ACTIVISM AND ACADEMIA
During the second Feminist and Queer Solidarities Beyond Borders workshop on Wednesday 20th January 202, we were joined by Begüm Başdaş and Nadzeya Husakouskaya.
Begüm, a researcher at Hertie School Berlin, Germany, gave a keynote speech entitled “Activist academic: Knowledge production, ethics and the drive for change.” Nadzeya is a gender researcher and activist from Belarus and gave a keynote speech entitled “Why use matters: ethics, responsibilities and anxieties of the activist academic.”
Activist academic: Knowledge production, ethics and the drive for change
Begüm's talk focussed on three questions: What is the use and responsibility of the activist academic knowledge? , What is at the heart of the crisis between activism and academia? and What are the ethical obligations for activism academics? Begüm began her refugee rights activism in Lesbos, Greece in 2013. For Begüm, activism and academia combine to make ‘a confusing situation, a puzzle’.
What is the use and responsibility of the activist academic knowledge?
Academic responsibility or freedom is a way to seek and tell the truth at all costs. Academics are the ones who can change the way the world thinks and functions in order to make human life better. The quality of a university is measured in the impact the institution has on the economy, on society, on culture, public policy, or services such a heath, the environment, and quality of life. However, something considered ‘useful’ in academia may not be useful in activism. Begüm stopped publishing articles almost 10 years ago and instead focusses on writing for newspapers or in open, public resources. However, there is a feeling of conflict between her academic profession and the security of finding jobs within academia due to these contradictions.
In Lesbos, Begüm’s identity is far reaching, from humanitarian aid, rights activism, to formal research interviews. Begüm focusses on practices of solidarity and care with NGOs, volunteers and refugees. People in Lesbos helped her with her research because they trusted that she would do no harm. Academia is a conundrum, as there is a structural problem of knowledge production, where knowledge of theory and methodology is important, but institutions need academics to justify their methods, some of which do not fit the normative academic forms but respond to the needs of the communities they work with.
What is at the heart of the crisis between activism and academia?
Begüm argues that academic activists need to craft their own existence and need to be in two places at the same time. They need to publish in social science citation index journals, whilst simultaneously producing knowledge that will improve the lives of people through policy change. Academic activists also need to publish things in a number of languages, so they are accessible to the people they work with on the ground. Many refugees have told Begüm they are unaware of many of the publications about them as they are written in English. Therefore activist academics must provide material that is accessible to the communities they are working with. They need to be present in activist meetings and in department meetings. There is also a difference between how academics and researcher journalists are treated. Journalists get less condemned or easily dismissed. The journalists have a wider reach than the academics, which means the academics need to hold the line and are held to higher expectations.
What are the ethical obligations for activism academics?
Academia and activism are both destined for similar purposes, and fight for change. Activists see interviews with researchers as a waste of time, away from action and strategy. To resolve the crisis between academia and activism, Begüm argues that we must start anew, we need to look more at the convergences and identify commonalities between the structures of activism and academia. We need to look at the power struggles within academia and within activism.
LGBTI+ Refugees in Lesbos
LGBTI+ refugees in Lesbos and other refugee camps hide themselves, and researchers or NGO workers rarely go looking for them. Begüm argued that being visibly LGBTI+ in a refugee camp almost always leads to threat, assaults, physical violence, and rapes. The violence LGBTI+ refugees experience is rarely documented by the authorities, healthcare providers, rights defenders, and journalists. Whilst researching in hotspot zones such as refugee camps, how do academic activists honestly and openly reveal the everyday violence refugees face, both from the authorities and from within the camps. The activist academics must also consider how much they render visible. Begüm argues that ensuring protection of refugees is part of the personal and political responsibility of the activist academic. They must work with the community to determine what is sacred, what will not be documented, what will not be reported and defiled.
Why use matters: ethics, responsibilities and anxieties of the activist academic
Nadzeya Husakouskaya gave her talk “Why use matters: ethics, responsibilities and anxieties of the activist academic.” She began her talk to note that she had a very different experience to that of Begüm, and in her experience many academics within activism arrive with a nice narrative that they tell when they arrive to the field. Nadzeya argued that she always tried to remember that she is more than a queer woman, more than an academic, more than an activist and exists, uncomfortably, between these spaces and moves between them.
What do academic activists have in common?
Nadzeya spoke about the positives and negatives that all academic activists experience. The positives included a sense of hopefulness within the activism work that happens behind the scenes of the institutional framework. The negatives included anxieties, despair, and hopelessness that academic activists feel. Behind these negatives, however, there is a lot of common ground for many of the academics involved in activism. For example, academic activists involved in LGBTI+ rights, feminism, and gender related issues can come together to fight a heteronormative system in order to make some change for good.
Experience in South Africa, 2012 – 2013
Nadzeya worked as an intern and researcher for the African Centre for Migration and Society (part of Wits University, Johannesburg), brining an LGBTI+ lens to the policies for access to health and migration for the urban poor. She often questioned her place in South Africa, as a white academic from Belarus with little knowledge of the problems faced by the country. However, due to institutional procedure, such as presenting information to Wits University, ethical clearance, project aims and procedures, Nadzeya was able to question her intentions and plan before entering the field. During this stage, Nadzeya met a fellow activist, and created a very human connection due to their own limitations and limited resources. This allowed them to help each other and collaborate meaningfully. This then helped Nadzeya take a different approach to the academic procedures required, instead of asking ‘what am I doing?’ she could ask ‘what are we doing’, striving for a collaborative aim.
Experience with Amnesty International
Nadzeya worked with Amnesty international as a researcher for a particular project, with the aim to write a report on gender-based violence in a conflict affected area of Eastern Ukraine. She met a fellow researcher with over 20 years’ experience, who explained that the way change happened was slowly. Some projects will only last two years, however this researcher had first-hand experience of legislative change only happening 20 years after the start of project. There is therefore a bigger picture in understanding how activism and academia work, there will always be instituational limitations or particular vocabulary that needs to be used for different stages of the project.
Main takeaways from being an activist academic
Nadzeya notes that being an activist academic will mean there are certain outcomes that will be a necessity of academic work, however the most important part of her work, either rin South Africa or in Ukraine was the experience she had in the field. Nadzeya was aware that she could come and go from the field, but people were still living with the atrocities of war. This meant that every time she was in the field she always wondered what she could offer, not as a researcher, but as an activist. This allowed her to find ways to generate meaningful exchanges when she was in the field.