Spotlight on: Activist Scholarship
How would you describe your research?
My work focuses on gender, feminism, and revolution in the Americas, and incorporates feminist pedagogy, activist scholarship, and documenting hidden histories. I teach how learning, research, and archiving are political, and the ways in which women and marginalized communities in general are left out of the story.
My research is in Latin American women’s activism connected to Cuba, Chile and El Salvador. I have written and edited three books on the topic: The Revolution Question: Feminisms in El Salvador, Chile, and Cuba, They Used to Call Us Witches: Chilean Exiles, Culture, and Feminism, and Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas. I’m interested in feminist studies, social movements and revolutions, and interdisciplinary inquiry.
What kind of open work do you do?
I’m a senior lecturer and coordinator for the Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies program at the University of Washington Bothell campus. My job description includes teaching and service, which I view as being inter-connected. I’m not required to do research the same way I would be were I an associate professor, but I like doing research. Since joining the faculty at UWB I’ve had much more freedom to do open scholarship and work and write in a way that prioritizes social justice.
I am also one of the founders of the Feminist Community Archive of Washington (FCA-WA), an online, open-access archive of feminist community activism.
What are the methods and tools you are using to make your work open?
I try to share my work openly through blogs, including my reflections about leaving the tenure track and alternative paths through academia, open access journals, and university channels like the Office of Community Based Learning & Research. I also try to connect with popular media; I’ve done interviews with Canadian media about my second book, which focuses on Chilean exiles in Vancouver, BC, and actively reached out to non-scholarly publications about my most recent book, Taking Risks. Blogging is relatively new to me and I really enjoy it. The readers are other academics, but I am able to write in a much more conversational style that feels more relaxed and, as you say, open. I’ve described this experience as an activist scholar in my blog post, “Losing the Tenure Track, Finding Activist Scholarship.”
How do you incorporate open methods into your teaching?
I use feminist pedagogical practices which incorporate student knowledge production and digital scholarship methods. For example, in one assignment, my students partner with local organizations to develop content for FCA-WA, including collecting activists’ oral histories of their organizations. I assign as many testimonies and first-person works as possible, so we can hear directly from the protagonists in the movements. We watch movies and I invite guest speakers a lot. I try to pick materials that are openly accessible.
What skills have you had to learn in order to work openly?
It has been a lot of unlearning, particularly around where we should publish. I’m currently working on an article with Denise Hattwig, Curator for Digital Scholarship & Collections at UWB, Dave Ellenwood, Librarian at Seattle Central College and Taylor Hiner, UWB alum. There is a traditional journal in the field that is great fit for the article, but the paywall publication system is directly contradictory to the focus of the article, which is the open scholarship project that produced FCA-WA. So Denise and Dave researched open access journals for the article, and they found one that’s appropriate and that we’ll be submitting it to.
In terms of the FCA-WA project itself, I’ve learned every quarter how to be a logistical crisis manager for my students when things don’t go exactly as planned (e.g. they lose the recording of their interview). The stakes are much higher when you have committed to documenting a community partner’s history, so the students’ errors often become mine to fix. It’s also been important to conform to oral history best practices by asking all participants in the interviews to sign release forms, which detail the rights and responsibilities of the interviewer, the interviewee, and the research project manager. I collect them, and Denise manages them. This work requires extreme attention to detail and organization and I had no idea how to do any of it before working with Denise on the archive.
How did you get started in this work?
I credit Ronald Reagan with starting my career. In the Reagan era the wars in Central America spurred hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran refugees to come to Southern California, where I was an undergrad at the time. There was a movement by churches and universities to provide sanctuary to these refugees, because the US government was denying them refugee status. It became a massive national solidarity movement organized and led by the Salvadoran refugees, and I ended up dropping out of undergrad for a while to join their movement and become a full time organizer.
My interest in El Salvador and work with refugee activists carried me through my transition back to academia, where I decided to use interviews with Salvadoran women revolutionaries about their experiences in the Salvadoran resistance movement as the basis for my MA thesis in Women’s Studies, which then expanded to a dissertation for my Sociology PhD.
What has been the impact of the Feminist Community Archive of Washington?
It’s still pretty new so it’s a little earlier to really know. We do know that at least one organization the students researched is linking the archive to their web page, and others have said they will use it for training new staff. It has been used by groups working to support survivors of domestic and sexual violence. But it has also been useful and empowering to the interviewees, as it showcases their stories and provides a certain kind of validation. One group of women we interviewed sent us a typewritten letter of thanks, saying that no one had asked them these questions before. They were excited that their activist work was worthy of being in an archive, one that they can actually use themselves. They were energized.
What barriers have you faced in trying to work openly?
If I was still on the tenure track, particularly if I stayed at my former institution, I wouldn’t have been able to do this work. I tried to do a version of my last book, Taking Risks, when I was still an assistant professor but was told by senior faculty that I was “just telling stories” and it wasn’t scholarship. I was part of a quantitative-focused sociology department at the time, and not being a numbers cruncher, my work stood out. Being outside the tenure track now I can do the work how I want to do it. I feel like activist scholars are very well supported in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences here at UWB.
Why do you work openly?
It is my passion. I went to San Francisco State for my BA and MA in Women’s Studies and while a student I took a course on Black Women’s Music & Politics with Angela Davis. I couldn’t believe you could do that and it was a job! San Francisco State has a similar demographic to ours at UWB with lots of non-traditional students. I had always envisioned working at an institution similar to UWB.
There is also a tremendous need for this work. During my class we look at how feminist, women’s, and gender justice movements and histories have been examined (or not) in academia. We talk about what the students already know and what they didn’t know. For example, women were involved in the Black Panthers but there is rarely any mention of women in the movement. I assign a relatively recent encyclopedia article focused on the Black Panthers where women are never mentioned. It’s an obvious example of how feminist and women’s activism is under-documented. FCA-WA is a small step in the right direction, but these histories won’t be completely documented before I die.
Also, given that the current administration has legitimized sexual assault by virtue of the president bragging about it yet being elected anyway, and the administration’s ever growing war on women’s rights to control our own bodies, and on and on, I believe Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies has never been more needed. This administration is rolling back women’s and LGBTQ rights way faster than we can document the histories.