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Social Justice Toolbox

In search of the activist academic

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

When people ask me “what do you do?” meaning “what do you do for a living?” I find I have two options for how to respond. One is to look proudly in their eyes and say, “I teach human rights to journalists!” which is true, but unfortunately this is not what I spend most of my time doing, nor does it pay my rent. The other is to look down at my boots and mumble, “I drank the academic Kool-Aid” which is also true, but leaves me unsettled; I feel like I am no longer really part of the struggle for human rights. My brains are active but my hands are clean. I’ve sold out.

Both answers feel dishonest. I don’t know how to answer – because such boxes have always been blurred. The truth is, I find it fun to hopscotch categories. But when it comes to academic work such hopscotching can be seen as a sign of immaturity and non-professionalism. Or worse, activism and attachment to an issue is an indication that you are not serious about your work; and consequently should not be taken seriously.

Having always been too academic for the activists and too activist for the academics I have spent most of my time trying to create a new understanding by straddling both worlds. I knew I was not alone…but I had a hard time understanding if there was a “we.” I knew there were people around who seemed to engage in activism in spite of their academic standing but it was harder to identify people who used their academic training and resources as part of their activism, and vice versa. Those whom I heard about and admired from a distance seemed far away and scattered – big names but not real. People whom I could read or listen to but not people with whom I could sit down and have a cup of coffee and learn with. (more…)

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