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Live in fragments no longer.

It’s been one week since the election, and I’ve started this post a dozen times. I write something, erase it, rewrite. I brainstorm in the shower. I think about it when I walk the dog, on my way to work, standing in line at the grocery store, and when I should be falling asleep. I’ve never had so much to say and struggled so much to write it.

The advice we give to writers is to know their audience. That’s easier said than done when you have so many things you want to say to so many people. It’s also a challenge when you can’t seem to find your own voice. I can’t figure out who I am this week. I’m a woman. I’m a white person. I’m a professor and a scientist. I research climate change. I’m an activist. I am a daughter and a sister and a stepmother. I am a mentor and a friend.

As I’ve listened to my students, colleagues, and friends in the last week, I realize that I’m not alone in feeling the conflicting pull of intersecting identities. How do you find the energy to grade when you are worried about your health insurance? How do you work on your midterm after you see a swastika? How do you focus on your lab work when you’ve been cut off from your family and have nowhere to go for Thanksgiving? How do you focus on your yard work when you don’t know if you can trust your neighbors? In uncertain times, the mundane almost seems inconsequential.

Black text on a background of rainbow-colored shapes that says

We need to figure out how to fight for diversity even as we struggle with the day-to-day. For a lot of people, this is nothing new. Many of our students and colleagues from underrepresented groups are all too familiar with the delicate footwork required to have a life and to fight for it. For others, feeling unsafe, or even betrayed, is new. We must start by channeling that into empathy for the people who have felt that way their entire lives.

When you feel torn in a million pieces, it’s hard to know where to go. People will capitalize on that uncertainty and use it against you. Don’t let them. Don’t give in to despair or complacency. Those of us in positions of power — university professors, communicators, teachers, researchers — we have a duty, more than ever, to lead.

Start by telling your students and staff that you value them. Tell them they belong here, that the diversity they bring makes our universities a better place. Tell them your office or lab is a safe haven for them. Tell them that you will be there, day or night, if something happens in the community and they feel unsafe. Send an email to your classroom, your lab, your department. Check in with your colleagues. The more layers of protection you have — if you are white, or male, or straight especially — the more important this is.

Be prepared to do more than just show your solidarity. This will involve work at multiple levels, from the individual to the national. You can start small. Get Safe Zone training. Put stickers or signs on your lab or office doors to signal your support. Host ally skills workshops. Get involved in local politics. Host diversity dinners. Donate to causes that actively promote diversity, equality, and inclusion. Call your elected officials and urge them to take a strong stance to protect diversity, education, research funding, the environment. Be relentless.

The opportunities to help abound and are easy to find. In many ways, the work of supporting existing causes is easy — taking a look at ourselves, and our role in this outcome, is harder.

It’s easy to think of our work in universities as indulgent when so many lives are at stake, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Universities, when done right, can be crucibles of equality. We can learn to overcome our biases, to think critically, to examine information, and to value diversity. Universities can bring people together who might otherwise never have interacted. Universities can level the playing field. They can be tools of oppression, too, if we’re not careful, which is why we need to constantly work on our own implicit biases, and proactively work for diversity, equality, ad inclusion.

History provides an important context — the “how” and the “why” of our current circumstances. Art and literature promote empathy, and are a mirror we hold up to ourselves. Libraries teach us the importance of information and data literacy, and the value of free and accessible information for everyone. The Humanities compel us to think critically and to contextualize. A strong scientific workforce helps us understand and protect our natural resources, saves lives, and promotes innovation. A liberal education is more important now than ever.

Universities will not be the only laboratory for understanding and promoting a fair, just and diverse society (and nor should they). Historically, they have been just as oppressive as the communities they’ve housed, and have even lagged behind other sectors of society. But now, we have an opportunity to lead. Our classrooms, laboratories, dormitories, societies, and commons can model the change we want to see in our communities. The recent spate of hate crimes, many of which have taken place on campuses, are a reflection that white supremacists recognize that education is an equalizer, and empathy is a powerful tool to break down barriers. But this also means that our universities, as progressive as many may be, will also become targets, as symbols of a liberal society. Our offices may be safe spaces for women, students of color, LGBTQ students, immigrants, students with disabilities, Muslim and Jewish students.

And, we must remind our students that what they are doing matters more than ever now. There are many jobs in the Resistance. Our planet, its air, water and soil, matter. Our climate matters. Our children and their education matter. Good journalism matters. Our physical and mental health matter. State and local governance matter. Representation in media matters. Food matters. Books matter. Infrastructure matters. Understanding our social, political, and economic systems matter. Joy matters.

As I said on Warm Regards, it’s not fair that we have to worry about our safety and our personhood when the work itself is hard enough, but here we are. We’re going to have to work even harder than before. Sometimes the most radical thing we can do is to be excellent, because that flies in the face of all those who don’t value our contributions. We have to create spaces where our students can be excellent. We must stand up for one another. We must use our critical thinking and listening skills to accept criticism, and understand the ways in which we’ve failed our students and our communities. We must be proactive in protecting our crucibles of democracy, diversity, and academic freedom. If you have security, time, energy, talent, resources, skills, or an audience, use them repeatedly and aggressively for good.

Do. Not. Stop.

Note: The title of this post is a nod to William Cronon’s excellent essay, Only Connect, on the value of a liberal education (linked above). It, in turn, comes from E. M. Forsters’s novel Howard’s End, from this passage in Chapter 22: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

Categories: Diversity

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Jacquelyn Gill

22 replies

  1. Yes and our best brains are involved in space science and mobile phones or weaponry. Now they may well turn round and say that’s not our job it’s the job of politicians. Not at all its all of our jobs to speak out. The media is largely a tool of entertainment when it should be fighting for reform.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Care is needed for at the moment science and progress are a run away out of control pursuit. We have two very urgent problems , climate and antibiotic resistance and they need funding. Instead we fund everything else but give them a pittance. Vast amounts are spent on going to Mars and investigation by means of huge particle collides. Where are the flood defenses lost in string theory and the antibiotics sit in the Amazon jungle. Meanwhile in the UK half the population go to university as courses proliferate to pull in the funds. The house of Lords has far more members than it can seat and the press fill there pages with the antics of celebrities and royalty. The club of Rome has been advocating limits to growth for decades but all we hear about is expansion.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I don’t necessarily agree. Mars travel is largely privately funded, and by people who aren’t necessarily interested in, say, antibiotic resistance. Science funding, including NASA in this country, makes up a small proportion of taxpayer dollars. I also want to make sure that we don’t just fund research because it has a strong applied component — people have made the same argument to suggest that climate change research doesn’t matter because it doesn’t cure cancer. Basic research is valuable for its own sake. We studied electricity for centuries before it had any practical component, and the same is true for a lot of things — including fields that had very tangible benefits in the end.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Science is a mixed blessing take the internal combustion engine and think of the havoc it has caused due to pollution. The industrial revolution was the inevitable result of scientific advance but a clear look at its effect does not cause us to jump for joy. You are right about electricity but remember we are now entirely reliant on it and power stations are in great debate. Modern man wants power at his fingertips as well as to bask in comfort and the environmental cost is enormous. The richer the country the more power it demands and now China is in the power game. We think we control nature but she has a habit of keeping ahead using natural selection she breeds resistant bacteria and she stirs up the weather as we exceed the four hundred parts per million of carbon dioxide.
        Also we are not led by our intelligence alone but we carry a baggage of evolutionary traits which give rise to the unleashing of selfish ambition
        I’m not beating the end is nye drum for we survived the Black Death without medicine but if our global society fragments we may well be set back into the dark ages.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. I think what you’re saying is that we have to get our priorities straight before we can accomplish anything important. If this is the case, i totally agree with you. Also, you may have realized the media creates problems to divert our attention from what’s important. Why did Zika and Ebola receive so much money and attention when there are much more pressing issues? Because we get bored of the common issues and the media needs to scare us to keep our attention and our money

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hello Jacquelyn,
    I cam across this post in the discover section. I must say i am very happy, and proud that my university has united in such a turbulent time. Most importantly, my english professor spoke out to us a day after the election, it was really unexpected. But i must say it made me feel a lot better, a lot safer. Your mindset will be of great help to the students that attend your institution, I speak from experience.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. This is beautiful. Thank you for not only this, but all you do in your many roles. Particularly as a recent graduate, I can tell you that professors like you have forever changed my life.

    I’d like to get your thoughts on the stigmatization of the concept of a “safe space.” Preceding generations like to assert that “millennials” simply need to “toughen up” and that there are no safe spaces in the “real world.” Of course, this screams out of a fundamental misunderstanding of what a safe space is and what its purpose is, but I just wonder if you have any thoughts on how to combat this stigma.

    Emily K
    ShesallSass.wordpress.com

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Dear Jacquelyn. What you have written is beautiful. What is so sad though is that such a call to strength should be the norm across the nation, not just in response to the fear generated by the mainstream media following the election. I am Canadian and I live in BC. Do not lose faith in your country and its people.

    Liked by 6 people

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