Discussing diversity: 50 years of activism

- Darcie Scollard

Four UVic professors and activists passionately spoke on the topic of 50 Years of Activism: Rethinking Realities on Jan. 30, and articulated the status of research in their prospective fields. They spoke in the SUB to a large audience as part of the Provost’s Diversity Research Forum, Critical Conversations Rethinking Realities.

First to speak for was Dr. Aaron Devor (sociology), former dean of graduate studies and the academic director of the transgender archives at UVic. He is also a prominent member of the LGBT community in Canada and has written numerous articles and made public appearances relating to LGBT issues.

Devor spoke mainly about the invisibility of the LGBT community in the 1960s. He shared with the audience a part of his own history and his attendance at the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, which marked a significant moment in LGBT history.

“We were beginning to see marches start happening,” he said. “And I went to the first one in New York City, and it was just an exhilarating, unbelievably high time.

Devor closed by posing and answering the question “Does it get better?” “I want to see a world where not only does your sexual orientation not make a difference to your social status,” he answered, “but where you can be any gender you want, any day you want—and it’s of no more consequence to others.”

Second to talk on the panel was Dr. Jo-Anne Lee (women’s studies). She has an impressive and varied list of publications, but despite her inspiring credentials she simply calls herself an activist. Her research focuses on decolonizing feminist theory and practice, anti-racism, girlhood studies, and immigrant women.

Lee stressed how, in her research and career as an activist, she has pushed to change the rules as she lives them. To inspire change, she explained, she must find the balance between working on the inside and on the outside as an activist.

“I know that in the community doing theory or academic work is seen with suspicion, so it’s been really challenging, and I guess for me, part of activism is trying to breach these binaries, and to ask questions about why this binary exists in the first place.”

She closed by saying, “I knows that it is possible for a university such as UVic to move toward a more just and equal society.”

Susan Strega (social work), a faculty member whose research focuses on anti-racist practice, feminist methods, violence against women and research methodologies, spoke of her personal history and how growing up in poverty in Winnipeg has affected her research. “I grew up very poor on the wrong side of the tracks, and I grew up in world where violence against women was routine, abortion was illegal, and members of Canada’s Indigenous nations were unable to vote,” she said. “I knew all of this was wrong.”

Strega explained that, although she appreciates and supports the positive changes that the UVic Transgender Archives and the Idle No More protests have made, the issue lies in the fact that “So many of us think purely in individual terms. As activists, there is still a tremendous amount of work to do.”

Strega closed saying, “My intention and my hope in thinking about 50 years of activism is that the university can return to a space for activism.”

Last on the panel to speak was Gerald Taiaiake Alfred. He has taught at UVic since 1994, and currently teaches for the Indigenous Governance Program. His specialty is in traditional governance, restoration of land-based cultural practices, and decolonization strategies. He has won many awards and is an influential member of the First Nations community in Canada.

Alfred began by thanking the other panelists and acknowledging the value of the conference. He spoke of his time as a US Marine and the role mentorship has played in his career as an activist.

“I ran into a person when I had got out of the Marine Corps—when I was thinking about what I wanted to do in the university moving forward—who told me that my responsibility was to my own people, and it put all of this into focus.”

Alfred closed the 50 years of activism discussion aptly, saying, “As an activist I still find the university a great place to be.”

In this story

Keywords: diversity, sociology, gender

People: Aaron Devor, Jo-Anne Lee, Susan Strega, Gerald Taiaiake Alfred

Related stories