Dear colleagues and comrades,
I’m out. What a wild ride. Some memories and reflections for when you got a moment…
Tres, Joe, and I sat there for lunch; they gave me the rundown of the state political labor scene. Our server was a little surprised that I, too, worked at the University with Tres and Joe. Joe quickly acknowledged we three were all faculty members, never once acknowledging they were profs and I was an instructor. It wasn’t the first time someone in the larger community looked at me and was confused that I, too, could be a faculty member at the U of O. I didn’t have to justify my own presence.
That was such an important moment for me to see what solidarity among faculty members of different ranks could be, and especially given the racial implications of another unsurprisingly common interaction in town. Deep familiarity with institutionalized hierarchy left me thinking of the Career side not that different from enlisted folks (maybe some warrant officers in the mix) and Tenured folks as officers. We here at UO, of course, over-rely on our guard (pro-tems and grads) and grunts; only some officers, like those blessed few that make it to a full bird and beyond, have a real shot at being players in this space. Up or out is the same everywhere: no surprise who makes the cut and doesn’t. History is what it is; whether then or now.
For some operational environments, training eradicates rank; everyone has to work and do the job. UA was like that for me. Our tight circle was one predicated on a deep respect for what we all do, what we all contribute, what drives us to work on behalf of all faculty members to make work life a little better than what an institution, any institution, grants. This isn’t to say we’re always on the same page, but we know how to get to that spot when it comes to advocate for what we want.
Over my time at UA, I had to navigate the “mission” alongside my values and view of our operational environment, one where the brand is sacrosanct above all else. I am a pessimist through and through. I do not believe our institution will ever do right by the people that make its existence possible. The social world of our making reflects sharply and painfully within the academy. Distinctions between people still drive who can work and who can’t; who can be excellent and shiny and who stays in the liminal spaces and shadows.
Oh shit. Ok.
That was my reaction last Fall to a conversation with one of the bosses. Your reaction may very well be that chuckle of familiarity that comes up in the antagonistic historical dance between faculty and admin. But that moment was surprisingly different. I learned of what a boss had done to support marginalized faculty in a mix of above and below ground activity. What most folks saw was a typical institutional response of not enough. What actually happened was pretty damn powerful; something that benefited those that needed it the most. But most folks here will never know what the heck I’m talking about. And the visible structural walls of hierarchy and power are still there. But it was like someone knocked out a series of passageways through the invisible walls that most folks don’t ever see.
“Equity” work (diversity, inclusion, etc.,) is an endeavor, if done well, doesn’t mean you change power. Rather you become aware of the invisible walls many institutional employees won’t ever see. They believe we can dismantle power structures. They may even believe the universitas is capable of leading that charge. I’m sorry to wake you from your dream; the woke billion-dollar industry of DEI is testament to the dream of “equity;” it is a curated, marketed, and safe approach to bringing in more people into the neoliberal dreamscape of progressive institutional reform.
And yet, when I took on the Presidency, I wanted UA and our motley group of leaders to drive our work focused on this thing we call equity. What a mind fuck. And since I had to live in this constant contradiction, so many of them, really, I tried another seemingly contradictory approach to our advocacy. Let us work with our administrators and bosses to see what we could actually accomplish, together. Like me, you may very well be surprised to find out who are your strategically-strongest comrades in this struggle and who are allies in name only. We’re all bound by institutional limits; whether we acknowledge them or not, whether we do equity work because we want to be seen as a good person (or the institution to be seen as such), or we want to do something meaningful, is another story.
When I look at our CBA, and as I take note of the advocacy work we took on this past year, my pessimism is tempered with the will and drive of the folks with eyes-wide-open who I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with on a daily basis to work against a machine that exists to extract our labor in sometimes violent ways. We didn’t always “win,” and even our victories bear a heaviness. Some of our victories mean we have to keep up the pressure and work and can’t rest on our accomplishments. I learned, again, the fight is for the one next to you, the one that’s putting it all out for a mission that’s fubar.
Mike knocked on my door in Fall ‘16. Our offices were across from one another since I was a graduate teaching fellow beginning in ’12. I signed my union card and slipped it under his door later on. Nearly six years later, Mike and I, with our families, gathered on a glorious dark night full of the illumination of mysterious, stunning, and awe-inspiring constellations.
Dr. Urbancic and I are two very different people. But as we all gathered under the stars, in community together, in wonderment together, it was pretty damn clear that we share a heart. Many of you know Mike’s brilliance. He is without a doubt one of the best teachers and brightest minds I’ve known. He takes it all in; he thinks deeply and thoughtfully. Mike will do so damn right by y’all. As have our leadership teams: our EC&Staff, our bargaining team, our reps and stewards. Take a look at what we did this year, despite and because of what we were all facing, from the ongoing pandemic to our organizational re-structuring while bargaining. Some of y’all can talk whatever shit you want; I know we did a hell of a job and I am so damn proud to have called UA my home for a little while.
Our faculty leadership has grown and expanded beyond that initial crew I signed up with. New team members have hit the road running; the old heads are holding it down. I’ve spoken to a number of you out there about getting more involved in UA work; your perspectives, your experiences, your knowledge and collective wisdom are powerful. The incomparable Staff team of Kristy and Heather…what can I say. I don’t know if y’all know how much they do for you. I know I couldn’t accomplish what I did, or feel like I could even do the work, if I didn’t have Heather and Kristy to work with side-by-side.
If I can ask of you all one last thing, before the Fall starts up again, reach out to a couple colleagues in your unit you don’t talk to, you don’t socialize with, you don’t really think about. Hell, you may not even like them. If you want your union to be strong enough to hold its own against a machine like the UO, then you have to be willing to also fight for the one next to you, the one whose name you barely remember, the one whose work you really don’t understand, the one who walks out of department meetings clearly suffering. Your union is only strong when hundreds of you show up. You are the union. All of you. Solidarity is a real damn thing and it needs careful attention, love, and commitment to be as powerful as it can. No one in this world, unless you wanna keep the status quo, has the luxury to be passive. Be there for each other. What we do, we do for one another.
Avinnash P. Tiwari