Why Our Communities Need Ethnic Studies, and Why We Need Research Justice to Reclaim It

Friday, April 4th, at 7pm, DataCenter and the National Association for Ethnic Studies (NAES) will host Research Justice: Decolonizing Knowledge, Building Power. The event is part of the 2014 NAES conference which  is being co-organized by two inspiring academics / organizers / community leaders – Julia Chinyere Oparah, Co-Chair of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, and Margo Okazawa-Rey, Distinguished Fellow in Research Justice at Mills College. Click here to purchase tickets for the event.

Introduction and interview by Miho Kim, Executive Director, DataCenter:

I wanted to learn about the life journey that fueled the passion of the two women who are about to transform the way ‘academic conferences’ exist and interact with – and even serve – the grassroots communities at the forefront of the social justice movement. I wanted to learn why they believe Research Justice can help ‘decolonize Ethnic Studies’ to empower the voices of our own communities for social change.

Multi-sector partnership is a critical opportunity for many grassroots community organizations with limited resources and who lack mainstream credibility to be heard. The prospect of academy-community solidarity is bright with Research Justice advocates on all sides. In this interview and at our upcoming event in April, you will feel like you have personally met them and deeply inspired and moved to join their effort. – Miho Kim

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“Liberating knowledge requires us to break down hierarchies related to education and access and embrace a truly participatory model of research.” – Prof. Julia C. Oparah

Miho Kim: Tell me about your personal journey that brings you to Research Justice.

Julia Chinyere Oparah: My activism over the past two decades has involved a deep and honest encounter with my own story, the good, the bad and the ugly. Growing up black in a racially homogenous and racist small prison town, surviving loss, abandonment and gender violence at a young age, I knew as a teenager that my life would be dedicated to changing the conditions in which little black girls grew up so that violence and shame would not be our normal.  Later on, I expanded that vision to include others who were also violated and excluded: queers and transfolks, immigrants and undocumented folks, survivors of disablism and the mental health system, and more. While I loved reading and excelled at school, I also looked down on academia and research as luxuries of those with privilege and without pressing problems. That attitude was transformed when I was exposed to writing by black feminist icons from Angela Y. Davis to Amina Mama and I realized that we could define our own questions, and make research a tool for our visions of social change.

“‘Ordinary people’ doing their own research is a part of the path to liberation; we want to be our own agents, to shape our own destinies, by generating our own knowledges and action to transform the conditions around us.” – Margo Okazawa-Rey

Margo Okazawa-Rey: When my origins are examined historically and intersectionally, I am not supposed to exist. Born in post-WWII occupied Japan to an upper-middle-class Japanese woman and working-class-African American solider and immigrating to the US in 1960 taught me very early on about borders and identities. My first lesson was that borders are not to be crossed and identities can only be singular, either one thing or another, “Japanese” or “American.” I spent much of my early years trying to get in and stay inside existing locations and identities. When I “came out” in my early-20s, I realized from the deepest parts of my existence that there would never be a place where I and others like me could fit comfortably. The absence of space compelled me to help create them — free spaces that could hold all of us. That’s how I became an activist, and later was heavily influenced my thinking as a Black Feminist through my membership in the Combahee River Collective, whose work has influenced many others who came after me.

Years working in poor communities, being a doctoral student, and later faculty teaching students at every level of higher education, I came to realize the limitations of mainstream, university-based ways of doing research and creating knowledge: they will never serve the communities I am devoted to or the kinds of topics needing exploration by “ordinary people.”

MK: Why did you decide to frame NAES around Research Justice, what do you hope it will help achieve?

JCO: In my Research Methods in Ethnic Studies class at Mills College we use a “Research Justice” framework, although I didn’t originally call it that.  We explore how research has been used as a tool of oppression against communities of color, and ask how we can use research in participatory ways that build community power and liberation. My students have learned through years of miseducation and underfunded public schools that they cannot be thinkers and knowers, that all they can do is reproduce “facts” produced by other people – the experts who produce what they must study and learn. But in my class, they define for themselves what it is that they want to know, and how they can use participatory and anti-oppressive research tools to find it out.

That is such a transformative and powerful experience for my students, and it has helped me to see that Ethnic Studies needs Research Justice! We need it because otherwise we risk simply repeating the same model of education but replacing our new, radical “experts” for the traditional knowledge elite. If we want to empower our students to use knowledge as a tool for change in their lives, we need to support them in developing their own questions, and finding answers in partnership with other people who share their political concerns. One of the questions that I think we will address at NAES is how a Research Justice approach can help to decolonize Ethnic Studies and higher education as a whole. How can we use Research Justice praxis to undo business-as-usual in neoliberal universities and colleges, with their focus on low cost, high numbers and the production of carbon-copy students more concerned with paying off enormous debt than with shaking up the status quo?

MK:  Can you share one thing about upcoming NAES conference that you’re particularly excited about?

JCO: When I first envisioned NAES, I thought that it should be an “un-conference”! I was fed up with academic conferences where I ended up feeling depleted, overwhelmed and achy after running from session to session for three or four days with little ability to pay attention to the needs of my jetlagged body. NAES 2014 is going to be different! Imagine a conference where you wake up, go water walking and have a hot-tub, then attend two engaging, participatory and intellectually juicy workshops, followed by a Capoeira class! Imagine a conference where you take your three year old with you, and she comes home talking about decolonization in toddlerese! Or where you pause in the middle of the day for a dharma talk and meditation on race and decolonization. How would our ability to actualize what we talk about in these conferences be boosted if we gave ourselves permission to bring our whole selves through the door, to acknowledge ourselves as embodied, feeling, relational and even spiritual beings? We’re going to find out, so get ready to step outside of your comfort zone and be deeply transformed!

MOR: The truly interdisciplinary approaches and topics, multi-generational participation, and authentic bridge between academy and community are what excite me the most. In so doing, our students will get to witness the various ways “activism” and “scholarly work” are conceptualized and generated. The holism of what we envision is radical!

MK: And Julia, you wanted to share why it’s so important to have the ‘bridge’ between academy, community and the movement, like yourself, in order to achieve Research Justice?

JCO: I came to academia via a circuitous route. After college, I went into community development, and ran a non-profit for black women and their children. So the academy is a second career/calling for me.  I got my Ph.D. because I wanted to write a book  about the incredible black women activists that I knew, and to debunk the assumption that black women in Britain were too downtrodden or busy to be politically involved. I didn’t know how to write a book, so I joined a Ph.D. program to learn how to write one. That was an incredible experience. I was able to step back from the frontline of community struggle, and talk to activists about their organizing histories and about how they believed change happened. It made me realize what an enormous wealth of knowledge exists in communities of color, and how little we ourselves often know about it.

Activist scholars like Margo, myself and many others have some research tools, some training, and an ability to write and speak in ways that communicate complex ideas simply and clearly.  There are plenty of other folks who have those characteristics too. What makes our position unique, I think, is that we have the privilege of institutional support and time to do this work. I don’t want to exaggerate that. As an educator, department chair, NAES 2014 co-chair and mom of a three year old, I sometimes feel like I have no time at all!  But in my current work with Black Women Birthing Justice, my position at Mills helps create the time and resources we need to keep the project moving forward. I have also been able to share my research tools so that we are now a group of researchers working together to tell stories about black women and childbirth that make a difference. It’s been an amazing journey, and we are currently writing about it for the Research Justice Reader publication being edited by NAES 2014 co-chair Andrew Jolivette.

MK: A message to prospective participants?

JCO & MOR: We look forward to welcoming you to Mills College in April. If you see us, please come and say hi and tell us about your Research Justice journey. Let’s use this conference to challenge ourselves, to build community across boundaries, and to become energized and excited about the work ahead!

More about Julia Chinyere Oparah and Margo Okazawa-Rey:

Julia Chinyere Oparah, Co-Chair NAES 2014, Professor and Chair, Ethnic Studies Department, Mills College

Julia Chinyere Oparah is an activist scholar, social justice educator and experienced community organizer, who is dedicated to producing critical scholarship in the service of progressive social movements.  Oparah is an African diaspora specialist, whose interests span a number of different social concerns, including activism by women of color, violence against women, women and the prison-industrial complex, restorative justice, queer and transgender liberation, race and adoption, Research Justice and birth activism. Her work is informed by personal experiences of crossing racial, gendered and national boundaries as a biracial, transracial/ transnational adoptee, survivor of intimate violence and queer parent with ties to Britain, Nigeria and the U.S.

Oparah is professor and department chair of Ethnic Studies at Mills College. She played a leading role in the establishment of Mills’ Queer Studies Program and sits on the Advisory Committee for that program. She recently led the College’s Gender Expression and Identity initiative, leading to the production of an important report on improving the experiences of transgender and gender-fluid students at Mills.

Oparah was awarded the Rockefeller Fellowship in Sex, Race and Globalization in 2002, and held the prestigious Canada Research Chair in Social Justice and Diversity at the University of Toronto from 2004-6. Educated at Cambridge University and Warwick University, she has graduate degrees in Sociology and Ethnic Studies. In addition, Oparah trained in community development. Prior to entering academia, she coordinated a black women’s center in the UK, and was executive director of a national development agency for non-profits serving communities of color.

She is currently working with the grassroots community organization Black Women Birthing Justice on a participatory action research project about black women’s experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, and editing an anthology on black women in the birth justice movement. In her spare time she practices mindfulness meditation and vinyasa yoga, sings along to gospel music, hangs out with toddlers and is learning horse-riding. Oparah has Nigerian (Igbo) and British origins, and immigrated to the US in 1995. She lives in East Oakland with her partner and daughter.

Margo Okazawa-Rey, Professor, School of Human and Organizational Development, Fielding Graduate University, Professor Emerita, San Francisco State University, and Distinguished Fellow in Research Justice, Mills College:

Margo Okazawa-Rey‘s work focuses on militarism, armed conflict, and violence against women.  In her research, she examines the connections between militarism, economic globalization, and impacts on local and migrant women in South Korea who live and work around US military bases. She also has begun working with women in militarized and post-conflict areas of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria, where they are exploring the role of feminist research in activism, policy change, and women’s empowerment.  A related interest is making the connections between the military industrial complex and prison industrial complex, both that affect working-lass and poor youth and communities of color in the US. That is, making connections—theoretical and practical—between foreign policy and domestic policy.

She is currently is a professor in the School of Human and Organizational Development at the Fielding Graduate University and a professor emerita at San Francisco State University. She is the author of “Amerasian Children of GI Town: A Legacy of US Militarism in South Korea,” with Gwyn Kirk, co-editor of Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives (6th ed., 2013), and with Julia Sudbury, Activist Scholarship: Anti Racism, Feminism, and Social Change (2008). Her latest publication, with Amina Mama, is “Militarism, Conflict and Women’s Activism in the Global Era: Challenges and Prospects for Women in Three West African Contexts,” published in the Feminist Review.  Margo also is on the international board of PeaceWomen across the Globe, based in Bern Switzerland, and Du Re Bang (My Sister’s Place) in Uijongbu, South Korea.  She also lived for three years in Palestine and worked with Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in Ramallah, from where she is currently doing an oral history project of Palestinians of African descent living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Having been a founding member of the Combahee River Collective in the mid-1970s, who introduced the concept of “intersectionality” profoundly shapes Margo’s scholarship and activism. This framework has informed her activism on military violence against women, inter/intra-ethnic conflicts, and critical multicultural education in Boston, Washington, DC, and the San Francisco Bay Area.