Back in the homeland

I knew I was close to home when I started hearing corn crop fungicide commercials on the radio.

I got into Minnesota a day early, because I took a wrong turn leaving Chicago and by the time I called the folks I was supposed to meet up with, they laughed (kindly) and told me to keep heading West, as it would've taken another two hours of backtracking to get there.

I had a few meetings scheduled on the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) campus because I wanted to hear about the work being done, as well as share what we're up to at Bitch. I arrived early to the first meeting, which was great because I had the pleasure of meeting Anne Phibbs, director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Ally Programs Office. She told me about the University's Transgender Commission, which was exciting to hear about, because as I explained to Anne, I spent a frustrating year in the Educational Psychology graduate program at the U of MN ten years ago.  I'd gone into the program wanting to work with youth and educators around anti-oppression education and politics, but the program was very focused on testing/labeling kids. One of the things that led to my decision to drop out of the program was when a fellow student and I put together a presentation for teachers and school counselors. It was 1998, and the efforts to reclaim the word "queer" were only beginning, at least here in Minneapolis. So the title of our presentation was "Working with Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Youth." But when we got to the conference, we saw in the conference program that the word "Transgender" had been removed from the title of our presentation.  Seriously.  Apparently people just weren't ready. I should say here that I don't think this was a University-sponsored event per se, but it does give a sense of the politics around gender/identity back then. 

So I was glad to see that things have progressed. 

Soon after this discussion I met with Peg Lonnquist, director of the Office for University Women (which has been around for 48 years, and is the oldest university women's center in the country) and Hawona Sullivan Janzen, who works with University Women of Color and is also the resource coordinator for the University Northside Partnership, which seeks to create partnerships between the university and the North Minneapolis community. It was particularly exciting for me to hear about the work Hawona is engaged in, because that's one of my constant questions – to what extent are universities and colleges engaging with the communities of which they're a part.

We also talked about the Teleconference for Women in Higher Education, which the Office for University Women is about to embark on organizing for the second time. Hawona told the beautiful story of how, at the first conference, she had a revelatory experience. Watching a spoken word artist who was transgender and homeless, she said she "learned to stop fighting for people just like me and start fighting for people." It was a moving reminder of the good that can come out of conferences.

Peg and Hawona also explained that the University has 18 organizations on campus that focus on women, and an additional 13 student organizations, which leads to obvious challenges to connecting around the work being done.

It was strange being back on campus.  The University is a behemoth that engulfs everything around it, and it definitely engulfed me when I was a student there.  And since it was something of a fluke that I ended up there (in college, I mean) in the first place, I think I was swallowed up all the more, because I was wholly unprepared. College wasn't part of my family history/experience. In fact education in general wasn't openly valued, and I ended up dropping out of high school in my last semester. When I was 19, I started dating a guy who wanted to go to medical school, and his mom insisted that if we were going to be serious, I "needed to be educated."  I was horrified (on many levels, some that didn't occur to me until later, when I developed an analysis around class). And scared, but I started going to community college, and ended up transferring to the University of Minnesota.

Through it all – and still now – I've mostly felt like a misfit in academic settings.  Back then I wanted to fit in on campus but didn't feel like I did. Now that I have a stronger political awareness and analysis, I'm better at
not internalizing my sense of alienation, but I still have a lot of work to do in this realm. And while I'm very grateful for my experience and opportunities, those experiences have also created a very deep and intense chasm between my family members and me, which is also nowhere near resolved. And in my work at a feminist organization, where I sometimes interact with folks approaching/working on feminism(s) from an academic perspective, I sometimes get freaked out, because my feminism has always been more of a lived politics/philosophy than something I can speak about through theories. 

Anyway. That's all to say that being here – at home in Minneapolis, and on this campus – is raising some issues for me. 

Back to the day. 

Later on I met with Sally Kenney, director of the Center on Women and Public Policy at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Back when I was going to school here, I'd heard consistently good things about the Humphrey Institute, and talking to Sally backed up what I'd heard. It sounds like the idea of activism/community organizing is infused into the program, in ways that support the idea of being both scholar and activist. And when I inquired about the "Women" in the title, I was relieved to hear that the program strives to foreground the idea of intersectionality. She mentioned that recent case studies carried out by students have examined transgender youth and the Intersex Society of North America.

My last meeting of the day was with Jigna Desai, Director of Asian American Studies and Amy Kaminsky, Chair of the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. Two students working on their Ph.D.s in American Studies and two students working on their Ph.D.s in the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies program also joined us, and I'm so glad they did, because I was totally blown away by the work they're doing (research into Arab immigration, fat politics, radical queer politics, the craft, please note that this is serious shorthand here). We had a great conversation about the word "feminist" and the reasons to remain invested and fight for the word. Ending the day with this conversation was inspiring to me, and made me feel a lot better about the feminist work being done in academia, and gave me hope for the idea of increasing connections and collaborations between academic-based work and community-based work. 

They also gave me a tour of their program offices, and I was thrilled to hear that they have a Feminist Media Center. 

feminist media center

They told me the story of how they worked with the Transgender Commission to make the bathrooms on the floor more gender inclusive. 

radicalizing bathrooms

Our meeting ended at 6:00, and as I walked back to my ugly little rental car, people were getting ready for graduation. It was sweet. A couple photos seemed in order.  

graduation day


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