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collaboration vs. conflict

jo's picture

Is that a necessary dichotomy? Reading Steve Chase's Changing the Nature of Environmental Studies made me think a lot about my relationship with and confusion around social change and activism. I have this constant fight within myself about whether I'm being too radical or not radical enough - and then I worry that I'm being too wishy-washy, not fully committing to working with one faction or another and therefore feeling totally useless. I read Steve Chase's account of the Environmental Justice Workgroup's successful "collaborative and educational approach" to their fight to raise awareness and discourse about environmental justice at their school, and I experienced conflicting responses. On one hand, I was impressed and felt regretful that I haven't done more work like that at Bryn Mawr. And then immediately after that, I'm like, "no, my work isn't about helping a bunch of privileged white people see the truth about racism and oppression! I wanna smash the patriarchy! I want to destroy capitalism! I'm radical!" I don't deny that the change that Chase and his group accomplished was important and helpful, it just doesn't feel as necessary or exciting to me. And it's not just because of the hippie anarchist that lives in me and craves adrenalyn rush-style direct action and in-your-face lockdown blockades. I approach this from a "rational", academic standpoint as well.

I've been thinking a lot about the Dean Spade lecture, during which explained Critical Trans Politics as "putting the most vulnerable people at the center" of the activism we do around trans* rights. This means doing solidarity work to make the lives of trans* people of color living in poverty less bad, or, in the words of Dean Spade, to stop so many of them from being killed. Spade claims that, while fighting for rights for middle-class, white trans* and queer people (gay marriage, don't ask don't tell and inclusion of trans* folks in the military) will not trickle down to trans* and queer people of color, liberation of those who are most oppressed will trickle up and effect those who benefit from legalization of gay marriage, etc. This really spoke to me at first, but then I began to wonder what this claim says about local organizing, about doing activism within and for one's own community. Is it less productive (or does it create less vital change) to fight for trans* inclusion here at Bryn Mawr, where everyone is privileged merely because they are here? And by the same token, is it less worthy of a fight to broaden environmental education to include environmental justice at Antioch?

And, really, are these questions even helpful, or am I just another person whose critique of different kinds of activism continues to pull movements apart?


Jenna Myers's picture

How to Educate

I definitely relate to what jo, Kelsey and aphorisnt are saying. As I was reading The Environmental Justice Reader I kept thinking about educators and what ways we can encourage learning especially for a diverse group of students. On page 352 Chase says, "We wanted all Environmental Studies students to explore how the power dynamics of race, class, and gender shaped how environmental issues are experienced, framed, and addressed by various communities and organizations." I feel that throughout the class we have been talking a lot about how race and class are affected by environmental issues, but we haven't talked much about gender. How exactly are men and women affected by environmental issues? What is different and what is the same? The other section of the article that I focused on was when Chase said that an organized classroom allows students to have "freedom to chase their own ideas...students are more likely to take risks and approach assignments" (357). If there was more or less organization in the classroom how would it affect student's freedom to explore their ideas? How much structure should there be?

Kelsey's picture

Education as Expectation

I really relate to what both of you are saying, jo and aphorisnt- I also find myself thinking a lot about the importance and limits of education, and how it relates to creating social change.  I was especially struck by aphorisnt's question, "Who is responsible for educating people?"  While reading the part of Chase's article (p. 355) where he talks about "squandering a teachable moment" by being "too quick to "correct" an "incorrect" idea espoused by a student", I found myself frustrated, because isn't that part of the point of teaching?  Shouldn't someone who claims that a lack of staff diversity has nothing to do with racism be informed about the realities of racial inequality?  Why is it someone's job to pander to someone else whose misconceptions can be so harmful?  But, of course, Chase is right in saying that, as an educator, you have to find different ways to correct misunderstandings so that students don't shut down, because shutting down means they won't learn anything.  I think that what this comes down to is that, as an educator, you sign up to work with people, to be patient with their misconceptions and help provide them with the tools they need to increase their understanding.  The problem I see is when members of minority groups, people who haven't signed up to be teachers, are expected to be anyway, and are labeled as "angry" when they don't behave in ways that members of dominant groups see as appropriate.  Members of dominant groups should be responsible for educating themselves about power and privilege, but people who voluntarily take on the role of educators can help with that process, especially since far too many people do not educate themselves.  

aphorisnt's picture

I'm kind of in the same place

I'm kind of in the same place as you, jo, as far as social change and social justice and activism and just doing things in general. One thing I know I sturggle with, that you touched on a bit, is just who is responsible for educating people? I know I want everyone to see the importance of environmental justice, that environment encompasses more than just trees and mountains, that environmental issues intersect and are quite often a product of social issues surrounding race, class, and gender. And at the same time, I do not want to be the one to sit there and educate people. Explaining things like this is great the first time, maybe the second time, but upon reaching the eighth iteration of what "environment" means I often find myself too drained to even really care about telling someone.

I suppose this is why we need environmental educators, the ones who can and will take the time and make the effort to explain all these broad ideas and hold a meaningful discussion that leaves people feeling more informed than when they came in. The work of Chase and Co. is definitely important and helpful and is probably something more folks really should undertake, and I feel like if holding teaching sessions like this, even in a classroom setting, aren't energizing to someone, it's not worth it for that person to even teach. They won't enjoy it, the folks learning won't enjoy it, no one will take away anything meaningful, and ideas of "environmental justice" might wind up even more inscrutable than at the onset.