Archive for February, 2008

Andrea Smith—the Mind Will Not Be Contained

Suzanne Pharr February 28th, 2008

The news of Andrea Smith’s denial of tenure just reached me this morning. I am astounded but not surprised. I am astounded because I had mistakenly thought that the University of Michigan might be a large and brave enough container to hold and honor her great intellectual abilities, the breadth of her cut-to-the-bone analysis and pursuit of the truth. However, I am not surprised because for the last two decades there has been a successful conservative attack against intellectual freedom and scholarship—and the University of Michigan is its latest victim.

I have sat at many tables with Andy, as many of us call her. On many occasions, the subject has been violence against women. On others, it was the expansion of rightwing politics. Sometimes, it was taking a look at nonprofits and their funding and subsequent loss of ability to make real change. Often, it was gender and race. In every instance, she was brilliant and stretched my thinking in ways that often jolted me to consciousness from what in retrospect seemed a narrow place of my colonized thinking. My latest experience with her was on the stage of the US Social Forum in 2007 when she brought 5000 or more participants onto their feet exploding into applause and cheers for her rapid, complex analysis of the US, world domination, and women.

In the progressive movement, Andy is often considered to be without intellectual peer. Not only does she have what we admiringly call “a BIG brain,” but she is an activist, always working with others to put political analysis into political action. It is an extraordinarily combination. The analysis Andy gives us is never based on her opinions or feelings but is always carefully researched, framed, and delivered in ways that can directly affect how we go about making social change. Andy is one of the major teachers in my 68 year old life.

I have to wonder what the University of Michigan wants for its roster of tenured professors. Would greatness not be defined as being able to construct finely honed ideas based on broad research, both within the academy and from the field? Would a great professor not be someone who could communicate these ideas through teaching, writing, making speeches, working with students and community groups? Would a great professor not be someone who through her teaching and example always moves us beyond the narrow traditional containers for our ideas? Would a great professor not be someone who always courageously challenges us to look beyond the surface of conventional descriptions and explanations for the conditions and circumstances of the lives of real people?

Andy Smith—indigenous feminist intellectual, teacher, writer, and activist—how lucky the University of Michigan is to have her on their faculty. Don’t squander this opportunity to give Andrea Smith tenure and solid support to do her extraordinary work.

(Action alert sent out by University of Michigan students):

Native Feminism Without Apology!


Statement of University of Michigan Students and Faculty in Support of Andrea Smith’s Tenure Case

On February 22nd, 2008, University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) issued a negative tenure recommendation for Assistant Professor Andrea Lee Smith. Jointly appointed in the Program in American Culture and the Department of Women’s Studies, Dr. Smith’s body of scholarship exemplifies scholarly excellence with widely circulated articles in peer-reviewed journals and numerous books in both university and independent presses including Native Americans and the Christian Right published this year by Duke University Press. Dr. Smith is one of the greatest indigenous feminist intellectuals of our time. A nominee for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Smith has an outstanding academic and community record of service that is internationally and nationally recognized. She is a dedicated professor and mentor and she is an integral member of the University of Michigan (UM) intellectual community. Her reputation and pedagogical practices draw undergraduate and graduate students from all over campus and the nation.

Dr. Smith received the news about her tenure case while participating in the United States’ hearings before the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Ironically, during those very same hearings, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decisions that restricted affirmative action policies at UM specifically were cited as violations of international law. At the same time, there is an undeniable link between the Department of Women’s Studies and LSA’s current tenure recommendations and the long history of institutional restrictions against faculty of color. In 2008, students of color are coming together to protest the way UM’s administration has fostered an environment wherein faculty of color are few and far between, Ethnic Studies course offerings have little financial and institutional support, and student services for students of color are decreasing each year.

To Support Professor Andrea Smith: The Provost must hear our responses! Write letters in support of Andrea Smith’s tenure case. Address email letters to ALL of the following:
Teresa Sullivan, Provost and Executive VP for Academic Affairs, LSA,
Lester Monts, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, LSA,
Mary Sue Coleman, President,
Voice your ideas on the web forum at

Abu Grahib Prison

Suzanne Pharr February 27th, 2008

(This piece was written during a two-week stay at Windcall, a place for social change activists to restore their energy and ideas in a beautiful natural setting. In it I reflect upon having seen a picture of Lynndie England that looked very much like me as a young tomboy in rural Georgia. Abu Grahib Prison still haunts me as a symbol of the US war on Iraq.)

I think I know you, Lynndie England,
you with your proud bright face
flashing two thumbs up
before a naked Muslim man
who tries to maintain dignity
as the flashing camera lights
record this small moment
of world domination
bannered in red, white and blue
on cars back home.

Back home, not so long ago
in your one stoplight West Virginia town
you were the kid
they called tomboy and smiled
when you dreamed of chasing tornadoes,
you flying along behind,
trying to lift up and be free.

How many times your President said,
“a war against the uncivilized.”
You were civilized.
You married a friend.
You were not queer. No.
Eleven months and a divorce
and you could catch the tornado tail
of the Iraq invasion,
a tomboy girl ready to be home
among guys, just as tough,
just as right for the USofA.

I think I know you, Lynndie England,
your face so like my own five decades ago
when I on my Georgia farm,
a tomboy among house dresses,
tried to travel through books
to some other place, brave and free.

How many times my Governor said,
“Bar the school doors from
the uncivilized Negroes.”
I could not be civilized enough.
Playing with boys and loving girls,
I found chance and scarce opportunity
joining the giants of the 60s
to set me free.

Who would we be, Lynndie England,
if tomboy spirits in country towns
could fly their dreams on rushing winds
where no soldiering, hiding or hating
were ever masked as freedom?
Where would we be if civilization
were defined as expansiveness of heart?

You and I, Lynndie England,
are made of the same country dirt,
sometimes green and growing,
sometimes racked with rocks,
always, always bearing history,
you and me.

July 2004

Co-Mentorship: Working for Equality Across Age

Suzanne Pharr February 25th, 2008

A few years ago, people in nonprofit organizations and foundations suddenly faced the idea that older activists were “aging out” and younger people would be needed at the heart of movement work. What followed were countless gatherings to discuss “intergenerational work,” “transitioning leadership,” “youth organizing and leadership development,” etc., etc. The funding followed the trend.

My take on this situation in general has been that too much talking is taking place between people who have not worked across generations, side by side. For two generations, young people have told me that there were few opportunities for them to grow and have leadership in social change organizations. They complained that older activists began most conversations with references to “back in the day.” Older activists told me that this new generation is not engaged, is unwilling to work hard, looks for entertainment instead of the development of ideas and strategy. As one solution, people began putting an emphasis on youth organizing as well as adjunct youth groups in organizations led by older people.

Neither approach has worked well as a means of multi-generational work.

What has worked best for me, as a 68 year old organizer, is the practice of co-mentorship. Because those of younger generations grew up in very different conditions from those I experienced in rural Georgia in the 40s and 50s, I am educated daily by hearing about their life experiences and the skills they acquired. In return, I share what I know to be true as viewed through a different generational (and perhaps race/class/gender) lens. We mentor each other through this moment, this present day that requires complex understanding and skills. Here’s what I know; tell me what you know—how can we figure this out together?

This co-mentorship works for me both in my large, multi-generational family as well as in my social change work. A large number of the people I strategize and organize with are under 30. Were it not for this co-mentorship, I would not be writing on a blog at this moment. It was smart young activists who, over a period of several resistant years, pushed me to do it. And how else would I have learned what I know about trans lives, issues and concerns? About the shifting forms of race and gender? And what would ever have motivated me to do text messaging on a regular basis?

Co-mentorship is a gift that is offered all of us every day. It requires only the fundamental belief that we are all people of worth, possessing a wide variety of experiences and skills. Its methods are asking questions and listening intently and respectfully for the answers. Where it leads us is toward the sometimes illusive dream of equality and justice—which can contain all our best ideas without requiring an age i.d.

The Politics of Longing and Desire

Suzanne Pharr February 21st, 2008

For several decades, I have traveled the country giving speeches and workshops. Much of what I know has come from contributions from people in those settings. Early in the 1990s as we began facing increasing rightwing attacks, I began to hear a repeated theme from social change groups: “When can we stop reacting just to attacks and begin building what we want?” At the same time, it seemed that the Right was growing in strength, and the number of progressive people and our ideas were diminishing.

A few years ago, after I finished being the director of the Highlander Center, I began talking in my speeches about the politics of longing and desire. What would it mean if we began our base-building and organizing from a place of people’s longing and desire ? It is a place where many of us share common dreams: to have self-determination for our lives and bodies; to have integration of mind, body, and spirit; to be recognized for our whole selves and identities; to be respected and considered persons of worth.

Though how we begin is not always an either/or choice, we know that organizing flows in one direction when it begins with fear and anger, and in another direction when it originates with longing and desire. The former requires immediacy and sometimes expediency and is often connected to survival. The latter takes a longer time: bringing people together, asking questions, making connections, developing vision. Both call for change and require action. The question I keep mulling over is what is the place—fear or desire—that is likely to produce the most sustained heat for bringing people together over time.

Beyond November

Suzanne Pharr February 20th, 2008

This is the comment I wish I had posted yesterday—before Obama swept Wisconsin and Hawaii—because it is not about Obama or Hillary or Mac. It is about the people’s great roar for change and involvement in the political process. It’s about people moving from stunned and despairing to inspired and hopeful. It is about a window opening, about fresh air, about the spirit moving.

While I am moved by the drama of the individual candidates as I watch much too much cable news reporting, I am most keenly affected by the voters, their voices speaking everywhere, their feet eager to get to the polls. I can’t get enough of the interviews, of the analysis of exit polls, of the pundits looking foolish in their failed predictions.

It is one of those amazing moments in history when almost everyone is caught off guard. A year ago, who would have thought? Republicans saying they don’t want to rehash the Vietnam War. Young people, written off by so many people over 40, rushing to register to vote (550,000 on Rock the Votes web site alone), campaigning for candidates, and getting their friends and families to vote. Ardent feminists, thought to be sealed along gender lines, voting for a black man. Religious conservatives threatening not to vote at all. Who among us could have predicted this?

And no one is caught more out of step than progressive people. Here is what looks like a sea change of thinking (and desire), and I cannot think of many individuals or groups that are prepared to work with the moment.

My question is this: who will cradle and nourish this hope and activism after the election? Certainly, no President can fulfill that hope in an immediate way. There’s sure to be disappointment, maybe disillusionment—unless there are collective ways for people to get involved in the process of making change.

That’s the local and national discussion I would like to be part of: what happens after November? What is our best thinking for catching and moving with this moment of change? It is time for expanding vision, for responding to longing and desire, for moving to our best selves and claiming a new day.

Does Race Trump Gender?

Suzanne Pharr February 18th, 2008

No. Hope and inspiration do.

As soon as it was clear that Obama had won an overwhelming victory in the South Carolina primary, news commentators put up their pie-chart evidence and declared, “Race trumps gender!” Surely no one was surprised at the spin. Since the Civil Rights Movement, media pundits and political strategists have pitted white women, black men, and white men against each other to increase resentment and division. Now, imagine this: a white woman, a black man, and a white man are competing as Democrats to be the next President.

There are differences in their political platforms but they are not large. What is notably different—and is affecting the vote—is who they are as human beings, what central core within themselves they speak from, and how they touch our hopes and dreams. These are the elements that are not based on race or gender or age or class or any of the other issues that define us. After we see the candidates are close in intelligence and the ability to get things done, what then stands out is something that lives in the realm of spirit. It is hope expressed in faithfulness to the dream of a whole and united people and a desire for a transformed world. This realm has no race or gender.

It is critical at this historical moment to bring about change in the collective spirit of this country. A friend of mine recently mentioned “creeping fascism.” “Creeping?” I asked. “I think it has been on a pretty fast shuffle for the past decade.” One of the few things that can deter it is a people’s hope and belief in their collective power to make change. Divisiveness based on carefully calculated political messaging and strategies has endangered who we are as a people. Thankfully, this election is proving—especially through the great energy of young people, of the formerly disheartened, and of those whose voices are not often heard—that people do not want the negative ways of the past. We want a President who will work with us to bring forward our best selves, creating policy and practice that will improve the lives of all of us, in the US and the world.

That’s why this white Southern woman who longs for a transformed world is voting for Obama.