Academia and Social Change II: Creation and collaboration

Last week, I wrote about some of the features that exist in academia that make it difficult for academic work to translate into ‘real’ social change. I feel like the impression I gave is of a bunch of well-meaning privileged folks being really ‘concerned’ about social issues, and then moving on to other more pressing issues, like getting that next paper published. Which isn’t totally inaccurate I don’t think, but also is a bit harsher than is warranted. Academia is, after all, the place I have chosen to be for the past few years, and is one that I will certainly have quite a bit of contact with for the foreseeable future, so it’s not like I don’t see any ways that it can contribute positively to social change work.

The primary way that it does this is creating new tools and new vocabularies to both identify and address social phenomena that can then be acted on. I am mostly copying this idea from my friend who raised this in response to the youngist article I linked to last time, but there is something to be said about academia’s ability to generate a language to both frame and understand the issues that activists and policymakers and organizers are working with and the challenges they’re facing. For instance, the notion of intersectionality – that oppressions and privileges are interlinked and struggles against one form of oppression cannot happen in isolation from others – is originally an academic idea coming out of black feminist critique, and is now one that has been taken on by various movements and activist groups as a really useful way to guide their work and emphasize the need for solidarity across groups and movements. Of course, without the articulation of this idea coming from academic theory, it’s totally possible that the notion of intersectionality would have still existed and been used, but there is something to be said about having a particular vocabulary that can be shared across groups and easily communicated, and I think academia does allow that to happen.

Similarly, and this speaks to my specific experience in the program I’m in, I think academia has the power to develop tools that can be used to inform social change work. My current degree is in a program that focuses on how social programs and policy can be developed and evaluated in a thoughtful and rigorous way. At its core I think that is a beneficial thing: these tools provide one tangible way of saying what works and what doesn’t, and how best to proceed with social change work. The limitations of these tools are many and varied, and it does become problematic when these are considered the only way of evaluating effectiveness and value (it is much harder, for instance, for these tools to actually capture the lived experiences of people in communities where these changes are happening, though there has recently been more of a focus on this as well), but I think the presence of these tools is in itself a useful thing.

Finally, I think academia can be valuable in acting as a space for people who want to be engaged in this work to come together. There aren’t many spaces that I know of in which different people with highly specialized skills and knowledge sets can come together for extended periods of time and collaborate, and I think one of the greatest privileges that comes with being in academia is that it provides space for that to happen. This space is of course not neutral, in that it is exclusionary to many, and what I was trying to get at last week is that it is sometimes too easy for ideas to fill up those spaces and stay there, but for people who want to find ways to be engaged in social justice or social change and just don’t quite know how to go about doing it, starting in academia is not a terrible option. It can bring you in touch with ideas and with tools to make that change, and most importantly can be used to build networks across people who share in that motivation. The main thing is of course being mindful of who is being invited into that space in the first place, and making sure that positive things that are produced in it are taken out and used for the purposes they were ostensibly created for.

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