwhile, to develop across those lines. Do you see allyship developing among students?
Tess: Yes, but there is a lot of rhetoric that sometimes obscures the true goals, making allyship challenging. There have been a lot of important discussions about police on campuses that are based on very real racial issues, like when a visiting Latino student at Brown attempted to protect a female student from what he perceived was inappropriate police behavior and was then told that he was trespassing. When the visiting student went to look for his student host, he was grabbed by security, thrown to the floor, and detained until Brown students came to identify him. This situation should not have happened, and I want to be a part of the process to change that. Yet, calls to disarm or eliminate campus police in response to situations like this are hard for me as a woman to immediately get behind because of the incidence of sexual and gender-based violence on campus. It is difficult to develop trust in a movement that may make me, as a woman, more vulnerable. These are really important conversations, but if everyone doesn't feel included, decisions are likely to emerge that are not productive and create new problems.
Beth: You are describing a polarizing situation.
Tess: And we miss an opportunity for allyship. Even when an issue is not directly connected to another group, there should be space for that other group to come and offer support and be part of the process.
Beth: I think that you are absolutely right about allyship. In order to live together in this diverse world, we have to be cooperative and collaborative in this movement - although we do have different roles to play. I think that it is important to remember that men have helped the women's movement and women of all backgrounds contribute. To be sure, major social change like the civil rights movement in the 1960s could not have succeeded if everyone's voice had equal weight. I understand that argument, and it is a powerful one. This reminds me of when I first went to the National Science Foundation and I was given the torch to promote both gender and racial diversity on campuses - as a white woman. I was told by people who knew more than I did that being white I could say things that women of color could not. In that sense, we could play off of one another. I always go back to the issue of white women understanding their privilege and what that means. I did not fully understand the power of white privilege until I was forced to face the fact that even though I consider myself a minority in many ways, as a woman and as a Jew, that other people view me as a member of a powerful white majority. I learned that my role was not based just on how I view myself, but also on how other people view me. And that we can use our privilege to end divides.
Tess: I think that is a really important point. Going back to white women potentially having more space to say things, I am very involved in mentoring women and activism for women in STEM at Brown. Recently, we have been organizing events to get faculty and students to talk together about the future of women in STEM and STEM more generally. Some people involved in racial activism on campus approached another student leader and me about using this same paradigm to talk about race and gender issues in STEM. I found myself the only white woman in STEM in the room. Two black women, a supportive white male administrator, and I sat in a cramped office. One concern that we had in applying our approach of bringing students and faculty together to race and gender issues was that there might simply not be enough women of color in STEM at Brown to fill the room. Our conversation turned to the possibility of also inviting and training white allies to attend these events. My colleagues of color told me that as a white woman, I have the power to call out old white men on racist and sexist behavior. By calling out people who may look like me, they will start to realize that even though I, and others, look like them; we don't condone their behavior. I can say to them that even though I am not a black woman in STEM, your behavior towards women of color is wrong, makes me feel uncomfortable, and affects me as a as a person in STEM - not to mention the impact on women of color! So making those connections is really important.
Beth: I think that it is important for us to highlight the validity, value, and importance of both separate and combined activism and activities, like the collaboration and allyship that you talked about.
Tess: I want to make sure that you understand, Mom, that I mean allyship across lots of groups - not just faculty and students but also among different racial and ethnic groups as well as different sexual orientations. And let's not forget the importance of the foreign-born population too.
Beth: Absolutely. The polarization (maybe lack of allyship) that we talked about before is encouraging a new kind of suppression of free speech on campus and reduction of civil rights for some.
Tess: There has been talk about having disclaimers on syllabi or safe rooms for when there are debates that are particularly polarizing. I respect that some people need that (for example, in conversations about rape), but I personally would like to put myself in a position where I am uncomfortable and I am engaging with uncomfortable issues in order to work on solutions. If we do not learn how to sit through and contribute to uncomfortable conversations, then how are we going to resolve our differences? And how can we develop allyship if we are not talking together across groups? I guess the real issue is that students - and maybe faculty too - need to learn how to have difficult and productive conversations while people are angry and emotional.
Beth: The same goes for faculty and university administrators - we also need to learn that we may actually be on the same side.
Tess: Yup - it's hard to make change alone.