Academia's Integral Role in Political Advocacy

In mid-March, I organized a Women in Politics event for students at my university. During the Q&A period, I asked the panel, “How do you incorporate social justice into your work and, when/if you do, do you find that you receive backlash for it?” One of the panelists, a faculty member, asserted that her primary role as an educator is to explain the way things work and why things are the way they are to students, noting that she prefers to leave advocacy work for those who make a living off of it.

Up until now, I cannot think of any community organizers or activists who are paid generously for their vigorous emotional labour, which I deem to be both intellectually and psychologically draining. The onus for social change should not solely fall on community activists who oftentimes suffer from marginalization themselves. Many such activists are underpaid for the work they do, if they are paid at all. As Sarah Kendzior demonstrated, the work that allows activists to pursue their passion may come in the form of unpaid internships. Thus, community activists cannot take advantage of the social mobility that brings money-hungry capitalists political power because they simply cannot afford to accept better jobs that accommodate their interests. This means that those who have experienced the oppression are less likely to fight against it in the most meaningful of ways, whereas the wealthy and privileged can easily pay $22,000 for a fruitful and insightful internship at the United Nations.

Tenure-track faculty at my university are paid a minimum of $56K per year for their research and teaching commitments, which, considering the comprehensive benefits package my university provides, is a relatively healthy salary. All of these professors possess great knowledge on the intricacies of legal and political processes and institutions more broadly because it is their life’s work. Activists, particularly those who do not have the privilege of pursuing a PhD, are less likely to possess such a complex understanding of the world in which they live and thus have a more difficult time deciphering the ways in which they can effectively change the social structures that oppress those they advocate for. And yet, as the federal government gains even greater decision-making power over university funding, research has become politicized and increasingly supports the Establishment of the day while safely neglecting societal injustice. Research increasingly prescribes behavioural change, rather than structural change, leading Dr. John Holmwood of the University of Nottingham to believe that academics serve politicians and policymakers instead of the public.

So, now I ask: Who can voiceless minority populations count on to advocate for their interests and create tangible change, if not those who possess impressive amounts of social, human, and economic capital? Not politicians: there is no hiding the fact that United States Congress and Canadian Parliament are both bombarded by corporate lobbyists who essentially purchase political prioritization. So, who?

The #WeAreUofT movement, which was organized by unionized TAs and instructors at the University of Toronto, received great support from faculty and local community members. Still, it was the underprivileged who keep the movement alive and well. It was ultimately the TAs and instructors who lost time to work towards their PhD by waking up early in the morning to form picket lines on all three U of T campuses. It was the unionized members who worked to garner the support of thousands of frustrated undergraduate students. It was mainly the underpaid and overworked who organized and lobbied administration because their livelihoods depended on it. It was the TAs and instructors who carried out the emotionally exhausting task of educating angry and ignorant people via social media in order to maintain the integrity and the relatively positive public perception of the movement. It was the unionized members who received a modest strike pay that barely covered basic necessities while they fought for economic justice. Only after the student-run movement won the hearts of students did University of Toronto department chairs take action. They collectively signed a letter and sent it to the Vice-President and Provost, Cheryl Regehr, wherein they asked her to surrender to the demands of graduate students. The actors of this month-long movement now await the outcome of a binding arbitration process.

The #BlacLivesMatter movement follows a slightly different trajectory, in that its international success depends on the support of the elite, most likely because the movement is working on a much larger scale and focuses on a broader, more prevalent issue. The Black Lives Matter movement began with three black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. These women are not in prestigious positions of power. These women are not wealthy. They are community organizers who took time out of their professional and personal lives to ignite an international movement that challenged white supremacy and police brutality. Cullors, for example, began advocating for prisoners’ rights after her mentally ill brother was choked and beaten up by a group of deputies while in custody. Cullors and her troubling experience with injustice are not an anomalies; she is one of the many community activists who chose to channel their pain from racial oppression into activism. It was through these three black women and their powerful hashtag that the Ferguson case caught the attention of powerful politicians, lawyers, scholars, and celebrities, who ultimately garnered international support for the movement. The Black Lives Matter movement subsequently put pressure on many police departments to use body cameras, which may someday prove to be useful deterrents. It also resulted in the launch and release of the USDOJ’s report on police officers' oppression of people of colour in Ferguson, which was a huge success in that it shattered the blissful ignorance of colorblind Americans who spread the post-racial myth.

Once social media activism exhausts all possibilities, resources such as status (power) and money, play an important role in the legitimization and popularization of social movements. Yet, the initiative and the bulk of the work too often fall on those with moderate power and economic resources, those who have no choice but to compromise either their valuable time and money in order to pursue progress. Academics should feel compelled to use their exclusive knowledge and research for practical applications; not only to disseminate information or new ideas or ways of seeing things. It is time for the social science academic to take on the role of the agitator and make a real effort to inject social justice into her teaching, if not into her heavily politicized research. If not at all in her professional life, the academic who holds considerable intellectual power should feel a moral obligation to engage with her community and politicians so as to counterbalance corporate lobbyists with economic influence.


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