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?