Gender, Sexuality, and Taxis: An Interview With Elliot James

A person, Elliot James, wears a navy blue blazer with a blue shirt and yellow and blue tie. He is facing the right, and holds a stack of papers in one hand while he gestures with the other.

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

Why should we pay attention to gender and sexuality in something as benign as setting up a business?

Elliot James, Assistant Professor of African History and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota, Morris, looks at how gender and sexuality are not typically factored into business models, and yet they play a significant part in normal operations.

“For instance when Uber was being internationalized,” says James, “in various parts of the world, from England, the US, India, South Africa, they noticed that a lot of women were complaining of being harassed and in some instances they were being violently attacked. My study looks at how, in the process of being set up, it almost created the conditions for things like that to happen.”

Similar to the Uber model, discrimination has historically been part of the ride-sharing taxi business in South Africa. James explores how the taxi business became successful, under political conditions that didn’t want it to survive.

During apartheid, blacks weren’t allowed to own businesses. However the government looked the other way when it came to taxi businesses. “It was seen as something that didn’t threaten the state” and so became pretty much the only option for blacks to run their own business.

“They were successful not just because of the political climate, but because it became a sort of this masculine industry that became seen as what respectable African families do . . . [and] it was able to thrive under those conditions.”

But this masculine model has had unintended consequences. James tells us, “In the historical record there’s always these kind of stories about rape – or that women were not able to own those kind of businesses because they needed to be at home, not bread winners.”

The taxi industry is a shared economy. “Drivers and passengers encounter all sorts of people every day. However, South Africa’s underrepresented minorities report some gender-based discrimination.”

“The industry was developed for normative, sexual presenting individuals and because of that history, it’s made it very difficult for queer people to feel safe within that,” James explains.

His goal is “to see how their discrimination came about historically, what was a product of that, and what are the best ways to change or challenge that situation.”

Who influenced him in this work?

Growing up in New York City, James was always interested in public transportation. His family relied upon it to get around, plus James’ father made his living as a bus driver. “He always talked in terms of driving a bus as a way to teach me about how to be good to people.”

As an undergrad at Carleton College, he recalled how Professor Harry Williams liked to expose his students to “really unconventional material” and make them think about its past. “I like to do that now, bring in songs and materials you don’t encounter … It brought [history] to life for me, and I like to teach that.”

“African Queer Studies was a way to look at different African histories in new ways, in ways that prioritize the concerns of gender and sexual minorities.” It brought together several of his interests.

James feels queer studies are very focused on the United States and Europe because they are seen as more progressive in valuing human rights, “while in places like Africa, the majority of countries kind of criminalize homosexuality and embrace very traditional African values. So queer studies overlooks Africa.”

However, on the African continent, ”South Africa is the only country that has enshrined in its constitution protections for gender and sexual minorities.” So South Africa seemed a likely place for James to research a queer studies topic on the African continent.

How does he conduct his research?

The ability to explore history through a broader, interdisciplinary scope serves James in his research. To learn the history of the taxi industry in South Africa, James digs into old taxi applications, business ledgers, newspaper articles and advertisement. He collects oral histories of taxi veterans who were foundational in setting up the business. He also journals, continually recording what he observes, engaging an anthropological perspective.

His research is almost entirely qualitative. But, he says, “The field of transportation studies is almost entirely quantitative.” So he is broadening the information they have.

“It’s not just how many riders from point A to point B – but what kind of experience did they have?”

James focuses deeper into the human experience , that’s not reflected in the data. ”My concern is the same as the feminist concern. I want to be sure that it is equitable for people of different gender and sexual identities.” 

How does his work impact the local community?

Learning about the rest of the world helps James strategize how to engage the local community. And when he lectures, he is able to bring in international perspectives.

“Having people in South Africa caring about what’s happening in the United States and having people in the United States care about what’s happening in South Africa, I think that’s a good starting place for getting traditionally underrepresented students into international affairs and international relations and being interested in things beyond the United States.”

He also encourages his students to use their own social realities to empathize with people across the globe. There are active students of color who are passionate about social justice who are focused on the US. “But if the University of Minnesota wants to engage in global affairs and have a global perspective, they need to reach students of color and attract them to this.”

What attracted him to teach in Morris?

“I grew up in New York City and now I live in a town the size of the apartment complex I grew up in, in the Bronx.” The differences between his home town and his new home are obvious, but the choice was easy. The students drew him. James was very attracted to the student profile at Morris: the fact that 18% of the student body is American Indian. The vast majority is also low-income and first generation.

“In my experience here as a teaching fellow [initially], I found the students to be kind of less entitled about what they need to learn in your classes but really open about wanting to learn… So I really enjoy the students, they are really interested in learning.”

He also appreciates the small class size in Morris and the proximity to the Twin Cities, which he says he loves. “It’s the best of both worlds. A small teaching environment and the support to develop professionally.”

[Header Image Credit: Kari Adams, University Relations, University of Minnesota, Morris]

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Discovering & Reconnecting to an Ancient Culture: An Interview with Bianet Castellanos

A person, Bianet Castellanos, stands in front of an altar. Bianet has dark hair, wears glasses and a red and black shawl.

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

Beginning in high school, Bianet Castellanos had an interest in the history and the culture of the indigenous people of Mexico. That particular history wasn’t easy to explore.

Growing up in San Joaquin Valley of California, all she learned about Latinos in history was the Mexican American War and the conquest of the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas. And that’s all she could find in the library.

As an undergrad she became interested in the art of the indigenous people of Mexico. But art history seemed to focus on European traditions and there too, she found very little written about Mexico and South America. Her instructors focused on the Renaissance. “That wasn’t what I was passionate about.”

Professors at Stanford convinced her to study anthropology, instead of art history. And that was the beginning of a journey eventually leading her to a position as an anthropologist and core faculty member in the American Studies department, focusing on indigenous communities in the Americas.

Castellanos began by spending months learning the Mayan language at Stanford, followed by spending her summers working with a Maya community in Yucatán. She smiles as she recalls discovering years later, there was a large community of Yucatán Mayans much closer to home, in San Francisco. She needn’t have traveled to Mexico to learn the language.

“This story is just one of the interesting ways in which we imagine indigenous people to be rooted in one particular place because that’s where they’re from. But we forget there are also diasporas.”

Castellanos still travels to Mexico and has spent over 20 years working with the same communities and developing relationships there. She also works with Maya immigrants in Los Angeles. Among other insights, studying both groups allows her to explore “how race is constructed across time and space.”

Racial systems in the United States are very different from those in Latin America and Mexico. The experience of being indigenous gets reconfigured in the U.S. as indigenous migrants settle into this space. “When they are defined as Mexican or Latino, their history as indigenous peoples is erased.” Castellanos has found that for “indigenous people in the U.S., race impacts their lives in subtle but significant ways.”

Race in the U.S. is based on blood quantum. You’re defined as indigenous mostly based on how much blood you have, your bloodline. Castellanos explains that in Mexico indigeneity is based on language. If you are 5 years or older and speak an indigenous language, then you are classified as indigenous.

Informally in Mexico, race is also determined by your phonotype, your dress, and where you live. “In Yucatán, how you dress can determine whether you are defined as indigenous or not.“ So in coming here, indigenous people are exposed to very different ideas about race and its impact on their lives.

“These ideas do not easily translate across cultures.” Castellanos had to find “basically new vocabularies – and I’m not talking about just words,” in order to tease out how race is understood in Mexico and in the United States.”

“Excavating that history is really important for Mayans migrants and their children to feel that they are valued.” Castellanos’ work helps them do that.

When asked to consider the future of her work, the political climate comes sharply to the front. It won’t just affect her work. Castellanos is also deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the communities she is working with, both in this country and in Mexico.

“If Mexico pulls out of NAFTA, that’s going to have repercussions for all Mexicans, especially for indigenous communities, because they … have the fewest resources available to them.”

“Most of the people I work with are in the service industry and tourism. If there is any kind of impact on tourism, it effects how they can feed their children. So you can see the repercussions of the United States government’s stand against Mexico, how that’s going to effect people in their daily lives.”

She’s also concerned about the Maya migrant community in Los Angeles due to the political climate against immigration. Some of them are documented, but some are undocumented. Changing policies will have a huge impact on these communities.

“You have a lot of families that are mixed status, where somebody has their green card or is a citizen but other family members do not.” Sometimes the kids are citizens and the parents are not.

Just like other immigrants throughout history, migrants come to the United States for a better life. Some are escaping violence due to sexual orientation, or other dangerous situations. It’s complicated, but Castellanos feels “the policies that are being proposed don’t take into consideration those issues at all. The translation is that they end up harming a lot of people and creating a lot of structural violence.”

“A lot of these folks are just living at the margins. What are the lasting, generational implications for families who are living in an already precarious status and then having to undergo these experiences and shifts in policies?”

“In the media people are talking about how these protestors are politically motivated. Yes, they are politically motivated but not because it’s a Democrat or a Republican, but because these policies are going to affect people’s lives. These are not just protests for protest’s sake. People are protesting who have never protested before because fundamental rights are at stake.”

“So this is the kind of work we need to be moving forward with – it’s important. There are some of us doing it, but we need more support for more of us to do it.”

[Header Image Credit: Amelie Hyams, 2017]

In Their Own Words: Women’s History Month Spotlight (Geida Cleveland)

A person, Geida Cleveland, stands indoors against a dark-colored wall. She wears glasses, a neutral-colored sweater and a blue shirt, and smiles while facing the camera.

March is Women’s History Month. The Office for Equity and Diversity (OED) asked students, faculty and staff around campus to talk about the importance of this month, in their own words, through the lenses of their identities and experiences.

by Kianna Notermann

Meet Geida Cleveland. Geida Cleveland is the Events Specialist for NODA – The Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education. She has been working for the U of M since she graduated from here in 2009 with a degree in human resource development and minors in communication studies and leadership. Geida is a member of the Minnesota Association of Counselors of Color, and served as their president from 2014 to 2016.

“I was born in Nogales, Sonora Mexico and lived there until I was 12 years old when my family moved to Minnesota. It was an interesting transition; I moved here not knowing a word of English. It was my father’s decision to have us all move, my two older brothers and I. I started middle school here, which is all a big blur since I didn’t know the language at all. Most of my focus was just on trying to understand what was happening around me. My mother passed away when I was 8 years old, and even though I have many tías (aunts) who have guided me in many ways throughout my youth, I was mainly raised by my older brothers who really helped me in my transition.

I started school here at the U in 2004, and my time here at the U of M is when I really found who I was. I say this because my time spent trying to understand the language and the culture, and just the transition into the US forced me to assimilate to my surroundings which was very much suburban. So, when I came here, I saw so many people that looked like me for the first time in a long time. It helped me find myself again. I was able to come back around and feel proud of who I am, be proud of being a Mexican-American woman. I connected with organizations like La Raza and other student groups that brought me back to my roots and helped me grow.

I have worked in higher education for over 8 years in a variety of roles. Currently, I work at NODA, which is headquartered at the University of Minnesota. As a professional in higher education, there’s a lot of growth that I’ve done in my career but I make a point to share my personal experiences with the students that I encounter. I worked in the Office of Admissions for over 7 years because I wanted to give back as someone who was very grateful of the growth that this school gave me. This is where I found an amazing community of women with whom I can have discussions about the complicatedness that is being a woman, acknowledging all the identities we share but also the ones that differ and make us who we are.

A large majority of professionals in education tend to be women. I should clarify that that is purely observation, I don’t have exact sources or statistics at the top of my head, but that is what I have seen personally in my career. However, the higher you get up in an educational institution, I’ve noticed that the leadership is mostly men. Despite how many women there are in this field, the people who are making the decisions, making changes, and implementing policies are mainly men. That’s not just here: by partnering with other institutions in my position, I have seen the same thing at other schools and other organizations I’ve been part of in general. There have been meetings where I’ve shared an opinion or solution or proposal, anything, and it goes unnoticed or ignored. It’s actually happened quite a bit throughout my years in higher education. I can’t tell you if it’s because I am a woman, or because I’m a woman of color, or my age, but it’s something I’ve been through over and over. As recently, as two weeks ago, it’s happened despite how long I’ve been working in this field. I still have to prove myself. It definitely takes a toll on you, because it makes you question yourself, it makes you question if you really know what you’re talking about, I have to constantly remind myself that I have many years of experience and my opinion matters so I have to remember to not allow myself to be silenced.

Fortunately, I’ve had some great male colleagues, partners, and bosses who have noticed this happening at meetings and use their privilege by saying the same thing I just said, on purpose, to see how that reaction differs from the one that I received. Every time their statements are acknowledged. We have conversations afterwards where they acknowledge my contribution as a way to say, ‘Hey, I heard you. I said it just to see what would happen’. I appreciate it, but not in the sense that I need to be rescued by a man. It’s just good to know that they are aware of their privilege and the discrepancy of how we are treated in the workplace. That way it can lead into a bigger discussion amongst the rest of our the group. Once you move higher within the organization, it tends to happen more frequently so it’s definitely a discussion that needs to be had with all levels at the workplace.

I could also tell you a million stories about when my husband and I were buying a house or just needed to fix something, how I was treated differently. In these situations, the electrician or the salesman, or whoever, would only speak to my husband. I can’t tell you how frustrating that is, this is our home. We’re in this together, we’re making decisions together, but people still see my husband is kind of the authority figure and my input doesn’t matter as much or I don’t know what I’m talking about when it come to those matters. So I see it on a personal level as well, not just at work.

My first professional role in Admissions was to be the Latinx Recruitment Coordinator. It’s always tough because I did what I could to help the [Latinx] community know what the university had to offer and how it changed my life, but also knowing that there are many things that would impact Latinx students in making a college choice. The decision is often about what is best for the family, especially for first-generation students or undocumented students. There are other barriers that come across when choosing a university. As far as Latinxs in higher ed, the representation of Latinx has stayed pretty much the same in my experience, we haven’t really seen an increase especially in senior management positions. Many organizations have a goal to diversify their work field or their student base (however they might define diversity) but, when it comes down to it, they don’t actually understand the work that has to go into acquiring it. There are many cultural differences, that need to be addressed or trained on in the organization prior to recruitment in order to successfully recruit and retain diverse talent, especially in Latinx communities, because Latinx includes people from so many different cultures. We all have multiple identities that shape our lived experience. Due to some our overlapping identities we can be systematically at a disadvantage and at the same time we can receive systematic benefits in other categories or identities. This creates a complexity on how we experience oppression and discrimination, for example, as women we all experience the glass ceiling in the workplace, we are often reminded that women make 74 cents for every dollar men earn, however,  we don’t talk about the fact that wage gap is much worse for Latinas. That intersection of identities can lead to a negative experiences that could lead to lower retention in the workplace.

I was fortunate in my time as an undergrad and while working here to have some great Latina women be mentors to me. In order to support our students, of all identities, they need to see role models and people in leadership positions that they can see themselves in. I was lucky to have these women guide me along the way, and they have since moved onto other opportunities. I wish there were more women in leadership roles at the U, specifically Latina women. That is not to ignore the amazing women we already have working here, but there’s still work to be done. We could always use more.

When it comes to women’s history, the representations that you see in the textbooks often lack Latina women. They aren’t being recognized for the work they’ve done and the work they are doing. Whether it’s throughout history, or right here, right now on this campus, women are there. They are making great contributions, even if they aren’t being credited for them. This is so important for next generations to be aware of, so it’s disheartening to see.

There are a lot of small details that I think even we, as women, miss but start to be more aware of when we work on issues of gender equality. Something as simple as using the term “guys” to refer to a group of both men and women. I try to avoid things like that and be conscious about it, by using the word ‘folks’ even though it makes me sound old. Or ‘y’all’ which makes me sound southern. It takes a lot of work to change that mentality, and I still make those mistakes. I also think when we talk about women’s issues, we can’t forget to include all women not just cisgender women. We must support our sisters of all identities, women of color, indigenous women, transgender women, women of all sexual orientations etc. Being a woman is already complex  so we need to support each other!”

[Header Image Credit: Kianna Notermann, 2017]

In Their Own Words: Women’s History Month Spotlight (Heather C. Lou)

A person, Heather C. Lou, has dark hair with multicolored streaks, wears glasses and a turquoise blue scarf, and faces the camera.

March is Women’s History Month. The Office for Equity and Diversity (OED) asked students, faculty and staff around campus to talk about the importance of this month, in their own words, through the lenses of their identities and experiences.

by Kianna Notermann

Meet Heather C. Lou. Heather C. Lou is an angry Gemini earth dragon, multiracial, Asian, queer, cisgender womxn of color multimedia artist and postsecondary education administrator based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her art and writing is a form of healing, transformation, and liberation, rooted in womxnism and gender equity through a racialized borderlands lens. Heather works at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities as the Assistant Director of the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence, where she focuses on campus climate, inclusion, and intersectionality in her daily practice.

I am currently the Assistant Director at the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (MCAE). I’ve been here for about 8 months. There is no way for intersectionality to not have an impact on any of the work that we all do in the Office for Equity & Diversity. We have to think about who are the students that we serve, who are the people we work with on a daily basis, how do we help students get the resources that they need. For me, I grew up in LA as a one-and-a-half-generation U.S. citizen. My dad’s side of the family is from Taishan, China, and my mom’s side are Ashkenazi Jews from the Middle East so I very much identify as Asian and multiracial. I also identify as a queer womxn of color, and as someone who lives with a disability. At the same time, I have cisgender privilege. I have a Master’s degree and positionality at a university. Whenever I walk into a room, all of the parts of my marginalized and privileged identities show up. In my work at MCAE, I am keenly aware of that. Anytime I do anything whether it’s assessment or budget or supervision, working 1-on-1 or just interacting with students, the center of all of it is intersectional feminism and critical mixed race studies. I use all of these critical theories, and the people who are at the very center of it all are those who are the most marginalized. I very much believe that any services or advocacy or support that we provide is with those people in mind. If I’m serving those who are the most marginalized, that means everyone else will get their needs met as well.

I went to school in Northern California, I was one of the first people in my family to attend college. I almost failed out of my first semester. College is way different than high school; I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have the capital to navigate it, and when I first started I felt really lost and unseen. There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me or identified like I did, I always knew I was queer and I am visibly a womxn of color. I didn’t feel like I belonged, but I know that a lot of college students feel that at first, too. A staff person at my university met me and asked, “Have you thought about getting involved? There are so many student leaders who are thinking like you, who are artists and activists, people who are thinking critically about other identities, so what would it mean for you to get involved?” After that, I had a whole bunch of student leadership positions, but the most influential one was working at our cross-cultural center on campus as an undergrad. One of my greatest mentors was my supervisor. She was also a multi-ethnic womxn of color who really helped guide me and make meaning of my identities, especially in spaces where other people didn’t identify the same as me. Really, she helped get me into equity and diversity work.

When working in this field, we have to think about how much we’ve grown in equity and diversity, and also what we still need to do better. It’s that ellipsis that brings me back the next day. I think, “Okay, we didn’t resolve that, it may never be resolved, but how do I work in community with people I care about and have conversations that will move the dial forward?”

Outside of work, I’m an artist and a writer. I use art as a method of healing and commentary around gender, sexuality, race, and all of their intersections and narratives to demonstrate that we need equitable access to resources. People with marginalized identities should have a seat at the table. Those are the things that I’m often thinking about in everyday life. Whether it’s the mixed media I create or the poetry I write, I try to center it on and highlight the identities of queer womxn of color. I can never remove myself from the artwork, or my work in general. My personal, professional, and political lives cannot be separated. I cannot separate myself wholly from anything I create or do. My art is expressionist, so it’s about the feelings that I put into it and also the feelings that it invokes in other people. I’m sharing narratives and voices of marginalized identities that aren’t always centered on in art.

In a lot of ways, I’ve never strongly identified as a feminist, which is mostly because I have experienced it as a white, straight, upper-middle class, cisgender womxn’s movement. First and second wave feminism have definitely been that. It’s like, “Yay, womxn!” equality work without acknowledging the ways that racism, transphobia, homophobia, and so on affect our community of womxn. In grad school, I focused on womxn of color leadership, and womxn with an x, womxn of all identities and presentations and had to decolonize my understanding of what a womxn was. A few years after writing that thesis, I started working in a womxn’s center where my career was focused on gender equity. When I talked to students there about what feminism was to them, I realized for the first time that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t necessarily identify as a feminist. I would say that I’m a third wave feminist, or better yet, a womxnist. I am because of my ancestors, and their collective knowledge. It’s also important to remind myself that I wouldn’t be here without some of the really rad, aspiring allies who were first and second wave feminists. I’m on the shoulders of those who did the equity work and I want to honor that.”

[Header Image Credit: Heather C. Lou]

In Their Own Words: Women’s History Month Spotlight (Sasānēhsaeh Pyawasay)

A person, Sasānēhsaeh Pyawasay, has long dark hair and wears glasses, a black shirt, and multicolored earrings. She faces the right, and there is a building in the background.

March is Women’s History Month. The Office for Equity and Diversity (OED) asked students, faculty and staff around campus to talk about the importance of this month, in their own words, through the lenses of their identities and experiences.

by Kianna Notermann

Meet Sasānēhsaeh Pyawasay. Sasānēhsaeh is the College of Science and Engineering Diversity Coordinator. In her role, she supports underrepresented students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, especially students of color and American Indian students. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, where her emphasis is on Higher Education and her research focuses on how institutions are sites of colonization for native students. Sasānēhsaeh has been in Minnesota and on-campus for about 7 years, but is originally from the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin.

“In the context of Women’s History Month, honestly, when I was reflecting, it never really crossed my mind or struck me as very important at first. Because of my identity as a native woman, I’m from a community that views women as life-givers, women as protectors of water; women are the beings that we all look to for support. I don’t necessarily feel marginalized in that space, in my community. So having a Women’s History Month, to me, was like, “Oh, okay that’s cool,” on a personal level since my most salient identity is native. I’m native first, and a woman second, so my native lens dominates my perspective around being a woman, which is that women are highly respected. I also realize that patriarchy is real – I can’t deny that – but largely where I feel marginalized or experienced injustice was less around being a woman but more about being being native.

Professionally, particularly in the STEM field, women are severely marginalized. Working in this college has been really eye opening, and in my professional role it has been really great to be able to support women – especially, women of color and indigenous women – in a place where they might not always feel supported. Female role models are very important for them, not only in the STEM field but in general.

My undergraduate studies were not focused on the STEM field, actually. I just ended up coming here, to the U, and working for the College of Biological Sciences first before moving over to the College of Science and Engineering (CSE). Really, I just fell into STEM, but working with STEM students, I have gained a greater respect for this field. It’s so different from my field as a professional in higher ed; women dominate education, not most STEM fields. It has been eye-opening to see my students go through an experience that’s very different from mine. By connecting their experiences with the experiences of women of color, I can help guide them through their studies and college experience.

Although there are many women in educational professions, there is still some work to be done to include more women of color and indigenous women. I will say that in general, women of color and indigenous women are always serving their communities as educators and as mentors, but that might not necessarily be in their actual job title. There have been many situations in my career where I’ve been the only woman of color or indigenous woman in the office. It is a tough experience, because although the number of women of color and indigenous women in this field is growing, the culture hasn’t changed. It’s hard to be surrounded by white people, white women and not assimilate into that culture. I often think, “How do you remain who you are in that space?”

CSE does a great job of providing summer programs for youth, especially for young girls. A colleague of mine runs one for girls of color and indigenous girls, which is great because it keeps them interested in STEM and makes a career in STEM seem more achievable. When you think about an engineer or scientist, you think about a white man. And maybe, secondarily, you think about a white woman. If young children of color and indigenous children see a more diverse workforce in engineering and science, it is affirming to think that they can work in that field too. Summer bridge programs are a great opportunity for this.

Getting here [the STEM field], as a young female, is tough. Staying here is even tougher. You’re often the only woman in a study group. Most of your professors are white men that have their own ideas about how you should perform. It’s a hard cultural shift for you to go through. We do have people who will leave the major and a find a new major that’s more comfortable for them. For some students, they’d rather be happy and not go through these challenges. That is not to say we don’t have a lot of students of color, women of color, who excel because we do. I am very honest with my students. I let them know it’s gonna be hard for them because of their identities, but I will be there to support them through it. I personally think it’s important to not sugar-coat the experience for them, or making them think that there will be a ton of people who look like them or identify like them in their classes because that’s not realistic.

When I was thinking about Women’s History Month, I realized that it had never been on my radar before. I think it’s because of my cultural background, and the fact that I come from a line of strong women. It’s really innate in all of us native women; my cousins, my relatives, we all come from strong women. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think this month is important, it’s great to have it. However, I do have to ask myself, “What is the intent?” and “Who is it really for?” Most of the months that we set aside are for marginalized or minority communities, but Women’s History Month didn’t feel like something I could subscribe to because it feels more whitewashed. Those were my initial thoughts on the month.

I did notice the difference in treatment of women from what I am used to in college. Dating someone who wasn’t native was especially eye-opening. It’s a different experience, having to explain the difference and walk others through the rationale of [women as life-givers] is really what made it click for me, that treatment of women isn’t the same outside of my community. That’s not to say it’s good or bad; it’s just different.

As a teenager, and even younger, there were many times when I was playing sports when we would travel to a non-native community for a game, and the tension was clear. The would refer to us as “you people” and take part in discriminatory actions. Going to those other schools was the first time I realized this is real, that the discrimination towards my community is real. You know, you grow up on a reservation you see your people, and everyone around you looks like you, so the prejudice isn’t there. Interacting with the coaches and people in the stands and refs just being unfair was a bit of a shock.

Foundationally, these institutions were built for white – and often wealthy – men. Institutions, including their cultural values and missions, are a continuing site of colonization for native students. So when you’re at a place like the U, how do you navigate it when it wasn’t made for you? I looked at the boarding school era, when they were using education as a mode of assimilation for native students back in the 19th and 20th centuries. We continue to do that here at universities, because the practices and policies that dictate how we “do school” aren’t culturally inclusive. How certain things are rewarded, and what are considered achievements require a degree of assimilation. If students want to be successful, they need to act and perform in that way. My argument, particularly for native students, is that we continue to colonize education unknowingly. We have all of these services, which are great, but they don’t make up for the ways we define achievement and success. I’m hoping to shed light on this. You have to be here to be successful, but that doesn’t always align with your home community.”

[Header Image Credit: Kianna Notermann, 2017]