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- Author or Editor: Ruth Weatherall x
How can we reimagine the relationship between academia and activism to provide new opportunities for social change?
Based on an ethnography with an anti-violence feminist collective, this vibrant and vital book develops an interdisciplinary approach to activism and activist research, helping us reimagine the role of scholarship in the fight against social inequality.
With its reflections on novel tools that can be utilized in the fight for social justice, this book will be a valuable resource for academics in critical management studies, sociology, gender studies, and social work as well as practitioners and policymakers across the social services sector.
If I were to turn left when I exited my apartment in the morning, I would meander my way down the hill, through the central business district, past parliament and the high court, and end up at the business school building of my university where my office was located, the primary site of my academic work. If I were to turn right when I exited my apartment in the morning, I would wander down the other side of the hill, through the main shopping precinct, past the bars and restaurants, and almost leave the central city by the time I reached my other office, the site of my activist work as part of a feminist anti-violence collective. Sometimes I would travel between the two halfway through the day, dragging my tired body from one end of the city to the other. During this period, I was both ‘academic’ and ‘activist’. I was undertaking a research project about social change in anti-violence activism. As part of this research, I was a ‘voluntary ethnographer’; a researcher embedded in the community organization I was studying, contributing to the social justice cause alongside my colleagues at the same time as conducting my research. My life was a state of constant transition between these worlds.
I had plenty of time to reflect during my regular transitions. I would think about anti-violence activism and the stories of violence I heard throughout the day. I would think about different theoretical approaches to domestic violence, flicking through pages of books or scrolling through journal articles in my mind. Sometimes these thoughts would bleed into one another.
Academics who venture into ‘the field’ and engage with activists are frequently unsettled by the complexity of negotiating the lines of their academic and activist identities. As Reedy and King (2019) elucidate, those lines cross multiple other lines of identity such as insider and outsider or participant and friend. These lines of identity are further complicated by simultaneous, and sometimes divergent, institutional commitments to research and political commitments to the social justice cause of the movement. Consequently, academic activists often have a tangled sense of self and are unable to neatly distinguish one line from another. Other activist ethnographers have underscored, however, that examining the tangled lines of identity is essential to understanding the messy, multifaceted process of social change (Naples, 2003). As Behar (1996: 6) puts it, ‘what happens within the observer must be made known … if the nature of what has been observed is to be understood’. In other words, we can better understand social change if we come to terms with how we were changed.
It is unsurprising, then, that when I started volunteering with the collective, I quickly became unsettled. I was concurrently a volunteer, a colleague, a researcher, an insider, an outsider, an activist, an academic, and, in the end, a friend. For the first few weeks, I continued to carry my initial assumptions about academics and activists. But these lines became increasingly tangled as I repeatedly crossed the cityscape. My fieldnotes show a marked evolution from my ‘academic’ stiff and formal observations of my participants, to a vulnerable exploration of how my ideas and identities were unsettled as I learnt more from my colleagues. It was not that I had lost my sense of self as a researcher, academic, or activist.
When I (re)entered the community sector in Aotearoa New Zealand as both academic and activist, I was met with a community sector facing immense contemporary challenges for survival. My initial discussions with community members, as I have mentioned in Part I, highlighted a growing despair at the lack of ‘bite’ of the sector and concern for the ways it had become subservient to the power of neoliberalism. Nevertheless, there was still a strong sense that activism continued to be a vital dimension of the community sector and without some form of activism or advocacy that the community sector was failing to live up to its social promise. In both my conversations with people in different parts of the sector and in the collective, I observed that being part of the community sector was also a deeply cherished aspect of the self. Activist identity was often intimately interconnected with the community sector, but the influence of neoliberalism on the sector had caused many of my participants and colleagues to question whether this sense of ‘activist’ was lost. The community sector, including the collective, was grappling with a possible loss of radical social change and outsider activism.
During my conversations with a broad range of community sector activists, before I started volunteering with the collective, I eagerly gathered their perspectives about the community sector and its role in social change. Most of the issues raised by my participants seemed familiar to those I’d already encountered in the academic literature. My participants enthusiastically told me about the immeasurable and positive contributions the community sector made by supporting communities across our country.
Some four months into my voluntary work with the collective, I found out that all staff members were to attend a series of workshops together to help us work better as a team. I was almost absurdly enthusiastic about the workshops and the possibility of getting to see all my colleagues discuss the purpose of their work together. My eagerness for attending this event was rather unusual for me, given that under any other circumstances I would have been mutinous if someone had tried to get me to attend one of these events. My colleagues were slightly sickened at my enthusiasm; at lunch the day before the event, it turned out I was the only one excited at the prospect of the afternoon. Emily was appalled she had to attend and was desperately attempting to come up with excuses not to go. Even Ava, who usually took these sorts of things seriously, expressed to me that she was apathetic about attending because she didn’t see the purpose behind it. I assumed this was being driven by Jen, but when I chatted to her about it, she didn’t seem to want to attend either. The impetus behind this event therefore remained a bit of a mystery.
At 11 o’clock we piled into hired vans to be taken to our destination. I climbed into the back seat with Gracie, Kimberley, and Zoey. Gracie was carrying a giant A3 notebook; an accidentally humorous contrast to my tiny ethnographer’s notebook which I was holding in my hands. Gracie told me that the coordinators of these workshops had tried to charge her an extra $30 to supply one.
Kimberley and I were chatting together one lunch time, sitting on opposite sides of the lunch table. She was buoyantly explicating her views on the relationships between gender identity and violence, and I was listening intently, intrigued to hear her latest opinions on the subject. I had the opportunity to work closely with Kim during my time volunteering – assisting her in her work and talking with her regularly in our breaks. She’s a young, educated, self-proclaimed ‘urban Māori’ who loves debating with her colleagues, myself included, about gender identity, violence, race, and politics. Our lunchtime conversation today has been about whether or not it is actually possible to end gendered violence. Kim argues that it isn’t possible, not with contemporary gender identity dualisms. She tells me that until we can imagine a third possible gender, consistently and coherently, there is always going to be a violent fight for the masculine to be dominant over the feminine. She laughs and summarizes: “Basically, every time I think about gender equality, I just think it’s never going to happen.”
Kim then asks me what I’ve been working on recently. I explain that I’ve been doing some reading about violence, particularly thinking about the necessities of violence for forming identities (Bergin and Westwood, 2003) and I’ve been particularly interested in the idea that becoming something involves violently foreclosing the possibilities of other ways of being. Kim is particularly enthusiastic about the idea, linking it to her interests in how making some aspects of violence visible – ‘hypering’ she calls it – invisibilizes other kinds of violence. Hypering the idea that it is possible to end gendered violence invisibilizes the ways that gender inequality perpetuates, she argues.
‘Attracted to girls … but my understanding of what a lesbian was, was this hairy, big, truck driver, butchy jeans and boots … and I knew that wasn’t the sort of woman that I wanted to be. Therefore, if I was a lesbian, and I didn’t want to be one of those, then I didn’t know what I was.’
Many years later, Jen was exposed to the possibilities of being a lesbian like she wanted when she joined the collective as a volunteer. She described it as extremely emancipatory, telling me: “I came out as a lesbian about the same time [as I started volunteering]. That was really quite cool because being a lesbian in [the organization] in those days was a very … recognized and celebrated thing.”
In my discussion of two of the ways we can understand the role of the body in anti-violence activism, I have highlighted that a heightened awareness of our bodily vulnerability unsettles our gendered identities. I now want to explore how the unsettling of identities was taken in a radical direction by my colleagues: understanding women as vulnerable bodies. The formulation of women as vulnerable bodies, characterized by an inherent corporeal vulnerability to violence, proved to be an extremely unsettling formulation, not only for me and my colleagues, but for other women and non-binary folk who came into contact with this formulation when I shared early iterations of this work with the collective, at conferences and in other academic settings. In particular, this formulation seemed unsettling as it appeared to run counter to the decades of activism that emphasized women’s empowerment and work towards the celebration of women’s bodies as powerful and agentic. The centricity of bodily vulnerability to anti-violence activism for the women I worked with, however, was a striking and salient theme and one that reverberated with activists working on other issues.
Vulnerability includes all the various ways in which we are moved, entered, touched, or ways that ideas and others make an impression upon us … [vulnerability] is also a way of indicating one’s dependency on another, a set of institutions, or a circumambient world to be well, to be safe, to be acknowledged.
It took me a long time to comprehend the sheer force of will and bravery it took my colleagues to stake a claim to a feminist activist identity in the collective. This revelation came as somewhat of a surprise given that the collective defined itself by a feminist anti-violence standpoint. Like many anti-domestic and sexual violence activist groups that grew out of the women’s liberation movements in Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s, the collective was founded on a second wave feminist approach to gendered violence (Else, 1993; Connolly, 2004). This history was still influential, and the collective continued to express a commitment to feminism in their everyday activism. The collective was also understood to be feminist by our communities and other community sector organizations. As my voluntary work brought me into contact with a wider range of stakeholders, however, I became increasingly aware of the complexities of identifying as a feminist activist in the context of the community sector. There was the possibility of having our charitable status revoked (Elliott, 2016) as well as the fear of losing government funding for claiming a political status of agenda (Grey and Sedgwick, 2013b). Additionally, my colleagues told me stories of other people and organizations not wanting to associate with us on the basis of our political commitments. For example, a private sector organization refused to work with us as we were ‘those bloody feminists’ and we received regular backlash online for our feminist stance. For our aim as a group of anti-violence activists to end gendered violence, productive relationships, access to funding, and influence with the government were important; but so too were our feminist politics and principles.
The sheer multiplicity of positions, tensions, debates, concerns, and complexities of my colleagues’ accounts of their feminist activist identities underscores the absence of a singular ‘feminist activism’. As well as offering a multiplicity of feminisms, my colleagues’ narratives illustrate the complexity of establishing and maintaining their activist identity in the context of the community sector. Not only were my colleagues grappling with constraints on their activist identities deriving from their intersection with the government, other funders, and institutions (such as the police) but they were also negotiating constraints on their feminist activist identities as part of their interactions with their colleagues. From their accounts, it is evident that the almost utopian ideal of feminist activism grappling predominantly with external constraints (Reinelt, 1994; Nichols, 2011; D’Enbeau and Buzzanell, 2013) overlooks the complexity of organizing through a multiplicity of feminisms within feminist organizations. The micro-politics, the small negotiations within these discussions I had with my colleagues are therefore important to how we can effectively practice solidarity in social movements, particularly when these movements have become increasingly formalized.
In the following sections, I draw together some of the elements of my colleagues’ accounts of their feminist activist identities to explore the constraints and possibilities of engaging in activism through difference. The remainder of Part IV is structured like a spiral: starting at the widest point of intersection with external stakeholders, narrowing the focus to within the collective, and finally looking at the stories of my colleagues specifically. I first attend to the context of the community sector to unpack how feminist activist identities shift and change at various intersections between the collective and stakeholders.