Monday, November 28, 2011

In Their Own Words: Vanessa

 I am a lecturer in an English Department at a "public" university. I teach courses in early modern literature, composition, and critical thinking.

When did you first learn about the Occupy Wall Street Movement?  

I feel like I first learned about it on facebook. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I'm pretty sure I first learned about OWS when I followed a link to an article about why the mainstream media wasn't reporting on this protest movement.

When did you first become involved?

My involvement with the occupy movement is somewhat complicated, in part because the very idea of a "occupation" does not start with OWS, nor I am sure does it begin with my first experience, which while potentially tangential, is where I would like to begin. During 2009, I was finishing my PhD at the University of California, Davis. 

This was the year that the UC Regents passed the first of many exorbitant tuition hikes (when I began in 2003 I think it cost an undergraduate approximately $6000/yr to attend a UC, it is now close to $13,000/yr and if the next wave of hikes goes through we'll be up to $23,000/yr by 2015). To protest these hikes,--along with the reduction of tenure positions and job security for faculty, among other issues—students and faculty began holding rallies and "occupying" administration buildings to draw attention to what they/we saw as the privatization of public education. 
Out of this movement, particularly among more "radical" members, came the phrase "occupy everything." In fact, on my campus there was an unfruitful attempt to occupy a freeway, and in Oakland such an attempt was in some ways successful. The idea was to actually shut down "public" spaces to remind California of our place as a "public" institution (this is an over simplification). My role in these movements was largely one of support and vocal energy. I withheld services during strikes, I chanted "Our University" mantras while my friends and colleagues were hauled away in zip-tie hand cuffs for occupying Mrak hall (I nursed the head cold that came from cheering them on during the six hours it took to order their dispersal from the administration building and to arrest each of 52 individual occupiers). 

So for me, my first involvement with "occupy", a term I find fraught if we consider the history of occupation and colonization upon which our country is founded, starts before OWS. To me the idea of "occupation" was familiar as were the causes around which this international movement has rallied.

What made you want to be involved in this movement?

I am a white, only child from a middle-class family. My parents struggled to make ends meet for most of my life. They took turns earning their bachelors degrees while I went to elementary and high school. I am not part of the 1%, but I do, particularly compared to many people in this country "occupy" a position of privilege. I was able to take out the loans I needed to get through my undergraduate career and then again to finish my MA and PhD at two UC schools. I was considered a viable risk for lenders (banks and lenders who slowly seem to be corporatizing the very educational system of which I strive to be a part), but I am now swimming in debt with a one year, terminal lectureship and limited prospects on the job market. 

Despite my loans, I worked at least two part-time jobs while carrying a full load of graduate courses throughout my academic career. Quite frankly, I am tired of implicitly and sometimes overtly being branded as "lazy" because I have student load debt that seems impossible to overcome. I spend ridiculous amounts of time and energy arguing with my conservative relatives about how extending me some relief would, in fact, allow me to boost this capitalist economy only to meet the response: "I paid my way through college, why should I have to bail out people who didn't earn their education?" 

I bite my tongue, as I turn to my friends and say what I really want to say to these relatives: "because you attended a public university in the 70s or 80s when public education was actually "public" and when CSUs and even UCs were practically free by comparison to their respective costs today." 

So I'm drawn to this debate because, I think there exists an ignorant or unconscious hypocrisy among some of my fellow 99%-ers. And this is coming from a white woman UC faculty member. What if I were not this privileged? What if I were not even eligible for the exorbitant loans I was allowed to take to fund my education and allow me to teach at the University level? This is my impetus for becoming involved or at least supporting the larger Occupy movement. 

These are my frustrations and my personal anecdotes, not all members who oppose OWS attended UCs during their hey-day of affordability, but as I've shown not all Occupy supporters or actual, active occupiers are "dirty hippies" either. In some ways my involvement stems from a desire to break down these types of generalizations and to get people to see the human faces and gray areas of an issue that is easy to reduce to binaries.

How have you become involved in this movement?

My involvement, as I've suggested, largely comes in the form of instigating debate and dialogue among family, friends, and occasionally strangers. As an educator, I tend toward breaking down the rhetoric both of the movement and its detractors—cutting through the bullshit to see if there are not common interests that might allow individuals to communicate without generalizing or reducing each other to stereotypes.

1 comment:

  1. Vanessa, when you admit that the term "occupy" is fraught what would you prefer it to be, and do you think its important or that the connotations it gives are important? I mean why not "Invade Wall Street" or "Dominate Wall Street" or "Seek and Destroy Wall Street" or "Colonize Wall Street". Right? They seem relatively similar to me. Maybe "Physically Inhabit Public Spaces" movement? ;) I have heard "Unoccupy" suggested somewhere... hmmm ;) Although that phrase is now problematic because hateful anti OWS protestors mean it as a decolonization of the colonizers (OWS) who also think they are decolonizing the colonizers (Wall Street etc). What a mess. Does it matter?

    I have a very important question for you. What the hell should we do to fix our university systems? How do we make public universities public - and is that the solution? (isn't there limits on the amount of money raised then and dependent upon the state finances? isn't that part of the problem)

    What would you do to fix the problems with undervaluing and overcharging for college?