Palko POV: Unearthed
In my last post I mentioned our recent work on values and promised to return to talk more about them. Given that we’re the Women’s Center, in some ways our first value, social justice, seems self-evident. But in other, crucial ways, the traumas of 2020 remind us that it bears reflecting on it. It was important for us to explicitly articulate that “we work for social justice through anti-racist and feminist approaches.” I’d like to share a series of impressions and observations to help explain why.
One evening in August, I hosted a call for friends and supporters of the Women’s Center to share updates about our work. Hosting events as well as meetings from home has become commonplace but the Wi-fi in my house is rarely happy at 5:00 p.m. I think it feels a responsibility to kick me off indicating that the workday is over and I should walk away from the computer. To avoid an untimely “internet unstable” message, I headed to the Women’s Center. Sitting at the table in my office preparing to host the call, I looked out the front windows and up University Avenue toward the Rotunda for the first time since March. I realized that, with the construction fencing now removed, I can see the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers from my office. The granite bursts up through the earth, embodying the history that the institution tried to forget but that refuses to stay buried. The landscape is altered again, recording and commemorating the blood, sweat, and tears that powered the previous alteration.
What questions have you forgotten to ask?
At the end of September, we held our first ever virtual award presentation when we hosted Women of Impact to celebrate the recipients of the Univeristy 2020 Distinguished Alumna Award. It is striking to me how, year after year, our Distinguished Alumna honorees speak poignantly to the moment during which they were selected. In her reflections, Marion Weiss (Arch 79) noted the importance of listening to questions that people forgot to ask. I ask you to pause for a moment with this thought: what questions have you forgotten to ask? In reference to the multiple crises and traumas we are currently living through, Nancy Howell Agee (Nurs 79) observed that “our ecosystem has changed forever and now we need to learn how to use new tools.” We need new ways of communicating and forming connections. How can a commitment to working for “social justice through anti-racist and feminist approaches” guide us?
In February BC (I’m reclaiming this abbreviation for “before coronavirus”), our Engaged Scholarship team brought Austin Channing Brown to Grounds to speak at their Black Womanhood in College Workshop. She also led trainings with our interns and the Women’s Center staff. During the staff training, she pointed out to us that when she asked questions about the Women’s Center, we were answering with observations about UVA. She encouraged us to articulate the values that guide our work as the Women’s Center. We took up this invitation and over the next six months we held an ongoing series of conversations, excavating layers of what we do in search of the core values underlying why we do it.
Building on previous iterations of this discussion, we explored our values through google docs and in conversations over zoom. We wrestled with how to articulate our thoughts and where to find the bedrock of commonality, working in isolated togetherness through a global health pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and concurrent ground swelling of support for racial justice in response to George Floyd’s murder.
Exchanges ranged from the grammar-geeky consideration of how words sound in pairs to the deeply philosophical debate over the distinctions between compassion, empathy, sympathy, and solidarity.
It took a series of conversations, both challenging and crucial, to articulate three values that build on each other to guide our work: Social Justice, Community Care and Wellness, Professional Excellence and Mentorship. With our primary focus on Social justice, we can see how self-care and community-care are integral tools for achieving it, and then how approaching this work through this approach positions us to offer and benefit from reciprocal mentorship with the students who join us in this work.
Readily establishing that we work for social justice through anti-racist and feminist approaches, we then moved into an in-depth conversation about the specific pillars on which our work for social justice rests. Exchanges ranged from the grammar-geeky consideration of how words sound in pairs to the deeply philosophical debate over the distinctions between compassion, empathy, sympathy, and solidarity. Ultimately, we decided we champion three paired-concepts:
- diversity & inclusion
- equity & equality
- compassion & solidarity
Racism depends upon perceiving a group as different and then dehumanizing members of that group. The only antidote to this poison is the paired response of solidarity and compassion: solidarity, to stand with others, recognizing our interconnections and actively working for their good; compassion, to notice others’ suffering and act in response to that suffering.
The existence of disproportionate barriers means that equal treatment too often moves us no closer to equality. You’ve likely seen one or more versions of the graphic showing kids trying to see over a fence, which has morphed in increasingly nuanced ways since Craig Froehle created it in 2012, helping us think about how to meet people’s varied needs, how to fairly distribute resources – and how to remove unnecessary barriers.
Anti-racist is a hot buzzword in 2020, but its core is neither trendy nor, hopefully, ephemeral. Its core is an unwavering commitment to the inherent dignity of every human being, commitment demonstrated through action to change the systems that dehumanize. This brings us to another catchphrase used, too often, without sufficient care or explanation, “Doing the work.” Our nation and our university were both founded – in the literal sense of physically built – by the labor of Black people held in slavery. Given this history, justice demands that we reveal systems that inflict harm and actively work to dismantle them and replace them with systems that encourage and support human flourishing.
Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist provides helpful insights and definitions for readers wanting to know more. Kendi posits that racism is a systemic, not individual problem that “has always been at its core the problem of power, not the problem of immorality or ignorance.” He argues that we need to distinguish between people and policies: “Individual behaviors can shape the success of individuals. But policies determine the success of groups. And it is racist power that creates the policies that cause racial inequities.” His work invites us all to imagine how we can contribute to building an antiracist society.
I want to close this reflection with a few thoughts about inclusion: how you tell the story, who you invite to see themselves within the story, matters. From my first interview for my position over 4 and a half years ago to as recently as a week and a half ago, people have told me that there were no women students at UVA before 1970 – though they usually remember to correct themselves with the aside, “except for the nurses.” But this is so far from the truth. Roberta Hollingsworth Gwathmey, the first woman to earn a PhD in Romance Languages from UVA, served as Dean of Women from 1934-1967. Her brothers, also UVA alumni, frequently teased her:
“She says she’s dean of women at the University of Virginia, but, of course, she isn’t. She couldn’t be, because there are no women at the University.” She would respond with a laugh and then a more serious remark: “They’ve been saying there are no women here so long that it’s become a tradition, and just like all traditions, it gets broken, but no one acknowledges it.”
Because we’ve told the story for so long with an investment in seeing UVA as a white southern gentlemen’s school, talented women have been shut out (Alice Jackson), forgotten (Lois Ketcham Carwile), and faced a harder path than they should have (the women of the class of 1974). With their stories unearthed, we see that we are standing on their shoulders now in our work to bring into being an inclusive vision of social justice.