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Is activist research enough (when the world is literally on fire!?)?

2019-10-29

When I left my career as a high school administrator in Brooklyn to come to graduate school at an elite predominantly white institution (PWI), I felt a sort of deep loss. My daily connection to the community that had raised me, the community I felt a deep connection with, that I had vowed to stand with and serve since childhood had suddenly been cut off. Not only had I relocated to a new city and state —that has felt like literally the whitest place I had ever lived— but also, I was constantly being advised that to be successful in the academy I had to cut off all other work and dedicate myself to the academy. I had to swiftly move through my coursework, exams, publish, publish again, present, publish again, get a tenure track job, publish some more… You get the point. At the time, I thought, “well, this is wonderful!” I had come from working up to sixty-hours a week, sometimes seventy on busy weeks, so this offer felt like a free vacation where I was only obligated to read and effectively make myself smarter. The nerd in me was elated. But, I continued to receive calls from former students, former parents of students, from family who wanted their children to go to college, from friends who needed help navigating some U.S. system built to confuse and disenfranchise them. It wasn’t long before I felt like I wasn’t doing my part! But let me step back for a minute.

My family trained the perfect activist. I went to an African American charter school called Shule Ataifa in East Palo Alto, California. This Montessori style school gave small students autonomy over the way they learned and offered all lessons through the lens of the Black Power movement. Led by activists, we were encouraged to read and learn about our histories from the moment we could speak. By three, I was reading children’s books.  By seven, my grandmother handed me The Autobiography of Malcom X.  Looking back, while the content may have been a little heavy for a seven-year-old, I think my grandmother knew exactly what she was doing. You see, my family had moved me to the local Catholic school for first grade. At just five years old, with a scholarship and support from an entire community that believed in my ability, I was put on the path to “make it out.” I could be anything I put my mind to, they said. But first, I needed to remember where I came from. They needed me to know the story being widely presented in mainstream media was not the entire truth, and sometimes not the truth at all. By ensuring that I had supplementary education to the mostly white and mainly Christian education I was receiving they did two things: one, they made me know a history so rich that no student, teacher, TV show or parent who told their kid not to play with me could make me believe that Black wasn’t beautiful; and two, they gave me a deep connection and desire to serve those who had been beat down, taken advantage of, disenfranchised, and systematically oppressed by colonial powers. I was to be educated, but I was not to be blinded by the system. I was taught to take from it what I needed and to learn how to use it to serve my community. And a little secret, I was not afraid to teach those lessons to the students I worked with despite explicitly being told not to. “We don’t want to make them victims, now do we Aris”? STFU.

Caption reads: "Oakland, California. Photographs from the "Black Panther" series as part of the Ruth-Marion Baruch and Prikle collection (late 1960s). The photographs are held at the University of California at Santa Cruz."
Caption reads: “Oakland, California. Photographs from the “Black Panther” series as part of the Ruth-Marion Baruch and Prikle collection (late 1960s). The photographs are held at the University of California at Santa Cruz.”

So here I am. I have served my community as a non-profit worker, a community organizer, a teacher, and an administrator. And through it all, the systematic injustices not only continued, but evolved. They get smarter in order to elude the uprisings of the oppressed. They exist in half-baked pseudoscientific research that says that social divisions they created can’t be overcome because they are the natural order of things. They say things like “being bilingual is detrimental to students,” which people who only read headlines take to mean that they must vehemently oppose not just the bilingualism itself, but any person they deem to represent the bilingualism. Never mind that the majority of the world is bilingual and doing just fine cognitively, the damn research says… So here I am, having left my on-the-ground, boots-to-the-concrete job to get to the source of things, to produce scholarship aimed at shifting deeply engrained ideologies. I am here reading and observing and experimenting so that I, along with my many colleagues-at-arms, can once and for all prove the system is a farce and that a limited few are controlling the resources and the minds of the masses. But in order to do this, I must work within the system. I must produce scholarship in just the right way to have it legitimized. I mean, I can write a blog post, tweet, or even scream from the tower stairs, but that ain’t going to help me eat. So here I am, stuck in a structure that constricts me, forces me to professionalize at the expense of actually processing and producing at a livable pace.  Instead, I’m handed five years of poverty-level wages and told a once-upon-a-time story where scholars where given up to ten years to create that magical five hundred word monograph that I must read in twenty minutes and synthesize into genius prose of my own.

In my early days of activism, I was told by one of the smartest men I know that it was all good and well to want to help but if I wasn’t eating and taking care of myself, I was no use to those who needed me. So I am looking for a happy medium, one where I can feed myself and my family but still make an effective change. But right now, the world is on fire! It’s literally in flames as people rise up against a colonial and racial minority that has for too long controlled way too much and is dead set on taking the planet with them to the grave.  And all I can think of is whether I read the fucking article that will make my arguments, my struggle for visibility, my fight for the masses legible enough to be legitimatized by the ivory fucking tower! #Fuckfoucault

About Aris Clemons

Aris Clemons is a doctoral student in the Spanish and Portuguese
department at UT Austin. She began her career as an ESL/Spanish teacher in Madrid, Spain. Returning to the U.S., she completed her MA in Linguistics at Syracuse University and continued her career as an educator and administrator at a high school for low income students in Brooklyn, NY. Currently, she focuses on the intersection of language, race, and identity in educational
contexts.