Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Including – but not limited to – sexual and romantic relationships

Dear University of Virginia,
Read my blog, and then you'll see why I want to join your Center to study youth relationships with peers and adults. Relationships matter. A lot. To me. And yeah, I do all this sex ed stuff, but really that's all about relationships, too. Seriously. You can check out my bad-ass academic articles and all but still, read the blog. Connection, empathy, #feelings, love, community. I'm in.
With hope and an open heart,
Miriam R. Arbeit, PhD

I emailed the above letter to my best friend, and went back to writing a formal academic cover letter. My formal writing often flows better if I simultaneously have a document open in which I can say exactly what I need to say, on my own terms. Eventually, I crafted this:

My work thus far has illustrated the barriers to connection that adolescents face at multiple levels of the developmental system, including in their self-conceptions, in their sexual or romantic relationships, in their family and peer relationships, in the ways in which they are treated within youth-serving institutions (e.g., schools, health care), and in the messages they receive from their cultural context. My next steps involve deepening my study of empathy and diversity within youth-adult and peer relationships and across in-school and out-of-school-time settings. For example, I want to examine how the developmental process involved in building empathy may or may not be related to other aspects of emotional and relational skill-building. I also want to examine how youth and adults can form authentic and respectful connections across social and structural differences, such as gender, race, and language. I believe that these steps will support my future plans to do curriculum and program development with school-based and out-of-school time programs to promote youth thriving and facilitate safe, supportive, and fulfilling relationships including but not limited to sexual and romantic relationships.

Huge shout-out to my amazing colleague-friends who gave me job app edits. It still takes a village, even – or especially – at age 30.

And now I get to study that village!

I will be a postdoctoral research fellow at Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, directed by Patrick Tolan. I’m working with Nancy Deutsch and Amanda Kibler on the study of youth development through interpersonal relationships (hence the above rant). There are two main projects, and a bonus pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Amanda Kibler’s project that I’ll be working on is Languages Across Borders: Building Positive Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Cultural Networks in High School. It is aimed at promoting positive development for youth who are English Language Learners through strengthening their school-based relationships with peers. Nancy Deutsch’s project that I’ll be working on is the Study of Important Youth-Adult Relationships. It examines youth experiences within relationships with important non-parental adults. Obviously if you want to talk more about either of these projects, just let me know!

And oh, the pot of gold at the end of this already gorgeous academic rainbow. Nancy Deutsch is collaborating with Futures without Violence and the Harvard Law School Gender Violence Program on a comprehensive training curriculum for institutions of higher education to reduce and address sexual violence on campus. So like, yes. That’s what I’m trying to do. This is the work I want to be doing in the world. Dare I repeat: Connection, empathy, #feelings, love, community. I'm in. My heart is exploding with hope.

I now have a job and an apartment in a place I’ve never actually been. But I hear it’s beautiful.

I’m moving next month. On my own… don’t worry, I’ll be asking for lots of help. It’s taken several villages to get me this far, and I may be physically leaving those particular villages for the time being, but I’m a big fan of Facetime, and I’ve got lots of plans for finding new villages down in Virginia. Did I mention that I’m already on an email chain with the other postdocs at UVa’s Curry School of Education? A warm, welcoming email chain. I’m so excited. I’m going to miss New York, for real, and also I’m so excited.

Charlottesville, Virginia. Come visit!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Patriarchy in progressive Judaism/ In the middle of a shame experience

As they sign their Jewish marriage covenant, I feel the various threads of emotion start to twist and tangle again.

You’re in the middle of a shame experience, I gently remind myself.

I breathe deeply and feel the knot unfurl. It is a subtle shame – not enough to impede my enjoyment of the wedding, but just enough to seep into my thoughts. Thoughts telling me I’m tainted, that I shouldn’t get too close to the happy couple, that they don’t want to be associated with me. Telling me to make myself smaller.

You’re in the middle of a shame experience, I repeat. This may be harder than expected.


I had expected to be completely divorced by now. Done. Finished with the entire process. It’s been over two years since our court date in Cambridge, which was super sad and also relatively smooth and followed by getting food together at the Cambridgeside Galleria. When the civil divorce was finalized four months later, we started seeking a ghet, a Jewish divorce document.

They feel sorta parallel – the civil process and the ghet. You submit your paperwork, then you go in front of a court, then you get some letter confirming that the divorce has occurred and you are now considered independent entities. Except in Judaism, it’s super gendered.


I want to talk about patriarchy, and I want to talk about shame. I want to explore these topics to better understand the psychological experience caused by systems of oppression in general, and to illustrate the specifics of how patriarchal oppression continues to impact me as a so-called “progressive” Jew today. I believe that as a Jewish community, we need to do better to address and eradicate patriarchy from our systems and rituals. This belief comes from my principles as a queer feminist Jew. And it also comes from my own need, out of the depth of my own experience… as a response to my own shame.

Charlie Glickman talks about shame as an experience of disconnection that tells us how we’re doing by our community’s standards of behavior. Sometimes shame can be really helpful, when we’ve done something that betrays our values and we need to work to reconnect. But when something’s off in the social system, shame is often part of the problem.

I experienced a lot of shame throughout the divorce process. I felt shame as I watched myself hurt someone I love. I felt shame about having made a personal and public commitment that I did not keep. I pulled back from the Jewish community that we had been involved in together – I didn’t know how to show my face.

I had also faced a lot of patriarchy throughout the wedding process. I felt it when I went dress shopping, I felt it when I tried to talk through the details with my partner, and I felt it especially in the Jewish ritual we were working to reimagine.


I’m no Jewish legal scholar, but let me explain what I think happened:

I walk in with the person who had been my husband. A kind rabbi smiles and shakes our hands. We meet the two men asked to serve as witnesses for us. Very generous of them. They shake our hands with reserve and sympathy. We sit down in an overheated room, and I’m uncomfortable and thirsty.

This will only take twenty minutes, I assure myself. Then it will be over, I’ll drink water, and we’ll get lunch. I’m excited to see if Inna’s Kitchen is open, and to get time to catch up with Matt, my ex.

The rabbi gives us an outline of the ritual. Matt had made the official request for the ghet (the divorce document) to be drafted and delivered to me. The witnesses were there to confirm the delivery. Matt was there because, no matter the legal meaning of the ritual, this was really about both of us. And like, for “closure,” maybe?

Maybe, but it doesn’t work. There is an error in the paperwork. Someone confused something about our Hebrew names and the ghet in the rabbi’s hands is not valid. It will not do the trick. This is not done.

That’s when I start to really feel it… if we’d moved through the ritual smoothly, would I have felt it in the same way? I’m not sure. But there I was, sitting in a room with four men: a rabbi, two witness, and the person who had been my husband. And they were frustrated. But I was the one most impacted.


I don’t feel ashamed of the tears. I don’t feel ashamed of needing a few minutes to take off my sweater and get water and use the restroom. I don’t feel ashamed of asking questions.

I feel ashamed because I feel subordinate, dependent, and powerless. I feel ashamed because at the most fundamental level, my status in the community is on the line. Because of the patriarchy. Because the function of the ghet is for a man to release a woman from marriage, as delivered by a rabbi, with two men witnessing. Back to the days of gender binary hetero patriarchy power system. (Back to the days of Pooh?)

We were both raised in affiliation with the Conservative Jewish movement, we got married within that movement, and we were trying to divorce accordingly. And the patriarchy only got thicker as we went along. Something about wanting to make sure the ghet would have as good a chance as possible of being honored by Orthodox communities should anyone ever care. The rabbi starts saying that we do it that way so that if I have a child and my child wants to be Orthodox then an Orthodox rabbi would respect the ghet as somehow a legitimate divorce that then allowed me to be legitimately remarried and have so-called “legitimate” children. It’s a long hypothetical dystopian fantasy in which this divorce remains a shadow that can call into question everything yet to happen in my life. I will continue to be suspect and this ghet will be the thing that will satisfy people that I am okay, that my actions are okay, that I can love again and build a family in acceptable, “legitimate,” ways.

Shame. Tangled, twisted knots of shame.

And this was very clearly directed towards me, not towards Matt.

Because patriarchy.


It was a female rabbi who had prepared the document actually – but she lives elsewhere, and the rabbi trying to deliver it is male. So that’s a quirk in the ever-quirky system of Conservative Judaism. The witnesses were to be men, but the rabbi could be any Conservative rabbi? The (male) rabbi explains it as a sort of wink to the Orthodox movement, just in case, to try to make the document as “acceptable” as possible. I keep asking questions until the rabbi stops and says: I think this is interesting, but you probably want to get on with your day. 

To him it's interesting. How to be a progressive rabbi in a patriarchal religion. An intellectually and probably morally satisfying mission. But see, it’s not just intellectual for me. Shame is social feeling. I want to be a “legitimate” community member. I want all my functioning and rights – I shouldn’t have to give that up just to avoid this experience of patriarchy.

It’s not only about injustice – that makes it into something that is intellectual, theoretical, something we can all be “against” together. We are all against disempowering women. Especially the “we” of progressive Jewish community. We’re committed, in concept.

It’s not only about microaggressions – the men were sweet to me even though they didn't know what to do with my tears. They expressed a mix of “pleasure to meet you” and “sorry we meet on this occasion,” and then, after it didn’t work, they uttered hope for something to come of the process. They were trying, in concept.

What it was really about for me, that day, was the psychological experience of being in that room and being subordinate, dependent, and powerless. My status in the community was in question, and – and this centuries old system of power persisted through these men in the room who considered themselves my equals in every other way and yet were participating in, defending, upholding, honoring that system of power. As was I, in my own way.


Shame is a social emotion about not feeling part of a community. Not because I’m being shunned or feel disliked – but because I can tell that I’m not being cared for. My needs aren’t being met. I feel ashamed that my community would desert me so – leave me so subordinate and alone. Even when I actually get the ghet, that's a psychological experience that I will hold with me. It’s the psychological toll of systems of power and oppression that we know we are “against” but – but are still here. I can't reject it on my own; I would be even more isolated. I can only ask questions and accept the tears and seek help. And that is all compounded when the room is full of men, and the men respond to me with intellectual attention, as I keep hearing the rabbi say: I think this is interesting, but you probably want to get on with your day. 

No, rabbi. I want to get on with my life. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

So you're trying to figure me out?

I am a divorced pansexual queer femme trauma survivor.
I am a smart successful sensitive spiritual progressive Jew.
I am a caring compassionate anti-racist White feminist.

I am layers of nightmare and daydream and full, raw presence.
I am hope and hurt and growth.
I am sweet caresses and confusion.

I am too much.
I am not enough.
I am busy.
I am deeply connected and loving and open.
I am alone and coping and yearning.

I am vulnerable.
I am incredibly strong.
I am not here to play games.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

“You’ve done everything right up to this point"

The most dominant image I have is me sitting on my couch staring at the ceiling. But really I was luckier than that – it was a beautiful fall, and I spent a lot of time lying in the grass soaking in the sun. In the park down the street… on the field across from the gym… on the hill by my office… resting my concussed brain, trying to cope.

I was coping not only with the concussion, but also with the effect of the concussion on my basic emotion regulation abilities. It was like there’d been a buffer zone around my feelings that had dissolved, dissipated. Hard feelings turned to panic much more easily, with a dangerous intensity. And panicking could only make things worse: spiking my heart rate, sending me down a steep dark spiral, and only aggravating the injury further.

So I had to ground myself. I had to. Feeling the grass underneath each limb, waves of guilt and shame and fear threatening to flood my system for uninterrupted hours in which I was supposed to be recuperating so I could get back to the very limited amount of work time my brain could take. Fear, shame, guilt. Fear, shame, guilt. Regret.

I have done everything right up to this point.

That’s how I would anchor myself.

I am alive, loved, and enrolled (as in, enrolled in grad school, even if I didn’t know when or how I would be able to finish). I have done everything right up to this point.

I would focus on those words, repeating them over and over and over again, for weeks and weeks.


Of course, it wasn’t true. I mean, it was true that I was alive, loved, and enrolled. But it wasn’t true that I’d done everything right. How could it be? That’s not a thing.

I said it to myself so much that it became a habit – telling myself I’d done everything right because at least I’d gotten to that point, still in the game, with people in my corner. But those good things can be true even if I haven’t done everything right. And I haven’t. I didn’t do everything right in concussion recovery; I didn’t do everything right in grad school (shh don’t tell!); and I certainly haven’t done everything right by the people who have so valiantly loved me.

Sometimes I’ve messed up and hurt only myself. Sometimes I’ve messed up and really hurt people I care about. Sometimes I’ve messed up in ways that hurt marginalized folks around me and perpetuate the very systems of oppression I’m committed to dismantling.


I want to hold these truths. I need a way to be here and to feel them and then to do the repair I can do in/for myself, in/for my relationships, and in/for my communities. Can I tolerate the reality that I have not done everything right, without getting stuck in spirals of regret or shame or self-flagellation?

The first step is feeling the feelings. And then comes speaking back, but not to negate or deny what I’m upset about having done. Not to claim rightness or say it’s okay when it’s not. What can I say instead to speak directly to/with those feelings? I’m gonna play with some ideas here, and I’d love to hear feedback and reflections from you, too!

To regret, I could say: This is how things have happened. I did what I could at the time. This is the only way it’s happened, and this is what I get to live with now.

To shame, I could say: I care about my impact. I want to understand and address the impact I’ve had. Having a negative impact doesn’t negate everything about me. Everything else is still true, too, and I can be complicated.

To self-flagellation, I could say: Actually what I need is the opposite. What I need is self-care. To do better in the world, I need to do better for myself. The more okay I am, more aware of my own feelings and holding more of my own stuff, the more responsibly I’ll behave towards other people and the more I’ll be able to do for/with other people.

Perhaps these thoughts can help me ground myself in the present and future, and engage with the pain and complexity of the past. By paying attention instead of turning away, maybe I will find an opportunity to do repair work, and maybe I can expand my capacity to do differently next time.


I am alive, loved, and employed. I’ve done a lot right up to this point. But not everything. I’ve messed up in some significant ways.

I did the best I could. I care about my impact. The more I take care of myself, the more I’ll be able to address what I can of what I’ve done, and to do better moving forward.

I hope?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Hopes and Dreams for 2016

  1. Stop saying I “just” moved to NYC
  2. Cook – like, roasted vegetables and soups
  3. More reading and writing
  4. More music and dance and prayer and poetry
  5. Host another dinner party
  6. Go back to not checking email and Facebook on Saturdays
  7. Read/listen/talk more about the impact of white supremacy and structural racism on the work I do and how I do it
  8. Read/listen/talk more about the impact of gentrification and what it means for me to be living where I live
  9. Further systematize my financial contributions to bolster the work of the people most impacted by local and global systems of oppression
  10. Stop getting annoyed when people send me vague text messages… avoid over-interpreting
  11. Open my heart to other humans
  12. Feel as much as possible

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Having Feelings in Public (& Other Themes of 2015)

I didn’t mean to alarm people with my Facebook statuses; I just wanted to share. But perhaps there’s something in the genre of Facebook status writing (and Instagram selfies, apparently) that is not well-suited to the kind of self-expression I’m trying to achieve. I try to invite you into these thoughts and feelings that I’m having, but in a brief status – that you’re reading while scrolling – I can’t show you the whole thing. I can’t show you what it means to me and how I’m holding the experience. Moving to New York has been daunting and exhausting and downright lonely, for sure. But I’m okay with those feelings. I’m having the feelings, but I’m okay. It was going to be hard. Things can be generally good (new job! new friends!) but not always easy. There’s complexity in change and loss and risk. And also, it has been exhilarating and inspiring to experience this city, to connect with people, and to navigate the job that brought me here in the first place.

Meanwhile the world is crumbling and crashing in on itself more and more each month. And I’m engaging with that in new ways, too, as I delve into the world of HIV-prevention with LGBT youth, particularly trying to make the work we’re doing inclusive and affirming for young people who are transgender or gender nonconforming. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my role in all that, and what it means for me to be me while doing that work. And I’ve also been yearning for ways to re-engage in other kinds of work I’ve done in the past: sex education, curriculum development, sexual assault prevention, with public schools and college campuses and youth development programs. And blogging! So at least I’m getting back into that – hoping that this makes more sense than a few lines on Facebook.

If 2014 was the year in which my life tore apart at the seams, then 2015 was the year in which I started weaving it back together. I’m weaving something newly livable, something softly familiar yet utterly surprising, at times terrifying and at times glowing with beauty, something to hold onto within an overwhelming whirlwind of opportunity and pain and possibility. In taking the risk of being more connected to my own truths, I’m finding more and more access to authenticity, and I’m finding within that authenticity a kind of vulnerability that feels both scary and strong, and that allows for real closeness with people who care. I’m discovering that people care about me as deeply as I care about them. I deeply, passionately care about them (you). And I can act on those feelings, although there’s risk in that, too. I’m becoming more attuned to the differences between danger and risk, between terror and courage. I’m becoming more attuned to my own needs, including my need for joy. Past numbness is now thawing. I’m trying to weave something that will keep me warm, so I can keep sharing warmth with the world.

In 2015:
·      I defended my dissertation and got my PhD. 
·      I packed up the apartment I’d lived in for five years.
·      I started my post-doc. 
·      I found and set up a new apartment in Harlem. 
·      I turned 30, and I went alone to an awesome Pride dance party in Brooklyn. 
·      I made an OKCupid profile (and used it). 
·      I analyzed data, conducted focus groups and interviews, wrote papers, and planned for grants I want to write. 
·      I nourished new friendships, exploring new ways of connecting and showing up for each other. 
·      I reshaped existing friendships, adjusting to so many changes to find ways to continue to show up and be close.
·      I made time for my own thawing and reflecting, nourishing myself and finding out that I can really show up for myself, too.

One thing I learned this year, especially this fall, is that I cannot repair the world in isolation. My self care and my connection with community are what allow me to invest in my work as an activist, to build relationships that will facilitate and propel change in my own life and in the systems in which I work. I can't do it alone. I can barely do anything alone. Isolation is the opposite of social justice. We need each other, to build together the world we need, the world as we want it to be. We need each other radically and holistically, not just for call-outs and accountability, but for hope and healing and joy and wonder. We need each other so we can hold complexity together and make space for all that we're feeling. This is hard to do in a big city where it takes a lot of effort and coordination to just physically put ourselves in the same place. But it's something I'm really committed to. Showing up, to talk and feel and sing and dance. To care and question. So hard but so needed. 

I will keep seeking community, I will keep hosting events at my place, and I will even keep going to Brooklyn to see what people are building there. Let me know your other ideas, hopes, dreams, visions, suggestions, etc. I’m in it with you!

You. Thank you to everyone who has been a part of my village this year. Family of origin and family of choice. Best friends, old friends, new friends, people who weren’t yet my friends but welcomed me with warmth anyway. You are the reason I can do anything, you are the reason I could write my dissertation and finish school and get a job and move to New York. You are the reason I could start a new job and take on new projects and set up a new life. You are the reason I have hope for myself, and you are the reason I have hope for the world.

Sending you warmth this winter, with so much hope and so many wishes for care and love and justice in the coming year.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Teaching Consent: Coverage from Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

This article is cross-posted with permission from Tufts University. Jane Carter, Communications Specialist for the Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, interviewed me and generously wrote this profile, posted here with an original illustration by Laura Dozer.

Mimi Arbeit, a recent graduate of the Applied Child Development Ph.D. program within the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, centers her work on a very specific yet complex topic: adolescent sexuality development.
"So often, development is heard as meaning 'child development,' but in fact we continue to develop as human beings throughout all of life, there is great diversity and plasticity in how we learn to be people," says Arbeit. She has taken frameworks commonly used to understand adolescent development and explores how to use them in classrooms to promote positive sexual health and development.
"Sex education [in the context of health education] is going in the direction of teaching children skills in addition to knowledge," says Arbeit. She defines skills as a coordinated set of behaviors: "emotional, social, cognitive, personal, interpersonal… the capacity to act in an organized way," which is needed in addition to understanding the basics of human anatomy and safer sex practices. In 2014, she published a paper in the journal Human Development that presents a skills-based model for promoting positive adolescent sexuality development.
While at Tufts, Arbeit engaged in applied work in the city of Boston and beyond. She served on the AIDS Advisory Panel, the sexual health education advisory board for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She has also worked with The Fenway Institute on a project funded by the National Institute for Health called "Connect to Protect," a nation-wide effort to prevent HIV transmission among young people. "Our Boston site is focused on young black men who have sex with men, and black transgender youth," says Arbeit. She facilitated a subcommittee focused on sex education and school-based policy.
Arbeit's work in Boston, and her publication of a skills-based model for sexuality development, laid the foundation for her dissertation research, which applied that framework to preventing sexual violence and understanding sexual consent.
Part of her dissertation research included an independent study with Nancy Bauer, philosophy professor and Dean of Academic Affairs for the School of Arts and Sciences, to examine theories on sexual consent. Dean Bauer is familiar with the academic approaches to sexual topics—her recently published book, How to Do Things With Pornography (Harvard University Press, 2015), explores new feminist frameworks for philosophical methodologies.

Illustration by Laura Dozor
Understanding the philosophy behind consent, in addition to the developmental realities of the adolescent experience, was very important to Arbeit's process. In order to understand consent, Arbeit and Bauer explored the areas where consent is in use. "I call them personal transformation, institutional transformation, and political transformation," says Arbeit. "For personal transformation, we are talking about consent as a skill," or how the message of consent is taught through interactions with other people.
Institutional transformation has to do with how consent is handled within legal frameworks ranging from the American legal system to an educational institution's own policies. Arbeit says that as a result of Title IX, "educational institutions, places like Tufts, are responsible for asking themselves, what is our policy? What are our responses?"
The third transformation, political, examines the aspects of our historical and present social structures that led us to our current consent issues. "This is where we look at discussions of rape culture," says Arbeit, "histories of sexism, histories of the use of sexual violence to perpetuate other forms of violence, racism, colonialism, heterosexism, heteronormativity, the pressure to marry, the shame of virginity, the shame of losing virginity, all the different pieces of our historical and present social system that are part of why we have a rape problem."
When it comes to teaching consent skills, these three transformations help explain why it is so difficult to reach a consensus on the definition of consent, and yet, the concept is so fundamentally important to healthy relationships and promoting nonviolence. "I think it is really important to continue examining how we conceptualize sexual violence from a legal standpoint, however, I think it is also important to have high personal and institutional standards for how we interact with people and negotiate consent," says Arbeit.
Arbeit has been examining these frameworks in the field through her work at Tufts Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development led by Professor Richard Lerner. Professor Lerner, Arbeit's graduate advisor, focuses on positive youth development and character development. One of his projects is a collaboration with the United States Military Academy at West Point. As a result, Arbeit's dissertation addressed sexuality in this distinct environment.
"At West Point, they have a specific commitment to addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment, which are behaviors that we want to prevent," says Arbeit. But, she points out; they are also dedicated to developing leaders of character. For her dissertation, she takes values such as respect, humility, honor, and courage, and examines what it means to apply them to the domain of sexuality.
Building on these positive attributes is part of the mission of Lerner's lab. "In a lot of health and youth development contexts, there's a desire to prevent the negative outcomes, and I have been trained at Tufts to ask, what is going right in the lives of youth?" says Arbeit.
West Point is a great place to start when thinking about promoting skills and preventing sexual violence, but Arbeit notes that they have a more structured character model than most educational institutions. "There is a lot of opportunity for parallel work with universities that are addressing sexual violence and promoting sexuality skills for college students," says Arbeit.
Theoretical frameworks, skill sets, and models of transformation can be difficult to navigate in any context, but Arbeit notes that it all comes down to humanity. "Once you acknowledge the complexity, that's where the humanity comes in," says Arbeit. "Sexism is a system of trauma—where our humanity gets separated from us or we don't have access to our humanity. We need to do a lot of work on emotionally reconnecting to ourselves and to the people we are in relationships with and our community in order to feel our way through all of these complexities, and start developing skills to enact our values."
Mimi Arbeit spoke at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on Saturday, May 16, 2015. Her speech, "What are we ready to risk? Academia, advocacy, and activism," is available on her blog,Sex Ed Transforms.
Arbeit is now a Postdoctoral Fellow and Program Administrator at the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University. She is working on a grant from the National Institute on Minority Health Disparities (NIMHD) on Ethics in HIV Prevention Research Involving LGBT Youth (1R01MD009561-01). Learn more >

Monday, May 18, 2015

What are we ready to risk? Academia, advocacy, and activism

I graduated from Tufts University this weekend, with a Ph.D. in Child Study and Human Development. I was honored to be the student speaker for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Doctoral Hooding Ceremony. Here is what I said.

As the non-indictment verdict arrived, I was working on my dissertation. Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, will have no trial. The people of Ferguson protest: Black Lives Matter. They call for an end to business as usual, but my business as usual was just getting good. I wanted to write my dissertation and I really, really wanted this degree.

And I was tired. Business as usual is exhausting and there’s no energy left for protests and movement building and solidarity.

Abigail Ortiz taught me that solidarity means sharing risk. I ask myself what risks I am willing to share as a white person in solidarity with people of color: Am I willing to risk arrest? Injury? Reputation? Career?

The system is built to maintain itself.

In the first month of 2015, four black trans women were murdered. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. The intersectionality of oppression is life and death.

“Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.

Support for trans women dwindles when we are still alive… It points to who is valuable and who is disposable. If you’re not a trans woman… think long and hard about the ways that you’re supporting trans women in your community. Do you see trans women in public community spaces? How are your actions pushing them out? 

I learned to do academic work that could inform advocacy. I wrote a guide for youth development programs about queer-inclusivity, racial justice, and trauma-informed practice. What is life anyway but one giant youth development program? These principles can guide both the work we do and how we run our workplaces.

But these systems are built to maintain themselves.

As PhDs, we are pronounced producers of knowledge. We can use our position within the system – and the peer-reviewed knowledge that we produce – to advocate for change. That’s our professional work; activism is the personal work. But activism, solidarity, is risky. I want a job, tenure, grants, clout. I want those things for myself and for my advocacy – I am building power and building knowledge with hope that I can leverage my power and my knowledge to make a difference.

Can I continue working on that, while also working to break down the systems that grant me this power?

These systems are built to maintain themselves. And I am a part of that.

But these systems are not okay. We need an end to business as usual, and we all need to commit to that end, as knowledge-producers and as human beings, each situated at various sites of power, within White Capitalist Heteropatriarchy.

So now that our degrees are not on the line anymore, what are we ready to risk?