Intolerant Liberalism and Progressive Intolerance

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This summer I had the privilege of co-directing a summer study abroad program with University of Washington honors students. The comparative program (between Seattle and Amsterdam), explored concepts of urban social control. Through field-based research, the students covered themes such as policing, parenting, sex work, drug policies, homelessness, social welfare programs, public space, immigration, gentrification, transportation and gender.

In the course of our few months of study together, a few things revealed themselves.
1) Students born and raised in the Seattle region, to liberal families, tend to exhibit a particularly potent brand of what I’ve come to call ‘intolerant liberalism’. These students claim a very left-liberal politics, and are quite intolerant of anyone who either a) doesn’t agree with your views, or b) questions that which you take to be obvious and true. I will present an anecdote that illustrates this later on.
2) As it was presented to us by native Amsterdammers, it seems that the Dutch polity, and particularly mainstream politicians, lean towards an ideology of ‘progressive intolerance’. That is, shunning cultural or ethnic groups who do not subscribe to the mainstream progressive Dutch platform. Example to be presented below.

Though similar in character, these two tendencies have some important differences. This is where anecdotes will help illustrate my point.

It was the Fourth of July. We celebrated on the rooftop of our student housing. Many of my students had gone to Berlin or Paris for the long weekend. Those of us who stayed organized a small potluck party to celebrate and be as patriotic as we could muster (*this, before the crazy sh*t-storm of geopolitical and racial politics exploded in late July and August). We were grilling sausages and corn, drinking Dutch beer, and lighting sparklers. I had brought a friend to dinner with me. A fellow American, new to Amsterdam as well, who had a path much like mine: raised in a liberal and accepting family, went to a very liberal liberal-arts college, went on to a PhD. However, my PhD work is in the progressive city of Seattle. Theirs was in a Southern city, not known for anything remotely like liberalism.

This friend, a Scientist by trade and hobby, trusts data and facts, and searches for rational explanations as to Why Things Are the Way They Are. They also appreciate pushing people’s buttons, and not accepting a popular (read: progressive) answer just because it is what we are supposed to say in Conversations about Race, Class or Gender. While this trait initially threw me off, I grew to appreciate it, because it made me validate my claims and think about my own epistemological assumptions about race, class, gender, and other axes of inequality.

However, my 19 and 20 year old, Seattle born and raised, proud feminist and sex worker advocate students, were having none of it. In response to my friend’s part-facetious, part-genuine commentary and questions, their faces actually contorted in disgust. That someone might have questions as to why most crimes are committed by black people (which, for important analyses of such debates, in light of #Ferguson and #MichaelBrown, see this piece, this essay, and this Huffington Post piece which is chock full of infographics, especially this one), was in and of itself, an affront to their liberal sensibilities. That not everyone adopted their politically correct and progressive world view of structural racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity was incomprehensible. More than that, it was unacceptable. Where there could have been dialogue, instead I saw disgust.

Luckily for us, my friend and I laughed this encounter off, seeing versions of our younger selves in these students. Luckily, a few of my students, more willing to ‘play’, engaged and offered incredibly articulate, if not a bit exasperated, explanations. We continued to eat and drink and laugh. The night ended well.

Read any lay account of Dutch history, and you will likely hear a similar refrain: the country has been known for its tolerance for centuries, in large part because peoples’ relationship to water forced folks to work together for the greater good, and overlook inter-personal differences. Through the canal system, polders, and agriculture, the Dutch have seemingly been tolerating their neighbors eccentricities and opinions since the 1600s.

This ideology of tolerance, which is deeply sewn into the narrative of Dutch life, informs many of the liberal policies for which the country is known: legalized prostitution, legalized euthanasia, decriminalized drug use, equal rights for LGBT folks, and, in theory, a secular state that is open to religious beliefs.

And yet, when I asked individual Dutch people whether the Dutch were tolerant, many responded that, “tolerant? maybe. but really, it’s just that we’re very pragmatic.” The legalization issue is a practical one: it is cheaper and easier to regulate than to criminalize. Prostitution? People have been selling sex for centuries. We might as well make a profit on it, and regulate it for safety’s sake. Euthanasia? Why not. Who are we to spend extra money keeping someone alive who is terminally ill and has expressed a conscious desire to end their life? Finally, gay marriage? Sure! Why would the state say who can and cannot marry?

Ah, but this issue of gay rights abuts the myth of religious tolerance. In a country that preaches liberalism, that has many of the most progressive policies in the Western world, the largest growing political party (the PVV), leverages gay rights as a weapon against Islamic faith and Muslim immigrants. These politicians argue that Muslims, in their admonition of homosexuality (as if all Muslims share the exact same beliefs!), do not fit the mold of Dutch tolerance.

Thus, we see the Dutch, rather than hold tolerance as a universal value, adopt anti-Islamic rhetoric, couched in language about the ideology of tolerance, in the name of, ironically, being more tolerant towards gays and lesbians.

Both of these tendencies are dangerous, but they operate at different scales. Intolerant liberalism operates at the scale of the individual: creating distance, inviting shame, and eroding trust. The intolerant liberal says, “I am right, and you are wrong, and if you do not believe what I believe, you aren’t worthy.” Is this an action that produces dialogue? Of course not. It is alienating, and were it not for the good humor of my friend and I, could have potentially led to embarrassment, shame, and future silences.

Progressive intolerance occupies the scale of the nation, the state, and the polity. It produces fractures amongst residents, erodes trust in those that are different, and simplifies complex issues into soundbites. It relies on an assumption of a shared history, in which Tolerance is an unfractured, secure whole. And in this simplification, in its becoming common sense, it becomes nearly impossible to name: for every argument against the xenophobic and racist political platform of the PVV, there are endless documents, police reports and media coverage about Muslim hate crimes against gays, the threat of Islam on Dutch culture, and Turkish and Moroccan violence and petty crime. The fear produced from social inequalities, economic insecurity, and shifting geopolitical power  finds scapegoats in these simplified narratives that position the Other as Threat, reifying the tolerant and progressive Dutchman as normative, acceptable and safe. (More here on Orientalism and Islamophobia).

At the risk of over-generalizing, let me be clear that I do not think all Seattle-ites nor all Dutch people fall into these categories. But I see both of these tendencies to be incredibly dangerous, and to stand as obstacles to true liberty or justice. Couched in rhetoric about the “right” way to be, both serve to alienate and distance those who might otherwise share common interests. Regardless of whether we live or have lived in either of these places, we should consider our own tendency to assume a “correct” approach to politics or policies. Does fear inform these beliefs? How might we change a stance, or challenge that of the politicians who represent us, if we lead with empathy and curiosity instead? There is no “right” way to be liberal or progressive, but there are many ways to produce pain and distance in the name of being “right”.

Giving failure a high five

“Oh, hi, Failure! Did you change your hair? A new outfit? I almost didn’t recognize you!”

I thought I’d gotten to know failure pretty well, after spending the better part of the last year learning that anticipated outcomes are guaranteed to change. I worked to recognize that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, and realized that it is better to succeed at failing than failing to succeed. I had gotten an ‘A’ in the art of failure.

Or so I thought.

Despite trying to bring the message of failing forward to my graduate community, of discussing radical vulnerability as a vital element of collaboration and research praxis, of learning that my self worth is not tied to outcomes, of embracing that failure is an inherent (and welcome!) part of the graduate school experience (if we adjust our expectations to welcome it!)… amidst all of these exercises and conversations, these adventures into the art of failing gracefully, I had forgotten how to recognize and embrace failure in other parts of my life.

Higher education, and graduate education in particular, systematically mark failure as negative. With limited contact with faculty advisers, we often only hear feedback if we’ve done something exceedingly well (i.e. validating our self-worth with positive outcomes), or if we’ve done something exceedingly wrong (i.e. doubting self-worth and belongingness in our departments/fields/careers because of negative outcomes). This extends further into how we educate our undergraduate students. As a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Ed pointed out, the bias against failure is deeply engrained into how we evaluate students, how we structure assignments, and how we discuss the learning process.

This fall, I set out to unlearn my negativity bias towards failure in the academy. It meant letting go of seeing a tenure track job as the only sign of success. It meant learning how I assess success on my own terms. It meant recognizing that there would be (and have been, and will continue to be) roadblocks along the way that trip me up, make me stumble, where I don’t always ‘get an A’. I was definitely learning to fail at being an all-star academic; I was learning to fail at being an ever-present member of my graduate community; I was learning to fail at identifying and articulating my own needs, especially to an audience that isn’t primed to hear that kind of language.

Given how deeply this failure-bias pervades higher ed, there were many opportunities to practice throughout the last year… Didn’t get accepted to teach the new class on Nonprofits that I spent 2 weeks developing with all of my heart and soul? Not a problem: I get to choose how I respond to such changes in my expectations! Fantastically gaffing up the AAG presentation this year because of technological woes? What an opportunity to recognize that my self-worth isn’t tied to the outcomes of how well technology operates in a session that bears my name! Forgetting everything about everyone I’ve ever read in geography during my Generals defense? Fantastic! What a way to recognize the humor and humility and imperfection that comes with new experiences.

All of this is to say, it is no wonder that I’ve come to view failure through a pretty narrow lens. And, along the way, I’ve forgotten how to identify (and embrace) opportunities for failure in other parts of my life.

I read a lot of food blogs, I live in an incredibly fit and healthy city, I eat on a mostly Paleo/Primal template because it has proven to be what makes my body and mind feel best, I am surrounded by a group of highly entrepreneurial friends, I have a large, dynamic network of absolutely incredible women in my life (near and far), and I am a graduate student in one of the strongest geography departments in the country, under two of the most brilliant women I’ll ever have the pleasure to know (this sounds hyperbolic, but I guarantee, it is not).

Who am I kidding? Against this backdrop, of course I am setting myself up for failure! Because I have created a landscape of unreasonable expectations based on amalgamations and abstractions of many individuals into an unrealistic whole. Even though I know, empathically, that all of the individuals in each of these realms has their own struggles, imperfections and shame tapes, I’ve still developed my metrics for success against a set of unrealistic paradigms. It is patently false that every person in Seattle runs every day, that those Paleo food bloggers never have cupcakes, that every other grad student knows how to write grant proposals, that all of my friends have amazing partners, or that I am the only kid on the block not brewing my own kombucha.

So, with this realization, I’m going to try to give failure a high five. I’ll say, “of course I’ll have a cupcake, because it’s Kori’s birthday! ” I say, “no, I will not run today, because it literally just rained 2 inches in 36 hours, and y’all are crazy”, and I will say, “I actually have no idea how I’m going to fund my dissertation work, but thanks to my entrepreneurial friends, I’m starting to figure it out!” Failure, in all parts of life, not just graduate school, is par for the course.

I won’t stop giving my soapbox pitch for embracing failure within the academy. This feels more important to me ever, as we lose too many bright and amazing graduate students who see their dis-ease with the academy as a sign of failure, and thus, as a sign that they should leave. That said, now that I’ve spent a solid amount of time learning how to fail at grad school, I think it’s time I learn and embrace failure in the other parts of my life. Not as a sign of weakness or a problem, but as an inevitable step in learning to be a more wholehearted, vulnerable and connected individual. Failure means I’m trying new things. It means I’m learning, and it means that I’m imperfect and human.

A narrative of engagement

*The following is the text + images I shared during a session on Publicly Engaged Critical Geographies at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Tampa, FL**

Today I’m going to share a bit of a long form personal narrative, and explore my path towards engaged scholarship. I’ll reflect a bit on what the concept of ‘engagement’ means to me in my own work, how a practice of personal engagement allowed me to be attentive and honest to my intellectual energy, and where I see this engagement leading me in my dissertation research.

So, I come to my understanding and practice of ‘engaged scholarship’ through multiple perspectives: as a student in the Geography department at UW, as a participant in the Certificate in Public Scholarship through the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities, as a Publicly Engaged Graduate Fellow through Imagining America, and, finally, as a long standing (and often uncomfortable) participant in the nonprofit industrial complex, as it has come to be known in critical circles.

Each perspective listed above operates in different spaces, and with different people, values and expectations (for instance, even within the University of Washington, the language and standards used in Geography are quite foreign to those in the Humanities Center). In addition, each of my involvements produce their own institutional affiliations and histories, whether that be a history of the quantitative revolution at UW Geography, or histories of contentious politics with some of my nonprofit partners. And, while time prevents me from elaborating deeply on this train of thought here, I need to acknowledge that these institutional affiliations are part of my intersectional identity. Thus, in addition to reflecting on power dynamics, positionality, shared risk, intellectual curiosity, ethics, and rigor, institutional affiliation also informs how I understand, and practice ‘engaged scholarship’.

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So, with all of these affiliations and influences in mind, I understand engaged scholarship as the practice of “scholarship in action”, as described by Syracuse University’s former chancellor Nancy Cantor. It is an active scholarship: one that is not content to delve into esoteric knowledge production for knowledge’s sake (though that’s a valid cause in its own right). Active scholarship is one that is working towards social justice goals; one that requires us to have ‘skin in the game’ and shared risks; one that asks us to stay attentive and, well, engaged.

This is all well and good on paper. But I’ve often found myself losing sight of what ‘engagement’ means in practice. When this happens, I think about my favorite pastime, one which has also informed much of my activism in Seattle: cooking and sharing meals. How do I know if I’m ‘engaged’ in this work? I am highly attentive to the needs and interests of the people around me. I am willing to put my own agenda aside and hold space with my guests. I am intimately interested in what people have to share and how they feel during and after a meal. I know I am not engaged when my mind wanders, when I run through my to-do lists, when I think about what is going wrong instead of attending to the energy that is emerging.

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Eat for Equity Seattle, a local chapter of a nation-wide organization that I help co-organize, brings people together around community feasts for the greater good. Through a shared meal, we build community and raise awareness of a range of nonprofits that our guests support. Most importantly, to me, is that we bring people together to “come as you are, give as you can” –  thereby challenging the assumption that giving happens by wealthy people in elite spaces, like galas, auctions and the like.

While Eat for Equity is not scholarly in nature, the work has been absolutely central to my own personal engagement, and thus, towards my engaged scholarship. I have worked with Eat for Equity for 2 years. At some point during my work with this group, I became interested in broader questions about giving: what brings people to the table? How do we convey that anyone can ‘give’, whether that’s time, money, ideas, skills, energy? How can we show that we already live in a caring and gift economy, and that we could see this better if we expanded the lens with which we see the world? More personally, how could I do more to advance social justice through my own ability to give in multiple and creative ways?

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This series of questions came into clearer focus for me this past fall, which coincided with the beginning of my PAGE fellowship. In October, I met my fellow PAGErs at the Imagining America conference. I was blown away: here were graduate students who were curating museum exhibits, organizing rural workers, building video games with high schoolers, creating and editing open source journals, making art, writing their own blogs, and pursuing many non-academic ‘side projects’, including, a sustainable vest company called Ishi Vest, that I must plug, because they are charming, beautiful, and run my dear friend Harishi in Chicago.

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After only 4 hours of knowing these folks, I felt a deeper sense of home than I have ever felt in my own geography department.  This interdisciplinary group of grad students came from multiple institutions. Through the course of our meeting, it became clear that our unifying fiber was that all of the PAGE fellows were “project people” – never satisfied with one project, one interest, or one field. We were engaged in an array of spaces, with diverse stakeholders and multiple audiences. And we recognized that our own identities were fluid, shifting depending on which space and which audience with whom we engaged. I came home from this meeting absolutely buzzing, and wrote a blog post called “We Are Project People” that tried to capture the spirit an energy of our group.

Two days after that conference, I met with the program director of Social Justice Fund, a social justice philanthropic foundation based in Seattle. I had scheduled this meeting weeks prior, interested to learn more in how I could be involved in a ‘giving project’; many people who knew me in Seattle suggested I get involved as an extension of my interests in eat for equity, in giving, and in social justice more broadly. But this involvement was just going to be another ‘thing’ I did. Just another group to know and work with.

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Meeting the PAGE Fellows encouraged me to see my interest in practices of giving differently. Up to that point, I’d sidelined this as an “extra-curricular interest”. Eat for Equity was just a fun thing I did on the side. Social justice fund was just going to be another community connection I fostered. My real project was going to be a critique of youth empowerment programs. And I thought I might be able to involve Social Justice Fund academically through the Practicum component of the Public Scholarship Certificate.

I think back to the anecdote I shared about having a meal together, and whether or not I could identify feelings of engagement. I wasn’t necessarily able to recognize that questions of giving were the thing that was capturing my attention and engaging me. But I was certainly beginning to see that questions of youth empowerment were not engaging me. I was apathetic, passive and lacked investment in the intellectual and political stakes of that project.

In fact, it was not long after I started recognizing my own disengagement that I had a powerful conversation with Ben, here. I told him about my excitement about SJF, and how I was thinking about partnering with them as a side project for my Practicum. He looked at me, quizzically, and said, “That sounds like a dissertation…”

So. I sat with that. I thought about the energy that the PAGErs brought to their projects, and the rich engagement that fueled their intellectual and personal lives. And I started to re-evaluate and take greater notice of my own excitement about these questions of giving, social justice, politics, donor-activism – more broadly, just questions of how, why and where people give. I started to take these questions seriously. I started to realize that my own lived experiences, the ones which I had heretofore thought of as “side projects” were the threads and fibers weaving together to inform my landscape of scholarship. These were it turns out, inseparable.

Now, as I start to shape my dissertation project, I look more intentionally to these lived experiences, community engagements, and scholastic projects as a larger tapestry of publicly engaged work. I share a few of these experiences here.

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There is my involvement with the Mapping Youth Journeys program, a multi-year participatory mapping project with middle school students in Seattle. Through a cultural history mapping curriculum, I was part of a team that sought to understand how mapping shaped students’ civic engagement. Importantly, this work showed us how iterative the learning process was: the students’ insights shaped the direction of the research, they showed us that they were not ‘civic actors in waiting’, but that they already held a great deal of cultural wealth and civic knowledge. The mapping component allowed them to connect the dots of their situated knowledge in new ways, but they were, themselves, publicly engaged individuals who were able to express their knowledge in digital and non-digital ways. This project demonstrated how to take non-expert knowledges seriously, and to be open, attentive, and engaged to findings that we did not expect.

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There is my vast participation with nonprofit organizations, as a staff person, a volunteer, a scholar and a mentor. One that I’ll draw on here, is my Master’s work with a Seattle based nonprofit, but I cannot say it was entirely engaged. Through that project, I realized that self-reflexivity does not equal engagement. I was intimately aware and involved in a reflexive practice, but I never felt engaged in the way that felt open and invested. I didn’t have much at risk. I was an observer, a critic. A participant, yes, but with not much skin in the game. My presence was not missed when I was gone, and my contributions did not make many ripples.

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There is my current involvement with the Relational Poverty Network, a growing network of scholars, community members, students, researchers and activists connecting people and ideas to challenge poverty and inequality. As a member of the Network, and mostly as a research assistant, I am not involved in a ‘research project’ per se, but I am engaged in thinking deeply about what the Network can do, how it connects to multiple audiences, how its work can engage policy makers, how we can be vulnerable and share risk with our current and future community partners, and how we can engage in the political project of making new knowledge that disrupts reductivist notions of poverty.

This all brings me to my current engaged work with Social Justice Fund. Despite Ben’s prodding that my ‘Practicum’ sounded like a dissertation project, I am currently completing my practicum with SJF.

But they will also be one of my collaborators for my dissertation project! The youth empowerment project bit the dust a while back. I realized that to honor my own intellectual and political energies, I had to be honest and dive into where my engagement was leading me. So, in the fall I will begin 12 months of fieldwork that seeks to understand geographies of giving and philanthropy in the PNW. The backbone of the project is to understand the shifting political economy of philanthropy post recession, and the new spaces and subjectivities that emerge from philanthropic engagements. I want to know about how philanthropy can enable politics at various scales.

While I will engage with SJF formally through this process, I am already engaged in the program and have ‘skin in the game’ as it were. I will be part of a giving project, I am on their informal board of ‘community engagement’, I volunteer, and I’m completing a narrative analysis of their rich archival materials for my practicum. And, when the dissertation wraps up, I will not diminish my engagement with SJF. As long as I’m a resident of Seattle, I envision being part of giving projects, and a fierce advocate for the work they do.

This is a story about living an engaged life. It is not enough to expect graduate students, scholars, administrators, activists and advocates to be engaged in our work. We must be attentive to our own energies, needs, curiosities and positionality. To live an engaged life is to take time to check in, to evaluate where and when you can share risks, to reflect on one’s politics and privilege, and to pursue that feeling of being ‘in it’. Think about sitting around a dinner table, with dear friends, with a beautiful dish of food shared between you: that is a moment of engagement, and it is that feeling for which I think we should strive.

**Following this talk, there was a lively conversation about how to bring vulnerability and risk into our work. For more on this, I recommend Richa Nagar’s scholarly work on radical vulnerability, or Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability, or her book Daring Greatly. Please reach out if you’d like to continue the conversation!** 

Synergies and Satisfaction: Performing my Professional Self

Exactly one week after finishing my exams, (and a celebratory dinner of pho), I enjoyed a spontaneous fancy-dinner, went home happy, sleepy, and full of delicious wine and beautifully arranged small plates. I was deeply grateful. And also full of dread: I knew I had, at best,  a mere 3 hours of sleep ahead of me before my early, early morning airport shuttle. I had a 5:20 AM flight  to Denver.

I did not know that flights took off that early.

There were many things that could have gotten me down about this trip, but I felt quite eager to get on route to Boulder, CO. I was attending the 20th annual Critical Geography Conference, with keynotes by Richa Nagar and Alvaro Reyes. I also was going to catch up with two old friends: one of whom is working on her MA in human-environment relations at CU-Boulder Geography, the other, a previous roommate, co-worker, co-conspirator, and fellow educator.

From a professional standpoint, this conference allowed me to explore my new research direction. The talk was not an argument, not an explanation of empirics. I presented a theoretical framework for critical geographers to engage with the nonprofit sector outside of a limiting, negative, critiquing framework, and instead encouraged a perspective that is more open, more interested in learning rather than judging, and that performs a politics of possibility rather than limitations.

I felt nervous to give this talk, initially. Drawing on the work of Gibson-Graham, I knew my work might draw criticism that it wasn’t political enough, not grounded enough, didn’t have clear enough methodology, or wasn’t going to be relevant or scalable. Not to mention, I only had one week in which to prepare this talk, practice it, and feel confident speaking about my work.

Lucky for me, it turns out my committee and I were thinking on the same page. One of my exam questions dovetailed nearly perfectly into the substance of this talk. I had previously outlined the talking points (months ago!), but didn’t know how I would populate it.

And then, a moment of synergy. Whooosh! Snap! Shhhhhwop!

I had written about applying Gibson-Graham to my dissertation project, and what I might learn through that application. I wanted to prepare a talk about how geographers could theorize the nonprofit sector in new ways. I decided to outline how geographers have theorized the nonprofit sector, what a Gibson-Graham inspired analysis would include, how I’m envisioning mapping that engagement onto social justice philanthropy, and what other parts of the nonprofit sector critical geographers could engage with.

Synergy.

I only had a few days to prepare this talk (because, let’s be real, my brain was 60% mush for 4 days after my exams. I didn’t get started on this until Tuesday, and I left for CO on Friday). I started writing out a scripted paper to read in Boulder.

Except that this supposed stress-reliever proved to be anxiety-producing. I do not read papers when I give talks. I talk. Conversationally. To engage the audience. To translate outside of academese. Reading from a paper would have confined me to, well, reading. If I go off script, what then? I’m lost.

So I took a deep breath and reminded myself of my strengths. I know this stuff. I just wrote about it for three days straight, and have been thinking about it deeply for months. And I like presenting and talking, and making audiences feel engaged and at ease and curious. I scrapped the working paper and went back to my roots. Bullet points, talking points, images. I blocked off conference rooms at Office Nomads and practiced the talk a few times. I wore high heels. I paced around and performed my professional self (to an empty room).

Fast forward to Saturday, when I gave my talk. The whole weekend, I felt an immense sense of satisfaction with my professional identity. The Critical conference marked the first conference I’ve presented in since realizing that I can be (and am) more than a graduate student. I’m a professional interested in creative philanthropy, a politics of possibility, and  re-politiczing the nonprofit sector.

Being able to represent myself in this multi-modal capacity was so… liberating. I wore my multiple hats proudly throughout the weekend. When people asked what I did, I thought, “Yeah, you know what? I do a lot of things. My graduate work is but one aspect of how I engage with these things.” When fellow grad students asked what is on my horizon, I said, “You know what? I don’t know. And I feel comfortable with that. Because I love to teach, I love to research, and I know I have skills that transfer across multiple paths. I will probably end up designing my own hybrid career, but I know I will continue engaging with the nonprofit sector and hopefully teaching and researching as well. Maybe I’ll end up consulting.  Maybe I’ll teach. Maybe both!” And when I responded to questions after my talk, it was with a confidence and clarity that I haven’t quite felt before in academic settings. People asked me things because they were genuinely interested in what I had to say. And I had things to say, because I’ve been living and breathing this for years! It’s not to say that I’m an expert. It just felt… comfortable. For one of the first times (and hopefully not the last!)

When I say ‘performing my professional self’, it is, for the first time, a positive thing. I wasn’t miming or pretending. I was performing within a  comfortable role, albeit it a new one. I felt like an understudy to my own professional life who finally got the chance to take the leading role and expand into it. I added my own creative flair to a role that had previously been modeled to me, but never felt my own.

What a huge gift. A relief. I am filled with gratitude for having the space to think deeply, try on and perform this professional self, and find a deep satisfaction with the ways I’m choosing to engage, share and act.

Synergies and Satisfaction: Finishing my Exams!

To those unfamiliar with the process of academic qualifying exams, they go something like this:

1) figure out what areas of [your academic discipline] you want to specialize in (i.e. moving forward, what are the subject areas within [discipline] that will most inform the dissertation project?)
2) write up a big ole’ statement about how those 3-ish areas inform your work
3) give said statement to your committee (usually 3 faculty), who each generate a question for you to answer. the questions are based on a gap in the statement, or an area the committee wants to push you towards
4) write fully cited essay responses to said questions in a short amount of time (for me, it was three 10-page essays in three days.)
5) sleep for days.
6) at some point, have an oral defense with your committee for an hour and a half of very hard, direct, on-the-spot questions.
6a) sweat bullets. say awkward things. watch committee cringe and try and help you along.
7) with any luck, PASS exams, and become a PhC (candidate for the doctorate)
8) go out for drinks with all of your academic friends
9) then research and write a g-damn dissertation. oof-dah.

As of today, I’ve done parts 1-5, but am waiting for parts 6-infinity for another week (+beyond). My statement detailed my interest in exploring the model of social justice philanthropy (SJP) through three lenses:
1) state restructuring: with the rise of nonprofits, and the simultaneous shrinking of assets, how is social justice philanthropy mobilizing for social change? how is it similar or different than existing models of philanthropy and social service provision?
2) critical poverty studies: what assumptions and beliefs does social justice philanthropy practice that challenge dominant, individualized and pathologizing discourses about poverty? In other words, how do SJP organizations understand poverty, and what do they believe they can do to change it?
3) political geographies and subjectivities: who are the people engaging with SJP? at what scale are they enacting politics? how do the practices of SJP challenge or contest more national level beliefs about the ‘best practices’ of new philanthropy?

So I got questions back that loosely fit into those narratives and questions. I was encouraged to think about my own epistemology (how I see the world), my methodology (how will I look at ‘discourse’? how will I remain open to engaging the possible rather than critiquing the limits?), and about the contradictions and position of *any* philanthropic engagement (i.e. the fact that philanthropy, by its very nature, relies on unequal distribution of wealth as a means to try and solve the problems created by unequal distribution of wealth…)

So I donned my coyote hat (one of my birthday gifts from a friend), hoisted a hefty backpack with my laptop, wireless mouse and keyboard, and lots of books, and I split my 3 days between Office Nomads and WeWork. I packed good food. I got good sleep. I made sure to exercise and not work more than 8 hours a day. I watched an episode of Sherlock every night. I wrote sitting down, I wrote standing up. I wrote while dancing. I took some naps, and I texted and g-chatted with fellow PhD students near and far. I called my parents with updates and posted at least one self-congratulatory facebook post.

And you know what? I had fun with it all. Really and truly. I think this is a testament to the fact my program is an extremely good fit for me, and that my committee knows me well. And that I am a huge nerd at heart.

I also think I was ready to be pushed, to truly develop my ideas. To dig deep and think hard. The questions were incredibly productive. That said, by the end of the three days, my brain was mush. It took me at least a full week to recover my thinking capacity.

But when I woke up a few days later, I thought, “huh. what was all the fuss about? one day I woke up and started writing, and 3 days later I was done.”

The tendency is to build this whole process up SO MUCH. To stress about all of the reading to do, the work to prepare, the elusive ‘readiness’ that one should feel before writing the exams. However, I decided early on to try and avoid this stress. To just read in an incredibly focused way, and to take thorough notes. I decided to start writing the statement, and that if I came upon an area that I needed to read more deeply, then I would pause and read. I trusted that my adviser wouldn’t let me take the exams if it was clear I wasn’t ready. Lo and behold, she gave me the green light immediately, and I saved myself an enormous amount of stress.

Because here’s what I realized: I was always going to be ready, because this is the stuff I’m living and breathing. I’m not only thinking about social justice philanthropy in the context of school, I’m thinking about it as an activist, as a long-term project, as a writer, as a nonprofit manager, and as a participant. I am not only thinking about poverty politics through academic papers, but through my own discourses, through twitter feeds, through public policy, through the ways my entrepreneurial peers approach social inequalities. And politics? It is part and parcel of how I see the world, how I think about every day actions and larger strategies. To clarify, I don’t mean electoral or governmental politics. I mean the actions that people take that put them in a position to live their values, to stake a claim, to push for change, or to say something challenging. For scholars writing on politics in this way, see Lynn Staeheli, Stuart Hall, Tracy Skelton, Gill Hart, Vicky Lawson, and J.K. GIbson-Graham. 

So I turned in my exams and sent them off in a 36 page PDF. I then proceeded to have a dance party to some very loud pop music in the lobby of WeWork, to eat an enormous bowl of celebratory pho, and then go home and make myself a strong hot toddy. And then sleep for days (kind of).

This was not a process I would elect to undertake again, but it was incredibly positive, productive, and not-that-painful. I look forward to hearing from my committee during the oral defense. And I am so pleased to have had the chance to think deeply about my research, to write it out, and to remind myself that I am ready and I will continue to be ready. Bring it on, dissertation! You’re next.

Mini-Blog Series: Synergies and Satisfaction

February. What a whirlwind.

After my fair city of Seattle dominated the Grammys and the Superbowl, I began a week-long birthday celebration with friends throughout the city.

The following week, I wrote my qualifying exams. And then tried to recover.

I then quickly prepared a talk and hopped on a plane to the Critical Geography Conference at CU-Boulder.

The afternoon of my return from Boulder, I was back in my relational poverty seminar. And I just applied for the Numad program at Office Nomads.

At some point in the last three weeks, I noticed that it all just kind of came together. A great synergy. All of the tendrils I’ve been testing and floating out there came zipping back in and went shooooomp!

This coalesced during my exploratory talk at Boulder, which discussed how I was going to engage critical feminist theory in my dissertation research on social justice philanthropy.

I am one who processes through writing. So, I’m designing a short blog series on this synergy and finding satisfaction with my professional energies. I will post a few short reflections in the coming days that help articulate and capture the energy, intentionality, questions and ideas that have been generated in the last month. I continue to develop my identity in the world of creative philanthropy: as a scholar, a writer, by planning events, through speaking events and as a community connector. I believe this is going to be the basis of my life’s work for the next little while. Hang in there with me while I start to put all the pieces together.

Relearning poverty knowledge

I recently published a new piece of writing on the blog for the Relational Poverty Network, of which I am a member.

The piece asks what it might look like to acknowledge, unlearn and re-learn our ideas and assumptions about poverty.

It is in response to a TEDx talk by Ananya Roy at UC Berkeley. Check it out at: http://depts.washington.edu/relpov/acknowledging-unlearning-relearning-poverty-knowledge/

If you like the post, consider following and/or joining the RPN!

Today, I fell in love

Well, not real love. Not the oxytocin drunk, I want to spend every minute with you, can’t concentrate on work because I’m thinking of you, smiling so much my colleagues wonder what’s wrong with me kind of love.

Maybe it’s more of a crush. The kind where I  can’t stop thinking about all the good things yet to come, about the great times we’ll spend together, about how unbelievably perfect it all seems to be, about the energy high I felt for hours after our parting, about wanting to share my feelings with anyone who will listen because I am just.so.excited.

I am falling for my office. For coworking.  I’m falling for Office Nomads.

I knew it was time for me to get some different office space after I emerged anew from my autumn transition, after some deep reflection about my personal and professional needs. I let go of one dissertation idea and let myself follow all of the obvious signs to accept and pursue a dissertation on social justice philanthropy. I realized I was woefully unproductive in my graduate student office, where the (perfectly normal and totally acceptable and I’ve been there) nervous energy of the new students was putting me on edge. I realized that many of the professional habits I had clung to (see “I’ve Always Been a Juggler“) were being triggered by the familiar space of my office and colleagues.

Two of my friends manage coworking spaces in Seattle (Impact HUB andWeWork) – both of which are incredible, and I would highly recommend them. However, they were both a bit out of my price range, and targeted for actual businesses or self-employed individuals / entrepreneurs who needed flexible but regular office space. I, on the other hand, just needed a place I could go once a week or so to shake up my routine. Where I might meet other hybrid-scholar-activist types who wear many hats in the world. Where I could go, sit down with my computer, not feel obligated to buy a coffee, not fight for crowded space, not risk falling asleep at the library (not like that’s every happened to me, but I’ve heard it could…)

Office Nomads, where have you been all my life?! With a new student priced membership, this was the perfect option for me. Free coffee, tea and printing. Unlimited wifi. Desk space guaranteed. Standing desks available. Meeting rooms to book. A shower (!) so I could potentially run mid-day and come back and work more. Dogs! (At least two so far.) Couches, where people unabashedly take naps. A lovely little kitchen area where I met three people already who have similar interests (one a social responsibility consultant, another who used kickstarter for a social action project in India, another who is discovering GIS for the first time). I had pleasant conversations with lots of other people. I listened to the light KEXP in the background when I wanted to, and put headphones in when I needed more focus. I drank a lot of (free!) tea.

I got about two days of work done in four hours.

Like I said, I’m in love.

Here’s to having space that feels welcoming, pleasant, encourages productivity and also play, has all the resources I need. Here’s to work space that is not filled with undergraduate students, is not freezing cold, is not a sleepy library, and is *not* my couch or dining room table. Here’s to an office that brings me into contact with lots of new people, and will foster the hybrid scholar-connector-event planner-writer-activist identity (and work) that I am working on becoming.

For more on coworking in Seattle check out the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance to find a space that might work for you.

Pumpkin pie and philanthropy

I have seen and consumed more pumpkin pies in the last week than in any other week of my life, as far as I can remember.

Last week, Eat for Equity Seattle held its first anniversary dinner, E4E4E4E! A tradition started by the Minneapolis branch, E4E4E4E is an annual dinner that benefits the local branch, to raise money to help buy kitchen supplies, run our program and build capacity. We held our largest dinner yet, and featured 7 pumpkin pies made by volunteers. They were absolutely delicious. We also fed 90 people and raised $1100 for our own work – by far the most we’ve ever raised, and the most people we’ve ever hosted. By all accounts, it was a huge success.

Pumpkin Pies
Then, of course, there was Thanksgiving. I spent Thursday evening with my inherited Seattle family, the sisters and cousins of one of my dearest friends from back East. There were too many pies that night. So many that we, (gasp), had to try a little bit of each one. All four. It was, if I dare to say it, entirely too much pie.

And then I had the gift of opening my home to my new Seattle family. These are the people to whom I’ve grown so close, with whom I can share my vulnerability, who have met me in this time of transition and reorientation and said, “dive in – we’ll catch you”. In fact, many of them have told me that my transition has inspired them to ask questions of their own lives, to have the courage to explore the taken-for-granted stories we find ourselves within; these friends have given me their love and received mine. Given my love of food and friends and gratitudes, it was a no-brainer that I would open my home and share a feast with these folks. Many hadn’t met before, but they all got along with ease. The group were couples, single friends, a roommate, an old friend, an adventurer, soon-to-be-parents, soon-to-be-married, a new friend, a visitor, many chefs; all in all they are my family. And there was another pumpkin pie. And a beautiful gluten-free buckwheat cake with carmelized pears. Oh, sweet goodness.

photo (2)

Enough of desserts. What does this have to do with anything, you might ask?

In the course of these last 10 days, I have also been working on a side project that has spanned all the pies and has energized me when the sugar highs run out. I am developing a syllabus for a proposed class that I could teach independently through the Comparative History of Ideas department on UW’s campus. CHID always hosts a call for classes for pre-doctoral instructors. My class would be called Reimagining Nonprofits, and takes an interdisciplinary and action-based approach to learning about the nonprofit sector. Rather than approach it from a practitioner standpoint or a policy perspective, this small seminar would guide students through an exploration of the current role of nonprofits, how they’ve come to hold this role, and how alternate theorizations might expand our possible expectations for the sector. The class asks students contribute to popular discourses on nonprofits (through blog posts or op-eds). Additionally, students would design a proposal for an engaged project with a local nonprofit (that they could choose to enact, but wouldn’t have to).

I am so.fired.up. about this class. It has been the first thing I want to work on every day, and my biggest source of satisfaction. The syllabus captures what I am passionate about, but also what I want to learn more about. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I suspect that students and I could develop a really fascinating dialogue about what nonprofits are and what they could be. I’ve sent the syllabus to a few colleagues and friends to look over before I submit the proposal, and all of them have responded, “I wish this class was offered when I was an undergraduate!” “I want to take this class!” One of my friends/colleagues, (who recently got hired in a tenure-track position in nonprofit management), told me that I should absolutely plan to apply for nonprofit education faculty positions when I go on the market.

Which leads me to the ‘ah-ha’ moment over all of this pie I’ve been eating (and which I’m about to go have a slice of in a moment!)

Between the amazing article in Crosscut about Eat for Equity (A new model for millenial philanthropy?) writing this course syllabus, the two sessions on Philanthropy I’m organizing at this year’s AAG, and my upcoming membership with Social Justice Fund I realize that my identity and interests in philanthropy are more than just a tangent to my dissertation research. They are the central pieces to a larger puzzle. They are the core of my intellectual passion.

For a long time people have asked me how Eat for Equity fits into my research trajectory and broader commitments. I never knew precisely how to answer that question, because it was never *meant* to be part of my research trajectory. It was a passionate commitment to pursue social justice and community building through good food and positive, welcoming spaces. Now, though, I see a larger arc.

I believe that the current state of the nonprofit sector can never address large scale inequalities and offer systemic change. I believe that large scale systemic change is possible. I believe new approaches to philanthropy and giving are a radically important piece to this puzzle. I believe social justice philanthropy like SJF empowers donors, activists and community members to work together towards collective action. I believe that Eat for Equity allows individuals to realize that no act of giving is too small, that giving doesn’t have to ‘look big’, and that when we come together, we can do amazing things that we could never do on our own. I believe that scholars need to address this sector and use our theoretical toolkit to expand how we understand what nonprofits and philanthropy can do in the world. Quoting one of my advisers, then, I ask “what work does the nonprofit sector do?” I ask this of the sector at large, and I ask it of donors. I ask it of myself and I ask it of alternative forms of giving. As producers of knowledge, I believe academics have a responsibility to advance our theoretical understanding of this sector that influences so many people’s lives, and yet is often brushed off based on its perceived benevolence. In fact, when I say that I study the nonprofit sector, many people sometimes question my motives, “but, don’t you believe in the work that these organizations do?”

Yes! Of course I do. I think any program that makes someone’s life better is a valuable program. But what are the relationships between nonprofit programs and their donors? Between donors and the program recipients? What vision do these organizations have for the future, and for social change? How do organizations address questions of systemic inequality, privilege, wealth and inequality? Can organizations conceptualize ‘leadership training’ and ‘empowerment’ not for individuals only, but for the collective?

So, the ah-ha pie moment: I am a philanthropy scholar. I am, maybe, a social entrepreneur (though  I don’t know if I am even sure what that term means anymore). My scholastic interests are not my primary identity. I want to expand and develop this larger broader identity as someone interested and committed to reimagining, envisioning and expanding the nonprofit sector through questions of social justice philanthropy and collective giving.

All of this is to say, I’m making myself some business cards. I just don’t know what they should say.

I’ve always been a juggler.

Interesting that on the heels of my last two posts, which praised the pursuit of projects, I drastically reoriented my own standing in relation to my multiple projects.

Without going into much personal detail, suffice it to say I recently found myself smack dab in the middle of a big internal reorientation. A few things had changed in my life over the summer, and in the months that followed, I’ve needed to take time to reorient the internal structuring of my identity, habits, assumptions and priorities. This process has been exhausting, it has been scary, and it has required me to drastically reconfigure my daily activities. There has been very little progress on school work. I’ve stayed committed to my teaching, but my own progress has been sluggish. Viscous, even.

Let me pause and say: everything is ok. I am doing great. In fact, I feel more centered and at peace than I have in… years. The energy I have is not from the adrenaline of being busy every second of every day, but from knowing that I have the capacity, skills and knowledge to figure out how I want to (re)build and (re)establish the infrastructure and architecture of my life. Where low-levels of anxiety used to be the norm, now they are a warning beacon. They are letting me know that I’m clinging to old habits, trying to fit too many things into a life that has asked me for simplicity. These stress beacons make me conscious of when I am trying to make plans and find conclusive answers to things down the road, of which I have little control and are often distractions for what I’m feeling right now.

That is the thing about being a project person. It’s really easy not to look inward. I was always scheduling the next meeting, brainstorming the next conference, scheming for my next trip, calculating a budget; I was always planning my days to be the most efficient possible, so I could fit in yet another thing. My colleagues were baffled by me: how do you get so much done? Literally, how do you do it?! My advisers praised me: you have what it takes to be an academic! you’re so good at time management, you’ll be a wonderful professor! My family and friends were always supportive, but had also come to expect that they would rarely see me, for I was so busy and had so many people to see and projects to tend to.

And one day, about a month ago, I realized: I didn’t feel good about being this person anymore. I was tired of juggling. But, but…

I am really good at juggling. I can keep multiple balls in the air, think logistically, plan efficiently. I can have a day in which I teach, grade papers, write a blog post, exercise, cook a delicious meal, go to a meeting, respond to emails, call a friend on the phone, read food blogs, catch up on twitter, and read academic articles. And I can go to bed exhausted, my body tense and my mind in a whir. I am really good at to-do lists.

Just because I can juggle, doesn’t mean I have to juggle. I find I am wanting simplicity,  and that I am not as satisfied by being as busy. I long for deeper connection with the people in my life, and want to nurture my capacity to look inward and explore who it is I want to be, how I want to relate to myself and others, and what types of projects I actually want to be involved in.

Just because I’m not juggling right now, doesn’t mean I’m not still a juggler. I have a lot of fear in letting go of this hyper-busy-version of myself. Can I be successful as a graduate student if I’m not cramming 15 things into a day? What if I only do four? Can I still get published? Develop my own course syllabus? Apply for grants? Teach? Be a mentor and receive mentorship? Perform department service? Continue to build relationships with community partners? Complete my exams? Develop my Public Scholarship Certificate? Go to conferences? Is it even possible? In these moments of extreme doubt (and, to be honest, wrinkled brow confusion at the vast number of *things* we’re supposed to balance as under-paid graduate students), I remember that just because I’m choosing not to tackle *all* of those things in one day, doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to. I am choosing to focus my energy and be intentional in my activities, rather than prioritizing efficiency and speed. If at some point I want to get the juggling pins out again, I can. They’ll just be in my closet, along with multi-colored juggling balls, circus knives and flame throwers.

Even though I’m really good at juggling, I can do other things, too. I am building out my repertoire of ways-of-being. In response to the litany of “Can I still…” questions above, the answer is, of course, “yes”. It might take more time, and it will be guaranteed to look different. But it is possible, because while I am a juggler, I am not only a juggler. Right now I’m feeling more like a tightrope walker: focusing, moving slowly, striving for balance, and trusting that there’s a big ole’ net to catch me when I inevitably trip, stumble and make mistakes. Maybe later I will be a clown. Perhaps someday I’ll tame lions.

Learning to understand this transition has been difficult. There were days early on when I was still going through the motions of doing-everything-all-the-time, and I felt like a ghost floating through someone else’s life. One day, I barely recognized myself in the mirror. I had no appetite. At one point, a colleague said, “you look… muted.” Hm. Concerning. Time to reevaluate.

Where once I proselytized juggling as many projects as possible (to nurture your whole self! to not limit yourself to just academia! to keep your passions and energy fresh! to collaborate and work with others!), I am now a disciple of simplicity. Making that transition within an academic department in which I could have carried around a coffee mug that said, “World’s Best Juggler!”, it is a great vulnerability to share that I am no longer performing that show. And, of course, I am not yet “good” at simplicity. I don’t know how to get an “A+” in simplicity. I do know how to get an A+ in juggling, and so I see myself slipping back into those habits, those grooves, with distressing ease. But that is when the stress signals chime in and say, “Take a step back, Elyse. Pause. Simplify. We know it’s hard. You’re not going to get an “A”. You’ll probably get a “C” at best… but at least you’re trying.”

And try I will. Because we’re all just doing the best we can, just trying to get our needs met. I am doing the best I can, and trying to get my needs met. Right now, I have a deep need for intentionality, focus, and connection. Does this mean I’m scrapping all of my projects? Not at all. But I am holding myself in a new relationship to my projects. I’m practicing saying ‘no’ before I say ‘yes’. I’m learning to do those things that feel like a gift to me, rather than doing things out of a feeling of obligation. And I am pursuing projects in which I feel like I can be my honest and whole self, whether that is a frazzled juggler, an off-balance tightrope walker, or a sad clown.