Reflections on ‘Abriendo Brecha,’ activist scholarship, and questions of responsibility and privilege

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.  

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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.

Questions of Digital Witnessing, Community Engagement and Human Rights

Lydia French introducing panelists to Digial Witnessing audience

On March 2, 2010, the Ethnic and Third World Literatures Group (E3W) featured several faces of the HRDI in one of its Sequels Symposium precursor events, “Digital Witnessing: A Record of Human Rights and Wrongs” held in the UT Libraries Benson Latin American Collection Rare Books Room. The following post details this event and another pre-symposium panel focused on community engagement; these events are great examples of the activist scholarship and dynamic discussions on human rights occurring at UT.

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By: Lydia French

In March 2010, the English Department’s Ethnic and Third World Literatures Group held two events in advance of their annual Spring SEQUELS Symposium. This year the symposium will feature E3W alumni Joseph Slaughter (Columbia University, author of Human Rights, Inc.) and Jennifer Wenzel (University of Michigan, author of Bulletproof). As such, the special events drew on the global themes of human rights, but with special emphases on (1) archiving and (2) community engagement/service learning.

“Digital Witnessing: A Record of Human Rights and Wrongs” featured human rights archivist T-Kay Sangwand, I-School graduate student Nicholas Rejack, and Texas After Violence Director Virginia Raymond, each of whom offered illuminating discussions of the praxis and ethics of collecting stories of trauma. In her presentation on the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, Sangwand highlighted the unique collaborative, technological, and narrative features of the project. Rejack discussed his own experiences working with HRDI partner organization, the Free Burma Rangers (FBR); last summer he traveled to the FBR offices in southeast Asia to transferr hours of video narratives onto a computer to be preserved, translated, and housed in the archive. Finally, Raymond, Director of HRDI partner organization, the Texas After Violence Project, spoke on the ethics of collecting and preserving stories of violence. Every individual involved in the process, she suggests, bears a responsibility to each other as well as to the narrators of the stories, the absent individuals involved in the stories, and the future generations who will hear them. Parsing the exact nature of that responsibility, though, is not so easy. Nevertheless, each of the panelists—indeed the philosophy behind the HRDI itself—recognizes the sensitive nature of collecting and preserving the voices of those so long silenced by the violence of trauma.

If there appeared to be tacit agreement among the audience and panelists of “Digital Witnessing,” one week later at “Service Learning: A Roundtable Discussion on Community Engagement” the discussion was a bit more contentious. This event featured panelists from across the university and in the community in capacities as diverse as graduate assistant instructors, not-for-profit directors, activists-turned-administrators, and so on. The roundtable aimed to explore the state of community engagement/service learning (even the nomenclature was/is a sensitive subject; most agreed that the terms have been evolving over several decades now, but generally service learning is seen as a narrow concept within the larger umbrella of community engagement) at the University of Texas and in general. Administrators, instructors, and community activists agreed that anyone who incorporates a community engagement component in their classroom and pedagogy needs to prepare themselves, their students, and the community partner well in advance of the project to avoid what one panelist called “drive-by” interactions, which tend not to benefit either the student or the organization. The instructor needs to have a sustained and mutually beneficial relationship with the organization(s) well before incorporating a project into his/her syllabus. Communication is key. All parties need to be fully informed of the needs of the community partner, the limitations of the classroom, and, honestly, the limitations and needs of the students in order to sustain a healthy relationship.

More contentious are the philosophies behind “service,” “engagement,” and “development.” Particularly in a climate where “service” to “underdeveloped” areas is garnering more and more institutional backing (i.e. it’s hip for universities), the event’s participants questioned the efficacy (and history) of sending thousands of students out as saviors for a community. The answers to one question in particular will illustrate the stakes of the discussion. When asked, when and why did the university start getting interested in community engagement, the following genealogies were offered:

  1. It was a reaction against the self-interested, resume-padding model of “student development” of the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s a move, today, toward greater social action.
  2. When the university wants to take land and/or resources from disenfranchised people in the community, it needs to mollify that community by offering its own resources: students. Power relations thereby get watered down to “diversity.”
  3. The university is under pressure, now, to compete with online universities and degree-granting institutions, so it needs to institute local programs.
  4. The need for engagement comes down from the legislature when the university becomes more selective. In other words, it’s a public institution, but it’s no longer admitting as much of “the public,” so the university must compensate by instituting programs to “serve” that same public.

The questions of power, representation, and discrimination implicit in each of these genealogies compel thoughtful response. As an instructor, I realized that the stakes of community engagement are far too high to approach it as simply another assignment; it demands great patience, understanding, and working relationships.

For more information on community engagement at UT, you can visit the following websites:

Bridging Disciplines Program

Practical Opportunities for Law Students

Volunteer and Service Learning Center

Lydia French is a graduate student in E3W and co-organizer of the annual E3W Sequels Symposium.