Academic journal article Social Justice

Passion through the Profession: Being Both Activist and Academic

Academic journal article Social Justice

Passion through the Profession: Being Both Activist and Academic

Article excerpt


I WRITE THIS ESSAY MORE FOR MYSELF THAN FOR OTHERS, BUT I OFFER IT IN THE HOPES of addressing what I am convinced are common issues that arise with faculty engagement in social justice work. Such work frequently takes the academic out of the classroom into the community to make a difference in the life chances of those who are marginal in our society. These social justice issues typically concern conditions of basic human rights in employment, shelter, nutrition, health, and recreation. This article is an appeal to define the academic role as one that integrates activism and research in response to one's passion. My own experience has been that volunteer community work grows into an activist's commitment to specific social change, from which applied research is then generated. Recognizing the demands that emerge from these commitments will clarify what can be conflicting roles of each.

The Activist Academic: Responding to Uncontrollable Events

I have been working with a group of committed volunteers to abolish the death penalty since 1987--first as cofounder, then as president, and now as chair of the fund-raising committee. You can imagine the group's excitement as we heard rumors that Governor George Ryan of Illinois would commute the sentences of at least some of that state's death row prisoners as he was leaving office in January 2003. During the semester holidays, several of us worked feverishly on a news release that would be our response whenever the governor acted. Not certain of the date of his announcement until the week before, we stayed near the phone so as to be available to the media. During this time, we also got word of a Missouri execution scheduled for February 5 and that another one of the prisoners currently on death row (1) was having an unprecedented second habeas hearing at the state supreme court on February 4. Each of these events was largely beyond our control and required major efforts to mobilize the community.

Finally, in the same week that classes began for the new semester, Governor Ryan pardoned four persons and commuted the sentences of 167 others, thereby emptying death row in the State of Illinois. These events happened just as our city began a week of events to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. A call came from the chair of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference urging a press conference organized to encourage our governor to follow the lead of Governor Ryan. My hours were consumed coordinating meetings, making phone calls, assigning tasks to volunteers, securing speakers for the press conference, and managing responses from the public.

The following week, the coalition board was meeting and I agreed to conduct the orientation for the new members. It took an entire day to prepare packets of information, so that the meeting itself could be spent reviewing the written material and answering questions.

The next week the death penalty frenzy continued as an earlier planned "Lobby Day" took place at the state capitol on January 29, the interim report for a grant was due January 31, and this article was due February 1. During this time, I was also teaching my classes, attending department meetings, and finishing the revision of another article (Burnett, 2003). The coalition work had taken over too much of my time. Things felt as if they were out of balance. Why was I the person to make everything happen? Was it because I was connected with other abolitionists around the state and so it was my responsibility to communicate to those in our local group? Was it because I was on a semester break from teaching my classes, giving the illusion of having "free time," able to attend impromptu meetings? Was it because I was the one who had obtained the grant and needed to be accountable to the funder? I have come to the realization that working with a social movement means going with the flow of events, even when the stream becomes a flood. …

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