Bringing the Theorist to Activism

By Laura Harwood

“Our work is to do our intellectual labor alongside the intellectual labor of political movements” – Laura Briggs

In my project for this course, I tried to create coalitions between groups who performed both similar and different functions on campus; Active Minds, a mental health awareness organization, and the Associated Students Commission on Disability Equality (AS CODE), an advocacy group on campus for students with temporary and permanent disabilities.  In looking at the groups objectives, I believed that there was a possibility for a coalition amongst the two that would spread awareness about the multitudes in which disability can exist, invisibly and visibly, and how attitudes towards disability and mental health advocacy and awareness groups have could benefit by being in dialogue with each other.  I say this because they are often seen as unrelated, but that’s not particularly true. However, my project for this course has turned out to be on myself.  While I also had plans to create a support group for people with depression and bipolar disorder, I underestimated how much time it would take to just get started. It’s one thing to engage with a topic of interest (mine is disability, mental illness, mental health awareness) from a distance, and on my own clock (I am referring to my research/intellectual work), but participating in these groups made me realize how much goes into activism that needs to be done by a group (including research!), or by more than one person.

At the beginning of Spring Quarter, the start of my involvement with student organizations who are advocates for disability and mental health awareness, I didn’t have much involvement with student organizations.  Most of my work was performed on paper, and was gratifying but also troublesome. Even though being able to understand a theoretically complex, queer concept is awesome, it didn’t feel real, as if there were no tangible outcomes that come from it besides my own personal gratification.  I have found it difficult to approach someone and show them something I thought or wrote and have it be accessible—the people who primarily expressed interest in my work were other academics.  But I was skeptical of participation in student organizations or advocacy groups, because so much of the political involvement I had witnessed growing up was more about following a trend without critical engagement with the issue at hand.  Then, over the course of this quarter, I was doing activism without following a fad.

In much the same way as Enke’s informants did not, “make politicization an explicit goal,” (8) my work, both research and activism, did not either.  But before taking this course, I didn’t know that it was possible to engage without being aggressively political, and set in it’s own mindset, without considering other possibilities.  To illustrate this, I will use an example from my childhood growing up.  The “following a trend” comment I made earlier refers to growing up in an urban, liberal area while having family who were very much conservative.  There were several protests against the war in Iraq, and discussions about elections, whereby I was placed in an uncomfortable position with some of my more liberal identified friends who were completely against the war but beyond that, they also antagonized conservatives without looking at people who have that conservativeperspective as being part of their situation.  From that point on, I had feared and avoided involvement because my experiences had relayed that while people cared about the war, they did not discuss the complexities of it—it was just sold as bad.  With that being said, I learned that it is not necessary to be political to be an activist, and that I work best with people who have not only a common goal, but share a similar understanding of the importance of their work.

Despite my initial hesitancy towards Active Minds, I found that it was easy to make a nest for myself there.  After 9 weeks of meetings, events, and interactions, I can now joke around with group members.  I had to prove myself by showing up to meetings, and assisting in planning events, and attending events I would have scoffed at a year or two ago, because these things are important to establishing presence.  For some reason, I thought that I could have just walked in and told them my idea of creating a coalition with CODE and they would’ve been able to plan an event for the quarter.  I didn’t realize that most of the work in thinking of programs and events happens either earlier in the quarter or towards the end of the previous one.  I forgot that organizations have people too, people who need to understand that you are committed and dedicated because you actually care through showing up.  This idea of presence was for the benefit of not only organization, but for changing and rethinking my own understandings of activism.

By taking myself out of the tower and stepping away from the proverbial table, I was able to see the ways in which activism creates what Jack Halberstam describles as “small tears in the fabric” in order to promote change, rather than relying on institutions or the state.  For example, at our event De-Stress Fest, people seemed to be fairly happy when I blew bubbles as they rode down the bike path, or semi-shoved candy at them as they were walking to and from class.  While this didn’t have a huge, dramatic, altering effect on the University, there was at least one person who had a good day because of what we were able to offer.   Though I was tired and sweaty after 6 hours of setting up, interacting with strangers, and cleaning up, I felt a form of satisfaction I hadn’t in a long time.  I remember one person coming up to me when I was in front of the inflatable obstacle course (I was in charge of getting people to sign the liability form), someone told us (Active Minds) that, “we should do this all the time!”  To see someone so elated from such a simple thing was gratifying in ways I hadn’t felt before.  By giving my time to this organization, I was able to create “small tears in the fabric” by making someone’s day a little less stressful and a little more pleasant.  It also reminded me of how activism works—in small waves—and that to create change you can’t expect it to happen in a day…which for some reason I used to think is possible.

I did not think that I could not only be part of a student group and get over my embedded snarky/cynical attitude towards it (it is almost gone), but have a voice of value in each organization.  I was able to contribute to groups through what I had learned doing my own research, something I thought would have been only of value in a strictly academic context.  I had placed activism and myself in opposing binaries that didn’t actually exist.  I’d been doing activist work all along without even realizing it.  While this understanding of my experience with activism is not comprehensive, I’ve come to understand how vital the activist side is to informing ethical practices in academia, as Laura Briggs would say.

Briggs, Laura. “Activisms and Epistemologies,” Social Text 2008 Volume 26, Number 4 97: 79-95

Enke, Anne. “Introduction,” Finding the Movement.  North Carolina, Duke University Press; pp 1-18, 2007. Print.


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