Part 2 in our Series on 'What 2015 Taught Me'. To read Part 1, click here.
By: Suzanne Narain, University of Toronto
The level of personal investment is high in both the academic and the activist world; it is even higher when those two worlds overlap. I am a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, as well as a community activist and educator in the Jane and Finch community. After reading my Masters thesis, on neoliberalism and gentrification in Jane and Finch, a former professor encouraged me to apply for my Ph.D. Prior to that encounter, I never imagined that the academy was a place for me, as the higher I moved up the academic ladder, the more discrimination I experienced, in insidious ways. Activism and my community grounded me; it gave me a reason to subvert systems of white, patriarchal domination. However, these systems find ways of breaking you; your spirit, your drive and everything you work for. 2015 has taught me that burnout for activist/ academics is a real phenomenon, and what is really at stake is our mental health and well-being.
I was a part of organizing a program that brought the community and university together, to collaboratively examine the injustices in the Jane and Finch area and make recommendations to our city officials on areas that could be improved. The program was amazing: there was so much energy amongst the participants and presenters, there was honest and informative dialogue— it was participatory action par excellence. Unfortunately, there were many internal issues that arose at the organizing table. At the table sat many activists in the community, who happened to all be racialized women, and a white professor, who we thought was an ally. Some members at the table felt exploited for their labour, were implicitly accused of stealing and were treated in passive aggressive ways by the professor who created tensions amongst the activists involved.
In a follow-up meeting with the organizers and professor, the racialized women spoke openly about the trauma they experienced working with an institution that continuously marginalizes and criminalizes them. The professor dismissed the experience of the community activists and ignored their critique of whiteness. The professor felt that we all sat at the table as equals, maintaining her position of privilege both as an innocent white woman and as an academic, as well as ignoring the clear race and class demarcations. Instead of resolving the issues and taking accountability for the trauma created, the professor carried on with the project without the community members who were involved in creating it.
This incident has taught me that subverting systems of white, patriarchal domination need not only happen on a macro level. It is necessary to also resist the micro-aggressions that take place everyday in academic and activist spaces. It is necessary to build solidarity movements that do not mimic the systems that we are working against. Often academics and activists have the end goal or bigger picture in mind as they move forward with their research and actions, which makes it easy to become complicit towards the ways in which they also participate in oppressive practices. It is increasingly necessary to speak out against injustice in these spaces without fear of reprisal, but with a hope for resolution and solidarity.
2015 has taught me that in order to be equipped with the tools and energy to resist, either in activist or academic settings, self-care and awareness must be practiced.
Suzanne is a local resident, activist and educator in the Jane and Finch community. She is also a Ph.D. student in the department of Social Justice Education at OISE - University of Toronto. Her research is focused on race, citizenship and diaspora.