“Even Though You are Fed Up, You Gotta Keep Your Head Up!” — Tupac Shakur
The Dave Stovall visit brings up some interesting questions for me about the work of scholar activists. Lending one’s expertise to help those in need is par for the course for most scholar activists. However, gaining credibility in the community requires suspending one’s title and expertise. As scholar activists how do we negotiate our roles between the community and academy as we work for change? Though we must be clear-eyed about the challenges resource poor communities are facing (and circumstances are dire in most cases), disseminating a message of hope that emphasizes that power can be harnessed thru collective action is very important. How do we work to resist external forces that aim to undermine community self-determination and autonomy? And while we are talking about being clear-eyed, let us acknowledge the fact that the African-American community (more than any other minority community at this time) is under attack on all sides. From the glaringly disproportionate sentencing of millions of African-Americans in the so-called criminal justice system to an alarming educational achievement gap between African-American and White students, and from openly disrespectful smear campaigns against Barack Obama, the President of the United States, to harassing Black scholars on social media, our society has demonstrated a protracted, deep disdain for African-Americans. How, as scholar activists, do we confront this sort of systemic racism through our work?
As young scholars we are working to develop our expertise so that we can more deeply understand the complicated nature of the problems confronting communities on the periphery of society. However, we cannot simply step into communities of need to offer solutions without first establishing some sort of working credibility. How does one gain credibility? In my experience of working in communities, you have to earn it. You have to put in sweat equity. In other words, you have to show a commitment to being down for the cause beyond any research interest window. (It also helps to have a social broker, a person who has credibility in the community who can show you the way and help you avoid costly social pitfalls.) Dave Stovall says, “You must have full accountability to the people who you are working with. Confirm documentation with partners. Do long-term work!” “He also say he approaches him work as a humble willing citizen who works with other to challenge power. He says he suspends titles and expertise. While he is trained in qualitative research skills, he also says he deploys those talents in whatever spaces the community deems necessary. Let’s be honest though, Dave Stovall presents as a black male. There is no way that I would ever fully understand what it means to be a black male in modern America. Obviously, he is going to have much more credibility with the African-American community than I ever would. I don’t think, however, that necessarily means that I cannot make contributions to helping lift that community from oppression.
Storytelling is also a very important part of community work. It is an important tool in explaining how systemic problems are ensnaring the community. “Borrowing from Duncan-Andrade’s notion of critical hope, he suggests we must be painfully honest about current educational conditions, while also building grassroots networks that challenge these realities.” (Stovall, p.33) Storytelling is also powerful in helping people find inspiration from the idea that other social movements have been victorious in challenging power. “Critical ideas have power — and their power increases immensely when they are organically connected to the social movements and struggles that give them life.” (Apple, p. 150). Emphasizing that community action can challenge power is an important movement theme. Dave Stovall says, “It can never be on one individual. Collectives are critical!” Keeping sight of the fact that the community is most powerful when it fights for its own best interest is important. “Any effort to support a transformative education for historically underserved students should be championed, especially when it is developed by and for the community — unlike the education reforms in Chicago.” (Stovall, p. 42)
The assault on African-Americans has taken many ugly forms over the years. Recently, we have seen an increase in the attacks on the black intelligentsia. “This is a larger attack on black intellectual life and through that, an attack on black lives in general.” (McClain, p.3) I struggle with the idea that although the black intelligentsia is accurately portraying the bleak experience of their people, the response by larger society has been so openly hostile and crude. Americans seem so myopic in their viewing of the problem of racism. It seems so convenient to continue to deny this nation’s complicity in the protracted assault on black people. “Stemming from Bell’s legal scholarship, the principal idea is that White-dominated mainstream society will promote racial justice only to the extent that it advantages White mainstream society.” (Stovall, p. 38) We need to dialogue more about the dark legacy of slavery and the tragic consequences of racism to understand how to remedy the crisis. “Framed in the long historical scope of modernity, racial/colonial genocide is a logic of human extermination that encompasses extended temporal, cultural, biological, and territorial dimensions: the mind-blogging body regime that requires the perpetual social (if not actual elimination) of targeted populations as (white, patriarchal) modernity’s premise of historical-material continuity.” (Rodriguez, p.1) However, as Dave Stovall points out in telling stories that are mostly bleak and complicated the point is more about how we as scholars can help mobilize people around hopeful solutions that can transform lives and communities. “Borrowing from Duncan-Andrade’s notion of critical hope, he suggests we must be painfully honest about current educational conditions, while also building grassroots networks that challenge these realities.” (Stovall, p.33)