In February 2010, UT Austin hosted its seventh annual ‘Abriendo Brecha‘ conference which featured the activist scholarship of students as well as a diverse selection of keynote speakers from all over the country. This post focuses on the ‘Extractive Industries and Indigenous Communities in Latin America’ panel which featured HRDI Graduate Research Assistant, Emily Joiner. In this post, Emily shares her thoughts on the role of the Abriendo Brecha conference, the HRDI, and the challenges of activist scholarship.
By: Emily Joiner
From February 18-20, 2010, UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and campus centers for regional, ethnic and gender studies co-sponsored the seventh annual Abriendo Brecha conference on activist scholarship. This year the three-day event included key note presentations by distinguished guests, such as Iris Morales (Young Lord’s Party), Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones (Warfield Center for African & African American Studies at UT-Austin), Eli Efi (Brazilian rap group DMN) and DJ Laylo (producer of Estilo Hip Hop), and Adrienne Pine (Dept. of Anthropology, American University). Abriendo Brecha, or “Breaking Ground”, uses a working definition of activist scholarship as “research and creative intellectual work in alignment with communities, organizations, movements and networks working for social justice.” This breadth of scope supports the conference’s overarching purpose of bringing together scholars, activists and community organizers to address critical questions on the significance of their work’s intersections and divergences and how they can be leveraged in the struggle for social justice.
My personal involvement in the conference included speaking on a panel of graduate students who have undertaken field research on the impacts of extractive industries (oil, gas or mining) on indigenous populations in Latin America. As I listened to my co-presenters recount their work in Colombia, Guatemala, and Argentina, I became fascinated by the many dimensions of social and environmental impacts indigenous communities face as a result of these projects. As in my own work with Shipibo communities in the Peruvian Amazon, these other communities also face contaminated water supplies, changes to their agricultural resources and practices, physical displacement and a variety of health problems caused by environmental contamination. In some cases, these problems are even more acute than they appear at first glance because a community may not be fully integrated into the cash economy where they would have access to other supplies of water or healthcare. Distance from urban centers and scarce financial resources thereby become further obstacles to overcoming environmental impacts. Just as troubling, the discrimination and occasional physical violence that indigenous peoples face in many Latin American countries make it all the more difficult for them to express their experiences, propose changes, and achieve improvements in their circumstances. As important as discussing these impacts with consumers and other activists may be, ultimately our panel failed to stretch deeper than this rich recounting of experience. To my disappointment, the underlying questions about how our work fit into the community’s own advocacy, the way in which students begin to study communities – with or without an invitation, and the diverse strategies for balancing pragmatic goals with academic requirements remained unanswered.
Perhaps my self-conscious recognition of these oversights speaks explicitly to the vital purpose that a conference like Abriendo Brecha serves on an academic campus. Our panel of students explained the factual bases for our conscientious concern and interest in the struggles of these communities. The physical and emotional experience of having seeing the damages alongside affected individuals brought out an activist’s tone and fervor in our work. Yet, our failure to articulate our research more explicitly with broader advocacy became painfully obvious to us and to our audience. In this way, Abriendo Brecha forced us to confront the incompleteness of our work up to this point and consider ways that we can move forward. However, it also served as a reminder that a single conference cannot be the only place on campus where activist-scholarship is questioned, analyzed and challenged to be taken out of the academy and placed back into the context of community-level advocacy.
The core Abriendo Brecha questions apply directly to the HRDI as well. Our community partners in Rwanda, Southeast Asia and Central Texas engage on a daily basis with the struggle to overcome obstacles to respect for human dignity and human rights. However, the role of the HRDI faces ambiguity. As a project within a large research institution, where is the line between our archival work and activism? Does there need to be a division? How should we balance the priorities of local community organizations with the demands of funders, institutional resource constraints and UT Libraries’ mission to support the research and information preservation needs of the University? Just as Abriendo Brecha challenges scholar-activists, the HRDI should strive to dynamically engage the tension inherent to its work at the intersection of scholarship and activism and recognize the privileges and responsibilities that it brings.
Emily Joiner is a master’s student in Global Policy Studies at UT Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. In addition to conducting research in the Peruvian Amazon, she participated in the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice’s 2009 fact-finding delegation on Afro-descendant property rights in Ecuador and is a Research Fellow for the International Accountability Project. She has worked as a Graduate Research Assistant for the HRDI since 2009.