Four faculty members from the Democratizing Knowledge (DK) Project at Syracuse University were invited by the University of California, Davis Mellon Social Justice Initiative to Davis, California to speak on a morning public forum called “Transnational Challenges to Global Empire: Cultivating Ethical Feminist Praxis.” The panel sought to explore the ethical dilemmas that arose in working transnationally with feminist movements throughout Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. After the panel, the two collectives met to process and understand the morning panel and to strategize future collaborations.
On May 15, 2014, four faculty members from the Democratizing Knowledge Project (DK) at Syracuse University flew to Davis, California: Associate Professor of African American Studies, Linda Carty; Distinguished Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Chandra Talpade Mohanty; Professor of Law, Paula Johnson; and Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Dana Olwan. They joined two faculty members from the UC Davis Mellon Social Justice Initiative (SJI), Assistant Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Suzy Zepeda and Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Amina Mama, in a collaborative conversation. Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey, a faculty member at the School of Human and Organizational Development in Santa Barbara, moderated and spoke on the morning panel and served as moderator for the afternoon roundtable.
The day-long meetings brought together feminist scholar-activists from two different universities that are moving in similar directions in the age of neoliberalism. UC Davis, a public university, most recently became infamous in 2011 for the University police officer that pepper-sprayed seated non-violent protestors during an Occupy movement demonstration on the campus quad protesting tuition hikes and the privatization and dismantling of public education. Feminist faculty created the UC Davis Mellon Social Justice Initiative in response to the increased militarization of campus policing and the distancing of the university from its democratic ideals.
Syracuse University, a private university, is currently undergoing a transition with the departure of Chancellor Nancy Cantor after a 10-year tenure. During her time at Syracuse University she enacted a mission, “Scholarship in Action,” that envisioned universities as public goods, beholden to their neighboring communities. She instituted community centers, free public transportation into the city, scholarship programs from inner-city and indigenous youth, and provided the seed money to create the Democratizing Knowledge project. However, the new Chancellor has a different focus, moving from community relations and democratizing knowledges to enhancing both the SU undergraduate education and undergraduate experience and “empowering research excellence” (Chancellor Kent Syverud, Inauguration Address, April 11, 2014). Both environments of privatization and neoliberal restructuring threaten and yet underscore the need for initiatives like the DK Project to create an equitable campus community at SU.
Transnational Ethical Feminist Praxis Panel
The morning panel, entitled “Transnational Challenges to Global Empire: Cultivating Ethical Feminist Praxis,” focused on how academics and scholars engage in ethical work across borders and within activist settings. The opening panel attracted an audience of over 80 undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members, staff, and community members. Each faculty member discussed work they have done with feminist movements transnationally and how they have negotiated their own ethical dilemmas from a standpoint of engaged feminist praxis.
The seven faculty members represented a wide range of academic expertise and social justice experience but shared a common vision of adherence to ethical feminist praxis in all aspects of their life. The session began with a short historical account of both collectives. Each panelist spoke about their own genealogies and the specific projects they have been or are still involved in. A short Q&A session followed the first half of the program, and the second half of the program delved into further discussion about navigating ethics in activist and scholarly work. Another Q&A session followed before ending the morning panel.
Linda Carty and Chandra Talpade Mohanty spoke of their joint project to build an archive of interviews with feminist activist-scholars worldwide reflecting on their place-based feminist praxis and the challenges they have faced in a neoliberal global society. Linda Carty traced her genealogy as a feminist to the late 1970s in Canada and spoke of her work with the Black Women’s Collective in the 1980s and their extensive work on many levels that impacted the lives of immigrant women of color in the country. This included the Collective’s contribution to changing federal Canadian law to grant landed immigrant status to Caribbean domestic laborers after two years of residency in the country. Chandra Talpade Mohanty attributed much of her feminist formation to her time in collectives of Women of Color and of “Third World” women and a 1983 conference (Common Differences: Third World Women and Feminist Perspectives, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) that brought together Women of Color and women from the Global South. This experience taught her that dialogues and solidarities in community were more effective than struggling in isolation. Both then read quotes from their initial survey with 33 feminists across the globe to remain true to their voices, giving a sense of the themes and dilemmas that emerged in this work, the urgency felt by these sisters to do feminist work in a neoliberal age, and the common thread of descriptions of their feminism as “doing,” “praxis-izing,” and “intersectional.” These dialogues provided models for how to cultivate ethical cross-border transnational feminist work.
Suzy Zepeda spoke of her involvement with the Santa Cruz Feminist of Color Collective and the methodologies the collective enacted to ensure a transparent and ethical process of collective formation. The collective focused on identity formation (analyzing the essentialist contradictions and complexities of “women of color”), political projects (enunciating community, commitment, and multiplicity of identities), and methodologies (how they navigate that community collectively through tensions and contradictions). Together they wrote a collaborative essay as an example of collaborative scholarship that embodied the ethics of their collective. “As a collective we are faced with the challenge of an environment organized to give credit to individuals. Our collective work overlaps with our individual scholarship, which can be difficult to untangle at times. Nonetheless, the collaborative practice we nurtured became an intellectual sanctuary from hostile responses cloaked in “good advice” of prioritizing our own individual academic careers over collective work.” (The Santa Cruz Feminist of Color Collective, “Building on “the Edge of Each Other’s Battles”: A Feminist of Color Multidimensional Lens,” Hypatia vol. 29, no 1 Winter 2014, 35).
Amina Mama’s political consciousness grew from her undergraduate and graduate work in the UK, community work with a network of over 120 feminist scholars in Nigeria and her time as one of the few African professors in the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She spoke of her collective struggle to sustain “dissenting intellectualism” and pointed to the relational practice of maintaining and nurturing relationships as a key strategy for sustenance. She also touched upon her interest in the intellectual political project as a tool for navigating and working towards institutional reform.
Two of the most telling narratives of feminist solidarity across borders were from Dana Olwan and Margo Okazawa-Rey. Dana Olwan spoke of natural assumptions of alliance and solidarity using the example of Palestinian solidarity with the Idle No More campaign, an indigenous sovereignty movement in Canada. She traced the ways in which Palestinians supported and identified with indigenous Two-Spirit people but she also cautioned against tokenization, asymmetrical recognition and the unconscious disappearing of differences. She spoke about how upon moving to Syracuse she learned that the local indigenous sovereignty movements were not interested in engaging in the Idle No More movement. This was a powerful example for everyone – in recognizing her power and privilege as an outsider, she made an ethical choice to respect the wishes of the local movements, and did not try to transform their agendas. She called for responsible, ethical solidarity that is historically situated, that interrogates one’s own relationship to histories of settler colonialism, a solidarity that takes commitment and work, and that is not assumptive solidarity. Assumptive solidarity, she argued, is easy, romantic and dangerous since it makes an ally’s causes and forms of resistance less foreign and less “other” and does not require sustained commitments.
Margo Okazawa-Rey traced her genealogy to her birth in post-WWII Japan to a Japanese mother and African-American father. She also credited her exposure as a Fulbright scholar to the heavy presence of sex workers on US military bases in South Korea and the heavy US military presence in Japan, Korea, Okinawa, and the Philippines. She then recalled methodologies, ethics and relational practice used in her work as the Feminist Research Consultant with the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in Ramallah, Palestine. Her methodologies, such as Popular Education wherein she began from what the community knew about research rather than giving them a PowerPoint presentation about research, were very different from what they had encountered previously. In arguing for an ethically just research practice, she discussed the significance of “standpoints” in an anecdote about a staff retreat where she was called “family” because she was an outsider working as an insider as opposed to three Palestinian and Jordanian facilitators who were insiders trying to facilitate an outsider intervention.
Both halves of the morning session ended with questions for the panelists. A professor at UC Davis asked the panel for strategies to situate importance of historical genealogies to students who critique historical feminist documents, for example critiquing an important author’s “cis-privilege.” Panelists gave a number of strategies including reminding students that past processes of analysis were historical and developmental, to read generously and find what is useful, and to understand the genealogy and history of the moment. They stressed that critiquing does not save anyone from engaging on the issues. This reductionist viewpoint, it was argued, erases historical frameworks and students had to understand their accountability to the present, past and future.
There were undergraduates eager to do feminist work who were unsure about how to sustain themselves or how to engage as feminists with family members. These inquiries for methods of practical feminist application asked a basic fundamental question: how? Responses suggested that to do feminist work, one needed humility to step back and meet others where they were. In addition, we all need community to help heal from the traumas and exhaustion of facing evolving institutions.
In response to a question about the tensions between students of color and international students, panelists called for the increase of resources to support international students and for the recognition of the racialization of international students as people of color even as domestic students of color are displaced and not given the same privileges. Panelists complicated the notion of “international students” by pointing out the vast national and class differences of those students, how they may be recruited specifically for their eventual absorption into society, and how they may enter with pre-existing racist notions about people of color in the US. Students were challenged to think about how they can build transnational, class-based coalitions and movements that do not rebuild colonial linkages, move beyond essentialist identities, and to move past the binaries and examine the complexities of the issue.
Collaborative Project Session
This morning session demonstrated the hunger in the audience to examine the contradictions within the university and find ways to navigate academic and non-academic spaces with ethical and feminist methodologies. In the collaborative afternoon session, the panelists gathered to reflect on key concepts that stood out in the morning session, including the hunger present in the room, the relational practice and the hard work required to do ethical feminist work, the lack of models of collectivity and resources, and how the collective formed by the panelists was a unique model of a mobile community of feminists doing similar work.
The conversation continued to define ethical feminist praxis most generally as an awareness of power and privilege, self-awareness especially in moments of service and solidarity and commitment to dismantling hierarchies. They defined the conditions of the current neoliberal age as a new level of liberalism, individualism, capitalism and globalism that has created a fallacy of post-ness (postmodern, post-racial, postfeminist, etc.) that together with the rise of digital, online interactions via Facebook and Twitter have worked to de-historicize the current moment. The younger generation, it was discussed, needs to be taught the continuities of material conditions and power. The state will evolve and appropriate as needed, including one’s subjectivities. Thus they/we must learn that the logic of capital is the same despite changes in its manifestations. The logics of organizing and transnationalizing must keep up with the logic of capital. Capital changes, moves and preempts organizers and thus organizers must work to engage, interrupt, keep up with and preempt capital.
Today’s youth are attuned to social media and tend to focus more on the self and Internet conversations – and thus can be distant from love and compassion. Thus, the work of transnational organizing must be infused with love and care. In addition, organizers must be well enough to do the work and care for each other in order to create a support network for themselves. Relationship building is central to organizing work. As Che Guevara said “Let me say at the risk of seeming ridiculous that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”
The collective decided on a few future collaborations. The group will meet again at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in November 2014 in Puerto Rico. They will hold a joint roundtable as a follow up to the Davis conversations wherein each person will briefly discuss how they practice ethical feminist praxis. The collective will also perhaps publish a special issue of the journal Feminist Africa. There was also discussion of what it would mean to write a statement in 2014 that was a manifesto similar to the Combahee River Collective’s statement of 1977. In preparation, the group will form an online reading collective, reading on topics of cultivating ethical feminist practices.
The group meeting concluded with a sense of gratitude for the collaboration and participants feeling energized to move forward. Collaborations such as this make organizing work exciting and reminded the members that despite distance, they were part of a community, a migratory one that would continue to exist beyond movements and borders.