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.
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.”