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Intellectual Activism and Academia

Facilitators: Alicia Díaz, Erika Zimmermann Damer, Eric Anthony Grollman, Patricia Herrera, and Mariela Méndez

In her 2013 book, On Intellectual Activism, Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins
defines intellectual activism as “the myriad ways that people place the power of their ideas in service
to social justice” (ix). The arts (visual arts, music, poetry, theatre, and dance) in particular serve as
integral media to express intellectual activism for social change. Collins’ conceptualization of
intellectual activism includes speaking truth to power and speaking truth to the people. The former
commitment entails pushing back against the status quo in academia, while the latter entails making
one’s academic knowledge available beyond the increasingly unaffordable paywalls of college
classrooms and academic journals.

There are long traditions of intellectual activism in numerous academic disciplines, as
reflected in work by early scholars like Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W. E. B. DuBois,
Harriet Martineau, Karl Marx, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Similarly, artivist-scholars like Katherine
Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Rhodessa Jones to name a few, bridged scholarship, performance, and
activism in ways that have deeply informed dance and theater as activism. Today, countless
people—particularly from marginalized backgrounds—are drawn to graduate school and even
academic careers to make a difference in the world. For example, a 2011 study of sociology PhD
students found that Black grad students cited “contributing to the advancement of minorities” as
their top reason for attending graduate school. Similarly, Latinx grad students cited “contribute to
my community” and “contribute to the advancement of minorities'' as their Numbers 2 and 3
reasons, respectively (Segura and Roma 2011). For comparison, non-Hispanic white students cited
“grow intellectually,” “improve occupational mobility,” and “contribute to the field.” Research also
indicates that women and faculty of color are more likely to engage in community-based scholarship
and/or teaching. A study showed that “faculty of color are 75% more likely than white faculty to
pursue a position in the academy because they draw a connection between the professoriate and the
ability to affect change in society” (Antonio 2002:593-594).

Once in the professoriate, many aspiring scholar-activists face numerous barriers to placing
“the power of their ideas in service to social justice.” First, many traditional graduate programs
actively steer students away from activism and public scholarship as a matter of maintaining
disciplinary boundaries. (See, for example, a public blog post by a professor to a graduate student on
“Why activism and academia don’t mix”: Second, without intellectual
training, professional development, and mentorship in intellectual activism, scholar-activists are
forced to balance traditional tenure expectations (i.e., publishing in peer-reviewed journals,
producing and presenting creative work, teaching, obtaining grants, departmental and university
service) with activist initiatives. This burden makes scholar-activists vulnerable to burnout and
hinders productivity and innovation.

Although many universities explicitly value public scholarship, few metrics exist for
evaluating such work because it transcends the traditional trichotomy of research, teaching, and
service. Furthermore, work deemed “activist” rather than merely “public,” comes with professional
and personal risks. Scholars such as Steven Salaita (2015), James Thomas (link), Zandria Robinson
(link), Saida Grundy (2017), Garrett Felber (link), have lost jobs or otherwise been reprimanded by
their universities for their activism. Despite academic freedom and free speech policies, universities
are generally ill-equipped to protect public scholars from backlash and threats from the public,
particularly on social media. Though desirable to scholar-activists and, arguably to a lesser extent,
universities, neither have the knowledge, skills, and resources to adequately overcome these barriers
to intellectual activism.


To begin the necessary work of supporting and sustaining scholar-activists at the University
of Richmond, we propose the creation of a “Intellectual Activism and Academia” Faculty Learning
Community for the 2021-2022 academic year. A central question of this FLC will be: “How can we,
as academics committed to social transformation, research, teach, and serve in ways that directly
challenge racial, social, and economic inequities?” (Cann and DeMeulenaere xxiii). Our three primary
goals are to: 1) explore sustainable methods of intellectual activism, including but not limited to
performance, visual arts, music, poetry, fiction, essays, journal articles, books, nonfiction,
videography and other expressions; 2) develop a cross-school, interdisciplinary community that
affirms and values research-action efforts that advance social, racial, gendered, and economic equity;
3) develop a definition of activist scholarship at the University of Richmond; and 4) develop best
practices for evaluating and rewarding intellectual activism and protecting scholar-activists/artivists
from professional and personal harm, particularly through engagement with care and traumaoriented
practices. Through our FLC, we aim to cultivate a space to imagine creative
interdisciplinary approaches to activism that bring together scholars, artists, educators, staff, and
community organizers.

By participating in this year-long FLC, individual members will have the opportunity to be in
a supportive community that affirms and cultivates skills for sustainable scholar-activism/artivism,
and to share in recuperation after the dual pandemics of the long 2020. Our reading of scholarship
on intellectual activism will be enhanced by our collective knowledge as aspiring and experienced
scholar-activists from various schools, disciplines, backgrounds, and activist causes. Ideally, such
outcomes will translate into a greater sense of belonging, capability, ease, community, and
professional fulfillment. Members will build their praxis as scholar-activists/artivists, learning how to
generatively channel their activism into their teaching and various modes of scholarship, be it
through their creative and/or community-engaged work, to minimize burnout, overwhelming
service, and isolation. If successful, we ultimately would like to plan a series of invited speakers and
workshops on intellectual activism to bring together campus, local, and national scholaractivists/
artivists to be hosted at UR in 2022-2023.

By creating the “Intellectual Activism and Academia” FLC, we seek to build on the
profound moment of activism on campus surrounding the demands of the Black Student Coalition.
Our community saw the forging of new alliances between students, staff, faculty, alumni, and
community members in our shared commitment to rid our campus of white supremacy. Our FLC
will contribute to the growth of the nascent community of faculty and staff engaged in on-campus
activism by leveraging the experience and wisdom of the collective. The goal, as adrienne maree
brown says, is to practice futures together, practice justice together, live into new stories, and create
new worlds. As educators and facilitators, we will be better equipped to support the well-being and
academic success of student, faculty and staff-activists, particularly during moments of heightened
activity. Similarly, we can create opportunities for/with our students to tie their activism to their
intellectual and artistic pursuits. For example, there is great intellectual potential in the studentactivist-
inspired Africana Studies program. Taken together, our FLC will work to educate the
campus on valuing activism as a site of learning, action, and knowledge-production that bridges
theory and practice.

The goals and intended outcomes of the “Intellectual Activism and Academia” Faculty
Learning Community align with many of the university’s values. Indeed, UR faculty, like our
students, are called upon for “meaningful engagement with our local and global communities”
(Ethical Engagement); we understand this value to include campus engagement, as well. We will be
better able to model for our students how to be “socially responsible community members”
(Student Growth). Further our work will empower faculty (and staff) to “engage meaningfully in
institutional life and contribute to a community where all thrive” (Inclusivity & Equity). Finally, our
FLC will support scholar-activists/artivists to not only pursue knowledge, but also create and share
knowledge in service to the aforementioned values.