Critical Social Justice: Creating Brave Spaces
February 16th-20th, 2015
Hosted by UMBC Women's Center
with Student Life's Mosaic Center
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With much discussion in Women’s Center staff meetings about actively applying our work in the Center as student staff members to other areas of our lives, I have recently been thinking a lot about how my experiences and education in social justice and activism coincide with the various roles and responsibilities I hold outside of the Center. Currently in the process of working towards receiving teacher certification in elementary education, one of my most valued roles this academic year is my internship as a student teacher in a fourth grade classroom. Watching my students embrace new concepts and grow as individuals each week has not only brought an immense amount of pleasure and fulfillment into my life, but it has also caused me to think rather critically about how learning in the classroom translates outside to the “real world”. I’m not talking about how that math equation we learned last week can help us to calculate a tip on a restaurant bill, or how that new vocabulary word can be used to impress our relatives, but instead about how simple classroom dynamics can set a pretty important example for those of us who are long removed from our own elementary school classrooms.
Although we live in a society that preaches equality and fairness, perhaps one of the most important concepts I have learned in the classroom thus far is that equality and fairness are far from interchangeable terms. Imagine a classroom where students are instructed to independently read a chapter out of a textbook and take notes on what they are reading. Several students are reading quietly to themselves and taking notes on a sheet of paper, while another student is listening to an audiobook through headphones, and yet another student is talking to a classroom volunteer who is writing notes down for the student. If this were an equal environment, all students would be required to complete the assignment in the exact same way. But is equality in this situation really fair? Without certain accommodations, students with learning disabilities or special needs may be unable to complete the assignment on their own. The truth is, equality is only fair when everyone is the exact same to begin with. This is an extremely unlikely situation not only in the classroom, but in life in general. Instead of promoting fairness amongst individuals within a community, in actuality equality erases differences that exist within a group of individuals and only supports those with the most privilege. Equality is a “colorblind” approach to fairness and it can be especially harmful when it prevents students from lower income families and those who struggle with disabilities from obtaining the resources they need to succeed.
Because not all students (or people, for that matter) are born with the same abilities and some experience challenges that inhibit that their success, some individuals need more resources in order to just catch up to their peers. Therefore instead of talking about equality, we need to focus on another approach: equity. While equality simply seeks to level the playing field for everyone, equity seeks to provide more resources to those who need them. Take for example the large population of English Language Learners (ELLs) attending schools today. These students are often significantly behind their native-English speaking peers- not because they are unintelligent, but because they lack an upbringing that enables them to understand the language in which they are being taught. Therefore, these ELL students need more resources (perhaps in the form of ESOL classes or classroom accommodations) simply just to survive in the school system. Equity forces us to examine various privileges that exist within a community or a society and prompts us to make certain accommodations that will assist those with a lack of privilege. Instead of seeing just one route to success, equity forces us to pave multiple roads for multiple people. It isn’t an easy process by any means, but the extra work we put into through society through creating equitable situations brings us closer to fairness than equality ever will.
This guest post was written by Women’s Center student staff member Ty Philip.
In celebrating LGBTQ History Month, it’s important to remember those who don’t fit into the mainstream representation of the LGBTQ community. As the LGBTQ community has made gains in society, it is important to recognize that the face of the movement is increasingly white, cis, male, gay, upper class, able-bodied, and heteronormative. When arguments for marriage equality are made, our leaders look back to Stonewall as a way to validate their arguments. Stonewall, after all, sparked the beginning of the LGBTQ rights movement in America. So it’s only right for us to assume that because the face of the LGBTQ movement today is one that is predominantly white, cis, male, gay, upper class, able-bodied, and heteronormative, it has historically been the face of the movement. We know that this is not true.
When we think of LGBTQ rights and Stonewall, we don’t think of all of the trans women of color who have both presently and historically risked their safety and continuously had their lives threatened in order to try to claim a right to navigate in our society. What we think of is people like Harvey Milk whose politics are catered towards those of a privileged LGBTQ identity. We think of Neil Patrick Harris, who is a living representation of the effects and benefits of those privileges. We don’t think of people like Sylvia Rivera, who was present on the actual night of the Stonewall riots. We don’t think of Reina Gossett, either, a trans woman of color who is representative of the same kinds of intersectional oppression faced by Sylvia and all of the others present at Stonewall. It is important to remember that what is the face of the community is not representative of the community itself, that there is marginalization within the community that leaves certain narratives untold.
As a trans woman of color, Reina Gossett’s narrative is one that is largely untold. Mainstream trans women of color such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock do an excellent job at bringing widespread attention to unheard narratives, but Gossett delivers this narrative from an activist perspective. Gossett’s emphasis on social change and social action are things that I strongly identify with. With Gossett coming to UMBC, I find myself able to see how social justice can be practiced through social programming. I see how people like Reina Gossett, people like me with marginalized identities and generally untold stories, can find platforms through which we can have our voices heard and inspire change.
I commend Critical Social Justice, the Women’s Center, and Student Life’s Mosaic: Cultural & Diversity Center for choosing Reina Gossett as the keynote speaker for LGBTQ History Month. I am appreciative that untold narratives are being given a space to exist and thrive when they are not given such opportunities by mainstream media. It is important to remember that the while the L and G are the most prominently seen part of the LGBTQ community, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are representative of the community. Trans people of color exist now, and have existed since even before the Stonewall riots. Our stories will not be erased or eradicated.
“Towards a Queered Understanding of Critical Social Justice“
UMBC celebrates LGBTQ History Month with this Critical Social Justice campaign speaker. The lecture is scheduled for Tuesday, October 21st at 7:30pm in the University Commons (UC) Ballroom.
A trans* woman of color, hearing Reina Gossett’s lived experience is enough to captivate. Add to this her years of meaningful experience in activism and community organization, in film-making and research, in writing and social justice work, and Gossett’s growing recognition begins to make sense.
Reina offers a unique perspective on the experiences of LGBTQ/GNC (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, gender non-conforming) people, especially those who are also people of color and those of low-income backgrounds.
Sharing this perspective, and with such varied and interdisciplinary experiences, Reina brings new light to social justice activism and challenges even the most critical of us to examine our practices and beliefs, pushing all to embody the change that so many feel our world so desperately needs.
Presented by Student Life’s Mosaic: Cultural & Diversity Center and The Women’s Center.
This guest post on privilege and critical self-reflection comes from Women’s Center staff member Daniel Willey.
When I was asked if I would be interested in joining the Women’s Center staff, my first reaction was, “HELL YES.” The Women’s Center had very quickly become my favorite place on campus, and I was excited to jump on the opportunity to be a part of something that had been such a positive addition to my life. Last spring was a great time for me. I got more involved. I joined the Queer Leadership Council and the LGBT Campus Climate Workgroup. I was elected Outreach Coordinator for Freedom Alliance and Director of Public Affairs for GWST COMM. Recommendations, internship opportunities, and leadership roles were flying at me and it was great to feel like my skills were desirable.
But the more I thought about it, the more suspicious I became. How much of this have I actually earned? Aren’t there other people who are much more qualified than me for these jobs? How must my classmates feel about a freshman showing up and taking over? Am I taking over? How does privilege play into this? Do I even belong in these spaces? I have been thinking about these questions for months and I want to take this opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a male-identified staff member at a women’s center and the complicated combination of male identity and queer identity.
I think a lot of trans guys and people of trans male identities forget that even though some of us may have once identified as women or are sometimes read as women, we still have male privilege. Despite our queerness and the bureaucratic level problems we face with documentation or health care, there is still a place for us on the glass escalator. Now, this is not true for all of us– trans men of color, gender nonconforming trans men, or those who do not easily or readily “pass” (when one fits the standards of what a man or woman looks like well enough to not have their gender questioned) have a much more difficult time with this. For the sake of this post, when I say “trans men” I specifically mean trans men like me: white, medically transitioning, “passing” men.
My biggest struggle has been figuring out a way to see how my privilege has given me advantages in my life while also remembering that I actually did earn some of it. It’s a balance between knowing when to be proud of myself because I’ve earned something and knowing when I’ve been given something. I’m still trying to figure out how to contribute and participate in feminist and women’s movements without riding the glass escalator to the forefront. I’m learning to listen more than I speak and to support the efforts of others to liberate themselves rather than leading their liberation.
As for the Women’s Center, I think I will always be questioning and changing how I fit into my role here, just as women’s centers have changed since their first appearances in the 1970s. Women’s centers are still women-focused spaces but have branched out to include women of color and LGBTQIA women and people. Many women’s centers (including ours) have even started looking at toxic forms of hegemonic masculinity and how it affects women and men alike.
I belong here for now. My roles and responsibilities will change as the needs of my communities and the communities I support change, and I am still learning. I welcome feedback and criticism from community members– after all, you are why I’m here.