8 WGS Changes Lives: A Meditation on Feminist Praxis
By Kandace Creel Falcón, University of Minnesota, alum
A theory in the flesh means one where the physical realities of our lives – our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings—all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity – Cherríe Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1983, 23).
I have always felt a particular connection to this feminist collection first published in 1981. Not only have I seen it as the roadmap leading me to my understanding of my Chicana feminist politic, but the first edition was birthed the same year my mama bore me. We have come of age in the same era of contestation of gender, racial, and sexual politics. To recognize This Bridge as formative for WGS means articulating a different starting point of the field. So often in undergraduate courses my fellow WGS students and I were taught that women of color feminisms were additive—in addition to—the “trailblazing” work that white Western women laid out for the rest of us. This is certainly one way of understanding and writing the history of WGS. However, I concur with Chicana feminists like Aída Hurtado, that our mamas and abuelas, our ancestors and community members did feminism even if they did not name it as such. This enactment and embodiment of feminist values reflects a root of the necessary political project of Women’s and Gender Studies that requires a decolonial approach instead of the assimilable one too often written by white historians. This project requires an understanding of how action shapes theory and theory shapes action (feminist praxis), giving us all an opportunity to contemplate feminist praxis that purposefully engages a multiplicity of trajectories. In this essay I trace my connections to feminist praxis from WGS student to professor and beyond, to meditate on the power of WGS as one committed to evolving practices for liberatory possibilities.
I became a feminist scholar through teaching peers and middle-school aged students about intimate partner violence (IPV), reproductive health, and consent as an intern at the Albuquerque Rape Crisis Center (ARCC) my last year of high school. Under my Chicana femme supervisor Andrea’s leadership, we offered trainings for young people that manifested powerful conversations which changed peoples’ understanding about the world around them. I saw feminism in action. Andrea not only made space for me to grapple with shifting notions around my gender and sexuality, she also suggested that I take a Women’s Studies class when I went to college. Working for the Albuquerque Rape Crisis Center launched the trajectory I would spend the next two decades following. I found my way into the Women’s Studies classroom through good luck (and good advice). Though luck opened my mind to the field, I found so many times I also had to fight to remain there. I struggled with how my program’s curriculum in the early 2000s normalized white feminism. Despite these challenges, I also fought to pursue a degree in the field because my parents did not support it. I appeased them by picking it up as a minor, and then later as a double major that was only legible to them because they could see a career trajectory with my other major – psychology. I felt most alive when I worked alongside other WGS majors to host Take Back the Night rallies in our community, or to protest sexism as it operated on our campus. I thrived as a student when I lived what we theorized in our classroom out in the community. The practical applicability of the discipline keeps me committed to feminism, even after changing my relationship to the academy.
It is incredible how many of my undergraduate experiences would come to mirror similar experiences of the students I mentored as a graduate student pursuing a PhD in Feminist Studies and then later as a faculty member. And yet, feminist praxis connects our similar experiences to enable shared commitments to WGS. Chela Sandoval’s “methodology of the oppressed” provides a useful lens on how antiracist and feminist ideologies must contend with the contributions from those of us who live subjugated or situated knowledges as a means of achieving equitable interrelationships between theory and practice (2000). Feminists of color facilitate this co-constitutive relationship between theory and practice within the space of our classrooms and in our communities. Just like I first encountered WGS in community, feminist praxis does not belong to the academy alone. The interdisciplinary fields of WGS and Ethnic Studies born out of demands for inclusion, require us to contend with the roots from where we come. (See Russell, Loftin, and Shayne’s essay about SDSU’s program in this collection.) Feminist praxis also requires us to continue to shape new iterations of our disciplinary relationships to the academy. In my estimation, the institutionalization of the field perpetuates systemic violence on the individual scholar-activist and marginalizes contributions of activist-scholar communities when the academy divorces feminist action from theory.
This tightrope feminist practitioners must walk within the academy makes feminist praxis necessary to WGS as a disciplinary field, and also contributes to our departmental/programmatic precarity. While I served as faculty at Minnesota State University Moorhead in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, feminist praxis was a key consideration for course outcomes even as administrative demands did not always see the value of or labor required for this work. In a two-hundred level course for WGS majors and minors, designed as an introduction to the discipline, called “Perspectives and Intersections,” I intentionally integrated an activist project for feminist praxis purposes. Within the class, we pitched ideas to each other for projects we could accomplish in one semester for the local community. Students had the opportunity to work in small groups or individually on a project of our collective choosing. During class time we worked to define what we meant by “local;” sometimes that was the city in which our campus was located, sometimes campus itself, or other times the entire state of Minnesota or North Dakota. After a collaborative discernment process involving all students, they broke into working groups to begin researching and strategizing how to take direct action. I assigned books by inspiring authors, including Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy (2017) and Berger and Radeloff’s (authors in this collection) Transforming Scholarship (2015) which guided our reflections about processes of making social change, and our responsibilities as WGS scholars. We thought about how theories we learn inform our activism and how our experiences as activists inform the theories we make about the world. In short, we reflected on our experiences as theory in the flesh: what we learned from lifetimes as queer people, as Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), as white women, and all of the intersections represented in the room. We purposefully reflected on the important dimensions of our lives as an entry-point to deeply engage how our feminist praxis could reflect our experiences.
One end result of these processes was that students decided they wanted to collectively work on a series of short videos raising awareness about Women’s and Gender Studies for the broader campus community. That class included a couple of students who were also filmmakers, so they used their skills to create these fun animations highlighting the sorts of things WGS can teach. In Still Rufflin’ Feathers, Ravn Thor Hegland (in his capacity as project leader) juxtaposed feminist theorists represented as chickens alongside the hatching of eggs that turned out to be the students themselves. In a beautiful turn of about two-minutes of run time, the video helps connect the students to theorists and their role as learners while simultaneously articulating a vision of how they see WGS operating in their lives and for the good of the broader campus. In the second video, WGS BLASCt Off, the students pun the university’s liberal arts and sciences curriculum (LASC) general education requirements in the title of the video. The video again features the feminist chickens who had become a mascot of the WGS Program at MSUM. The chickens, which can be read as the students from the first video of the series, are abducted into space and shown what LASC classes WGS offers for the campus community. Upon completing their education, the chickens return back to earth and highlight the many ways students can engage with WGS on campus. The ending of both videos shows a hen laying an egg accompanied with the words “Rufflin’ Feathers Since 1971… and beyond” when the chick hatches. In linking past and future while grounding their needs in the present, WGS students created a tangible feminist praxis. Through highlighting classes on campus, these videos honored the legacy of WGS on campus while simultaneously protecting it. Their creation of the video as a cultural product—shareable and broadcastable (they ran on the video screens across campus for months)—represented the values we learned in the classroom. The animations connected our theories and values to our practice.
Feminist praxis takes many forms and shapes, though the most successful practices require purposeful reflection and a tailored approach to the conditions in which it operates. At MSUM, we worked hard to help others not involved with WGS understand how WGS might impact their lives. This was important because despite the program existing on campus since 1971, it remained precarious within the institution forty years later. Promoting the program helped students connect meaningfully to the history of the program on their campus and allowed them to be a part of the legacy of fighting for its survival. So much has changed since the creation of these videos: students have graduated and are working to make change in their corners of the world. The attacks on WGS—like the elimination of faculty positions which left me the only faculty line in WGS; my administrative appointment as WGS Director prior to earning tenure; the endless need to justify our curriculum’s relevance to LASC goal areas—became too heavy a burden for me to carry alone. As a queer Chicana femme, juggling all of this, on top of the emotional labor of supporting marginalized students, led to my eventual departure from the institution in 2019. (See Torres’s and Howard’s essays in this collection about the importance of supporting minoritized faculty.) The state of the program at MSUM remains uncertain with news of the firing of thirty-four faculty members in Spring of 2020, the elimination of Ethnic Studies, and no public administrative efforts to replace the line which I left vacant. Regardless of my position in relation to the academy, feminist praxis continues to guide my thinking and my contributions to social justice. Feminist praxis shapes the community work I undertake, the reading lists I work through, and the creative work I pursue. No matter where I am, or what I am doing, I carry with me the legacy of Chicana feminist praxis. My work aligns my values with my actions the best I can. Currently, this looks like exploring visual narratives to expand my storytelling toolbox. I am creating. Just as I was struck with the awe of the possibility of understanding how feminist praxis can change lives at 18, I remain committed to these possibilities two decades later, wherever I land.
Berger, Michelle T and Cheryl Radeloff. 2015 . Transforming Scholarship: Why Women’s and Gender Studies Students Are Changing Themselves and the World, Second Edition. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Brown, Adrienne Maree. 2017. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.
Hurtado, Aída. 2003. “Underground Feminisms: Innocencia’s Story.” In Chicana Feminisms: A Critical Reader, eds., Gabriela F. Arredondo, Aída Hurtado, Norma Klahn, Olga Jájera-Ramírez, & Patricia Zavella, 260-290. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Moraga, Cherríe and Gloria Anzaldúa eds. 1983 . This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color Second edition. New York, NY: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
Olson, David. 2020, April 16. “Minnesota State University Moorhead to cut 10 majors, over 60 jobs,” in Duluth News Tribune. https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/news/education/5130113-Minnesota-State-University-Moorhead-to-cut-10-majors-over-60-jobs [Accessed: 4/29/2020].
Sandoval, Chela. 2000. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.
Shayne, Julie. 2017, September 15. “Recognizing Emotional Labor in Academe,” in Conditionally Accepted. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/09/15/importance-recognizing-faculty-their-emotional-support-students-essay [Accessed: 5/20/2020.]