Why I’m not an “activist”: PCS and “the streets”

– By Stephanie Cork

Stephanie Cork is a Ph.D. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

I don’t see myself as an activist.

I have marched in the streets of DC, Kingston and Toronto. I help write and have signed petitions for change. I sit on committees and speak to groups of students, staff and faculty at my university about politics and how to take political action. I teach intersectionally-informed issues in the classroom, from awkward ableism to the oppressive logics of scientific racism. My dissertation project is orientated around social justice. I always share great work being done by disability advocates on my social media feeds. I run and facilitate events by students with disabilities and other minority groups for the sake of education, awareness and change. And I go to a LOT of meetings.

This does not change how I feel about it: I am not an activist.

When I hear the term activist there is an image that appears in my mind: a body, upright, marching for justice, speaking to hundreds of thousands of supporters in a public space (Reed, 2005). There are activists, who look just like this, but this is not always the heart and soul of activism; and is instead one popularlized image of what activism CAN look like. This image often provides an excuse for us in the academy to take action, because we fear the reprimand that our neoliberal institution(s) might level at us were we to become too “political.” Instead I want you to recognize that much of the labor of social justice work (and it is labor) is grueling, unrewarding, painful and slow, and no it doesn’t require you to march in the streets. And because of this misunderstanding it is often rendered invisible.

TV Reed’s 2005 book The Art of Protest cites our own resident scholar Dr. Katie King (in the Women’s Studies department here at UMD) and attempts to dislodge populist understandings of feminist activism: “Common delineators used for the general strands of the new feminist activism include ‘reformist’ and ‘revolutionary,’ bureaucratic’ and ‘collectivist,’ ‘liberal’ and ‘radical,’ and ‘equal rights’ and ‘women’s liberationist.’ As Katie King suggests, these categories are far more easily seen in retrospect than they were in the heat of early struggles to define a new feminism” (p. 81).

It is through Reed’s text (though a decade old, it remains an important framing object) that I see relevance to this conversation on activism as part of what can be called the ongoing PCS project. A focus on cultural politics is essential as is education as part of tools to dismantle structures of oppression: “Although social politics are more likely to be designated as ‘cultural’ and sometimes opposed to ‘political,’ it would be more productive to recognize the cultural dimensions of state politics as well as the political aspects of social politics” (Reed, 2005). It is complicated and absolutely impossible to untangle the personal from the political.

This lends credit to our ability to speak truth to power through our roles as critical scholars, in leading seminars and teaching critical thinking skills in classrooms. However, I will state, that I do not believe it is good enough to stay in our ivory tower. No, we do not have to march in the streets and no, we do not have to start a social movement, but we can use our power and voices to amplify the struggles of those who do not have the power and privilege to inhabit these spaces. Universities have traditionally been the centers of social change, and there is no reason as to why we, as scholars, cannot continue to facilitate this. We have skills that we can all lend to a cause, and for me community building, increasing transparency and doing our best to educate ourselves as well as becoming part of the larger dialogue. These are all essential aspects of “activism” as a larger conceptual and interlocked network of actors, both individual and communal that we should join.

So join the conversation, in body and voice.

Here at the University of Maryland there are already many dedicated bodies on this campus, have and will continue to do great work, so take a look:

Rise Above Week

Disability Awareness Month

– speakers like Angela Davis and Alicia Garza

MICA
ODI
the President’s Office

If you are elsewhere I encourage you find your spaces, or help make them. And know that even though it may feel like it, you are not alone in this struggle. There are communities, there are social justice warriors and you can be an accomplice in your own way. And I urge you, to facilitate, versus direct, action and social justice work.

Here is some further reading/watching:

– Alicia Garza’s piece on The Feminist Wire

– See also the Black Power Mixtape (Free trailer, but YouTube is charging…)

“Accomplices Not Allies”, by Indigenous Action but a helpful lens for us to negotiate our subject positions as academics and beyond

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