Embracing the contradictions of change from within

I headed into the keynote address at the Graduate School of Education’s SWAYWO conference this past weekend fully expecting a non-controversial, vaguely inspirational talk on the importance of education and educators. So I was surprised to see Uma Jayakumar, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco, speak candidly and incisively on affirmative action, racial justice and institutional change, using terms like “critical race praxis” and “global oppression” to make her points to a stunned audience.

Professor Jayakumar’s keynote address, I later found, was strongly modeled off a paper she co-authored in 2015, “Towards a Critical Race Praxis for Educational Research: Lessons from Affirmative Action and Social Science Advocacy.” In both the paper and her keynote, Jayakumar chastised the “divide” between grassroots activists and institutional practitioners over the priorities of racial justice work. This disunity, she claimed, hinders the development of “partial solutions” to issues of race and racial injustice — partial solutions like, for example, framing diversity as beneficial to white students as a strategy for helping students of color.

Professor Jayakumar carried this theme of division throughout her keynote, using it to frame the age-old question of change: Change oppressive systems from within, or tear them down from the outside? Those working from within, Jayakumar argued, need the help of student activists and community leaders from the outside. These outside agents provide the fire and theory to fuel a “critical praxis” of incremental change from the inside, slowly moving organizations to be more just and equitable. As educators embedded in systems, she said, keeping an eye on justice and a dialogue open with outside actors is praxis to strive towards.

When I think about “working within the system,” I think immediately of the faculty members and administrators here at Stanford University. It’s not easy work: Working within organizations and institutions means working within hierarchy and bureaucracy and memorizing seemingly infinite explicit and implicit rules. Social justice-minded people in organizations must juggle their individual goals with the goals of the organization, working towards justice without getting fired in the process. Life inside an institution is extraordinarily restricted, and Stanford is no exception.

That being said, it is often tempting for those working within institutions to take student and community labor for granted. If only activists knew how hard it was being in an organization! If only activists could spend their time making demands that are more realistic for my institution to meet! I’ve lost count of the number of well-meaning faculty members and administrators at Stanford who have taken it upon themselves to prescribe tactics and strategies for movements they’ve never participated in, or lecture me in patronizing tones on how communities on the ground have no idea what they’re doing.

When the Stanford 68 were forced to take a First Amendment class as part of a plea deal after our MLK Day action, a law school professor told us there to “engage with issues of race” in our own lives. We were baffled — we had literally all been arrested for “engaging with issues of race,” and yet the professor seemed unable to understand that any advocacy or action beyond the concept he held in his head for racial justice was valid. He seemed, if anything, exasperated at our actions — as if we were unruly children who only needed to be set on the right path; the right path, of course, being his.

Bridging this divide takes not “dialogue” but respect. When we respect the knowledge and wisdom generated among marginalized communities outside of academia and the organizing strategies of grassroots activists and community leaders, only then can we come together to strategize towards change. When we respect the real tensions and damaged relationships between marginalized people and the institutions that have historically held them down, only then can we understand why calls for the marginalized to support those same institutions are so blatantly ignored.

For those who are currently in or someday planning to be in institutions, to “change things from within the system,” it’s imperative to constantly think of our relationships with the communities we are trying to help. If we reach a point in our work where marginalized communities are “just ignorant” and activists are “nuisances,” that’s when we need to stop and ask ourselves: Have we lost sight of the work? Have we been co-opted by the systems we are trying to change from within?

Professor Jayakumar urged us in her talk to “embrace the contradictions” in our work, and so I’ll go ahead and pass on that message. Can we work for organizations and institutions that contribute to local, national or global inequity? Is our work towards “incremental change” within uncritical or harmful institutions doing enough? We need to be prepared for the answer to be “no,” for the day when protesters are outside our doors, for the day when we are put in the impossible bind of choosing between our jobs and the communities we care about. I know for a fact that faculty at Stanford struggle with this on a daily basis. As students, as we start making our way into these institutional settings now and after Stanford, these contradictions should become something to keep in mind.

Originally published in The Stanford Daily.


Empower yourself to create an inclusive workplace environment

A delicate exploration of the discrimination that gender-diverse people face, this book reveals the landscape of identity, performance, negotiation and resilience that trans people in the workplace must navigate every day.

Learn More