Presence, Absence, and the Labor of Being
Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, PhD
Later this week, I will meet and spend significant time interacting with the first-year students and a small group of the faculty in the student affairs master’s degree program that I am joining this fall. Two of the questions we are asking them to reflect on are “Who are you doing this work for?” and “What brought you to this work?” My own answers to these questions are simple in my mind. I was brought to this work by an undergraduate experience that fulfilled and empowered me academically, but which stunted and harassed me socio-culturally. I was brought to this work by an intense desire to change the practice of higher education so fundamentally that no one else would experience the latter while pursuing the former. I do this work for the child I would bring into the world and for all those people’s children who would follow me into colleges and universities in the U.S. I do this work for the professionals looking for alternative ways to be and to do their practice. I do this work for the other scholars who are also doing this work and looking to be in community with like-minded peers. To say it more plainly, I was brought to this work by a belief that I could inspire, ignite, and enable organizational/institutional transformation; I do this work for all those who participate in these institutions.
In my third-year review service narrative, I quoted Marian Wright Edelman’s oft-repeated line that “service is the rent we pay for being.” Moreover, because of that guiding philosophy, I viewed my university committee assignments and engagement in professional associations as the place where I put into practice my teaching and research. In these venues, I contributed my efforts—my unpaid labor (service)—to enact the theories and philosophies I asserted were more just, more equitable, more aligned with the findings of my own and others’ research. This is a view of service that I continue to hold today. It has made me a thorn in the side of several university administrators (a provost once described me to a colleague as “intense”) and association leaders. I am happy to be a thorn, to prick, to induce bleeding of poison.
This is not what is commonly meant by “community service,” however. The community is those people whose lives and work exist beyond the ivory tower. The community is where real people’s lives have weight and meaning. The community is where I, and other academics, should be doing our work. I don’t find this view of community and community service wrong, but I do find it unnecessarily narrow, binarist, and even anti-intellectual. Colleges and universities and professional associations are also communities. They are communities that include people who come from and live in those real communities beyond the walls of our campuses and the virtual and convention spaces of our associations. They are comprised of people whose ideas about life, education, and equity have and will continue to influence the everyday lives of people who will never step foot on campus or become members of our associations. These are the communities to whom I have committed (not exclusively, but predominately) more than two decades of my service.
“Service is the rent I pay for being,” Edelman.
Being who I am—a Blackneuropsychdisabledqueerpolywomanistparentingtransmyn who is also Christianprofessedmiddleclasseducatedbuildingwealthphysicallyabledaveragesized—means being prepared to (be) educate(d), chastise(d), correct(ed), horrify(ied), support(ed), anger(ed), and hurt(hurt).
Where I perform my service and the why-for and who-for of my work usually means that I am subject to having to surrender my own wounds and woundedness to the service of organizational/institutional transformation I may never experience, for the benefit of those who will follow me into these spaces, and those whose lives will nevertheless be impacted by what happens in these spaces.
(Yes, I know both the previous paragraphs are one-sentence each which is horrid prose, but just let that go for the sake of the point if you don’t mind.)
So, it is with that foregrounding that I consider, a second time, a conundrum brought about by inept association politics. The previous time this happened—nearly two years ago before the 2016 meeting of ACPA-College Student Educators International—I stayed publicly silent individually while railing privately individually and as a member of the T* Circle collective. I have been asking myself recently why I did not take more of a public stand individually at that time. I had not wanted to admit this to myself or anyone else previously, but the reason is that I was personally hurt by what happened. What I found personally wounding was not the decision to hold the conference in Montréal in spite of Canadian parliamentary consideration at the time of an amendment that would have criminalized public use of bathrooms by transgender and gender non-conforming (T/GNC) people. No, what hurt my feelings (which sounds trite but if we valued people’s emotions and psyches would not be trite) was the way that the association’s leadership at the time defensively dismissed concerns, undermined legitimate criticism, and played Oppression Olympics regarding international members against T/GNC members of the association. I allowed myself to be personally wounded by these statements and announcements—made worse by an inept private apology that was never publicized—because I had (mistakenly) thought of the association as a safe place, a home, a sanctuary where my being was valued.
In a very real way, I had “grown up” professionally in ACPA. It was among the first, and for quite some time, the only place, that had recognized my scholarship as meaningful and valuable in a tangible way (through awards, presentation opportunities, publications). My first professional leadership experiences happened in ACPA. Those who offered mentoring and sponsorship opportunities were ACPA members, several of whom I had followed into ACPA after NAWE (National Association of Women in Education)1 had closed its doors. It was within ACPA that I first came out as queer (lesbian at the time) and then trans* and had experienced welcome, acceptance, and affirmation. I was told by many people that I was a big deal (a hard lesson in never believing your own hype) and have been pursued on a nearly annual basis over the last several years to accept a nomination to run for the presidency.2 The association’s response, from leaders who I knew and who had known me for much of my faculty career, felt like rejection. I felt personally betrayed, wounded, and ashamed that I had invested so much in an organization that evidently seemed to value me so little when the rubber hit the road.
I decided to boycott the Montréal convention though maintaining my membership in ACPA. It was a decision that hurt me and others within the association who were in attendance and who cared for me far more than it had any impact on the association. This pain was brought starkly into view during the directorate meeting for the Coalition for Women’s Identities (CWI). I was ending my two-year term as their Senior Scholar in Residence. When sharing with them through video conference from my home how much it meant to me to be in that role, I broke down into tears, distraught that I was not with them, that so many commitments had been left undone because of the dehumanizing response by association leaders to its T/GNC members and T/GNC communities in Canada. My absence was deeply painful to me, and I could see in their shared weeping, that several of them were pained by my absence as well. Ultimately, I have no idea what real effect the boycott of a small number of T/GNC people and accomplices had on the association. For the past two years, I have been unable to answer that question for myself. Fortunately, no one has asked me that question as I would not have had an answer.
a friend. is someone who supports your breath.
nayyirah waheed, nejma. (2014)
Now the city is Houston, Texas and the associations are the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and, again, ACPA. What have I learned in the last two years? Well, the biggest thing I have learned is that associations are not my friends—even if I have friends leading them. I cannot and should not expect an association to do the work of friendship, to support my breath as the ever-brilliant nayyirah waheed writes in her poem quoted above. Moreover, as leigh patel has discussed3, associations are institutions that are also formed in “vectors of oppression.”
I have also learned that maybe, just maybe, the collective absence of myself and other T/GNC folk and our accomplices from ACPA’s convention in Montréal was powerful, educative, and had catalytic validity. I am hopeful of this because of what I have seen from ACPA this year in its statements (see here and here and here) about the decision to keep the 2018 convention in Houston despite the development and eventual passage of state legislation targeting undocumented immigrants and T/GNC people in public life.4
I have learned that if I really believe that “Individual and organizations can and do change” (Dr. Jamie Washington, Social Justice Training Institute) then withdrawing my voice from public and private conversations about institutional misses and abject failures to enact espoused values for equity and justice will not help bring my motivation for doing this work into being.
I have learned that the surrender of my being is the rent I pay for my service to these institutions that I demand live into the manifestation of their vision. At this point in my career, my absence costs me nothing; it has no precarity attached and therefore my individual absence may be more of a “non-performative” (h/t to Sara Ahmed, On Being Included), a perfunctory and ineffectual proclamation that simply looks good.
I have learned that my presence is as powerful as my absence. That by being present I can perhaps ignite some form of future catalytic change. That presence and absence are both strategies of resistance. That a present “no” (Ahmed, No5) can be a form of effective refusal. Not only can I use both presence and absence in different ways, for different occasions, for different reasons, but the collective use of both presence and absence can be useful and mobilizing.
I have learned that I can show up for those who need my presence while being absent to those who would seek only to exploit my presence. As Angelica blasts Alexander upon her return to the States from England upon learning of Alexander’s public confession of his betrayal of her sister, Eliza, I can also boldly and truthfully declare, “I’m not here for you,” (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton, the Musical).6
It is not just the go/not-go but also how I would perform my going or not-going that is important. As I was nudged by leigh to consider adding to this post (and she’s brilliant so of course I am adding it), to frame these occurrences as merely go/not-go lacks the nuance necessary and is far too binarist.7 There is resistance and opposition that can be done in the showing up. We see this in the example of the Freedom Riders who traveled to Mississippi to directly oppose Black voter disenfranchisement by doing voter registration and education drives, as well as the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its efforts to research with communities what they were experiencing regarding voter intimidation and then went there to support local opposition collaboratively (thanks to leigh for reminding me of SNCC’s approach; also check this article she recommended).
There are ways, therefore, for organizations to show up as a performance of present resistance and opposition to oppression. However, absence can also perform catalytic change as part of a long-term strategy. Such divestment of presence (physically, financially, otherwise) has been utilized as well. Recall the divestiture demands of students on college campuses against South Africa and its apartheid government beginning in the 1980s until apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was freed a decade later. Consider the current BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against Israeli government settler colonialism and apartheid policies targeting the Palestinian people. These were and are long-standing, widespread movements that used absence (of time, resources, and human capacity) as a form of refusal, saying “no” to oppression and demanding change before the allowing renewed investment of time, resources, and human capacity.8
So, it is with these lessons in mind that I consider both my decision to go and how I would tangibly enact that presence/absence in the annual meetings of ASHE and ACPA in Houston this coming November and March, respectively. (It must be noted that both NASPA and AERA held their 2017 spring meetings in San Antonio and I attended both.)
As I do so, I recognize that Texas state legislation and policies have been repressive and oppressive for a long time:
- Texas is the state where draconian restrictions to access to safe abortions spurred legislator Wendy Davis to filibuster for umpteen-odd hours in 2013.
- Texas is the state where Sandra Bland was stopped for a minor traffic infraction, arrested for being a loud Black woman who was not having it that day, and suspiciously died while being held under a money-bail bond.
- Texas is the state where an anti-immigrant law is so bad even police chiefs oppose it.9
- Texas is the state that is currently advancing legislation criminalizing the public use of bathrooms by T/GNC people.
- Texas is the site of just one of the multiple murders of transwomen of color in the U.S., Kenne McFadden in 2017 (one of 15 transwomen of color to be murdered in the U.S. this year).
- Texas is the state where enslaved Africans did not learn of their emancipation until two years after Lincoln signed the proclamation and following the end of the Civil War; this occasion is celebrated as Juneteenth.
- Texas is one state whose indigenous residents were made into immigrants by U.S. imperialism and settler colonial illogics.10
Texas did not just become problematic when the state of California decided last month to add Texas to its list of places banned from the use of public funds. Texas, recent statements to the contrary, did not just become a “nightmare” for minoritized social groups. Texas is not now problematic because of defensive, reactionary statements by an association leader. Texas is also not just another place where oppression is always already happening just as it is everywhere. Texas, like Arizona several years ago, is a place where very specific forms of oppression and repression are being enacted. Texas is a place where specific categories of people have been identified as being subject to dehumanizing treatment and the absence of governmental protection.
Out of the treasure of the heart, the mouth speaks.
King Solomon (later quoted by Jesus), Proverbs 4:23.
I do not call for other places where specific, intense, and heightened oppressive policies are being advanced to be ignored. Rather, I reject any argument that justifies spending upwards of millions of dollars in such places that refuses to name the specific violences being advanced in those specific places. If we are to truly uplift the power of the people, then we must acknowledge and confront the ways in which the people and their power are threatened and under attack in the places where we choose to convene.
As I have asserted recently, “Education itself is an identity project.”11 Educational spaces include schools, colleges and universities, as well as professional meeting spaces. As such, any educational space that ignores the ways that identities are mobilized to both constrain and advance liberation is failing to live into its mission.
I refuse to surrender territory.
Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, 2014.
I do not look to any association to be the friend who supports my breath. With that in mind, I have come to the difficult and uncomfortable decision to attend the ASHE and ACPA meetings that will take place in Houston, just as I had decided to attend both NASPA and AERA in San Antonio last March and April.
In these spaces, I intend to make my presence powerful—a thorn in the side of the stiff-necked and a support to those who are trying to breathe in a space where our breath is choked off. I go for the early-career faculty and doctoral students who need to know that an elder12 is working alongside them.
I am not going to surrender this territory for my absence to be explained on my behalf. I will say my “no” in person to oppressive illogics, to defensiveness and deflections, to false promises of accompliceship, to non-performative activism.
But I will no longer surrender the recognition of my being in doing so. I do not have answers for what this will look like, but I am dedicated to figuring out how I can be in community alongside those who are currently experiencing the oppressive boot of the state. Going there in support of justice and to ignite institutional transformation means nothing if it does not look something like the Freedom Riders headed to Mississippi in the 1960s. In other words, it is not about showing up in a place and carrying about our business as usual. It is about showing up to do the work that will benefit the community—that the community is asking to be done (alá SNCC). It is spending one’s dollars among the oppressed. It is communing in their space. It is a deliberate intersectional and anti-essentialist coming together of the community of scholarship and the community of the everyday.
As my friend Susan Marine reminded me upon reading the first draft of this post13, Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the outer court of the temple and fiercely objected to how they had turned “[his] father’s house into a den of thieves.” As she noted, dens of thieves come in multiple forms to steal money, dignity, and lives. She further commented, “They [these dens of thieves] all require our fortitude, our presence when we can, to resist and to transform, to throw out and throw over. But some of us, sometimes, have to be there.”
So, this is my resolution, to be there to throw out and to throw over. This is the labor of being for me in this moment. It is not the only resolution for everyone in these spaces or at this time. Being is labor for minoritized people every day, in every space in which they are not determining its structure and operation. The labor of being does not stop in our absence. It is often exacerbated with our presence. The labor of being is an unequal weight. So, nothing here should be used to browbeat or shame anyone else who may decide to be absent from either or both these meetings. Remember, multiple strategies are necessary—both absence and presence are powerful, necessary strategies. I think the key is the why and how you will enact it. That, and no other reason, is why I am publishing this post. What is your why? Why are you present? Why are you absent? What will your make presence or absence perform? Each of us must reckon with these questions. Here is my reckoning. I do not pretend it is flawless or impenetrable and I will listen to thoughtful critiques. If it is helpful to you, I am glad. If it is not, disregard and carry on.
In peace and solidarity,
July 24, 2017
- This Wikipedia page is partially incorrect. NAWE did not “merge” with NASPA upon closing its doors in 2000. I was a member when it happened and know this to be untrue.
- I have refused these invitations continually to allow me to focus on parenting my son. I have also refused on the grounds that the association (nor ASHE which has also urged me to run for president) is not ready to have its first trans* president. The labor of being the first is MAJOR. I am not sure I have the energy for it, nor am I sure that the membership and other leadership could handle it. I may be wrong on the second count, but just thinking about the first wears me out.
- leigh’s work is grounded in this awareness of institutions and it is therefore present throughout her writings. However, I particularly recommend a reading of her 2016 article in Critical Ethnic Studies for specific discussion of organizations’ collective failures to define and enact philosophies of racial justice.
- I don’t point to this as an indication that I agree with this association’s (or any others’) decision to keep its conference in Houston. I do acknowledge that conference sites are chosen several years in advance, as much as 5 years ahead of time, at which point the specific things that the Texas state legislature has enacted this year were not yet in view. Nevertheless, it is possible to pull out as illustrated by the Association of American Law Schools.
- I strongly urge readers to bookmark Ahmed’s blog post and return to read it again and again. In fact, read it now and come back to this post after you’re done.
- All I wanted here was the retrieval link for the gif but WordPress is making it impossible for me to do that without posting the gif itself. Grrrrrrr. I retrieved this image from https:// s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/5d/dc/d3/5ddcd39977fe39c8c9097d06e7d65744.gif (eliminate the space before the first ‘s’ and you’ve got the link).
- I really think being a non-binary genderqueer person has a lot to do with my resistance to and intolerance of binaries. I’m actually quite sincere in that. Check out Dr. Z Nicolazzo’s brilliant work to imagine a trans* epistemology for more on this.
- Some of you may be thinking of the NCAA’s withdrawal of its basketball tournaments from North Carolina in response to the passage of HB2 as a similar action. I am wary of doing so. My wariness results in large measure from the association’s failure to call for any specific revisions to be made to the bill and then its all-too-quick (IMO) acceptance of the inept repeal of HB2.
- And the ACLU has issued a travel advisory as noted in the article linked up there. Now, police chiefs’ opposition is not my barometer, but dang, y’all.
- This is the case across the whole southwest, much of the mountain west and up the California coast. Consider this article about the U.S. before the Mexican-American War.
- Last week I was fortunate to be in conversation with Drs. Dan Tillapaugh and Z Nicolazzo for Dan’s class on research and identity. Here’s the link! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHNsCT_Z-3g
- It’s totally still weird to think of myself this way. Maybe an emerging elder or an uncle even. I’m not old enough for elder status and I’m still learning my dang self.
- Because I am a thoroughly acculturated academic, yes, I had this post peer-reviewed before final revisions and publication. I am grateful to these three dear friends, comrades, and kin for their time and reflective feedback: Drs. Leigh Patel, Susan Marine, and T.J. Jourian. They are badasses of the highest caliber and I am fortunate to be able to call on each of them.