For the past three years my department at work has benefited from government-subsidized summer student interns. The students continually inject new ‘youthful’ ideas on ways in which to harness the ‘boundless possibilities’ of the internet and new technologies to keep the work vibrant. Their rewards, in addition to a better paying summer job, are lessons on patience, rigour, patience and more patience in carrying out action-oriented research.
This year is no different in one sense. I have just hired my fourth student intern and in orienting her to the tasks with an encouragement to her to infuse her work with creativity, I received many ideas in quick succession: Let’s create a Twitter account! How about using survey monkey instead of email? I’ll borrow books from the library to learn Spanish tomorrow! Clearly, she’s raring to go, just as much as did her predecessors.
This year is different in another sense. It is becoming more clear to me that social justice institutions can remain perpetually trapped in inconsistencies that negate the ideals for which they claim to stand. The patterns explain why my department, nominally the ‘gender department’, has appeared to be an entity independent of the larger institution of which it is a part. Daily conversations as well as analyses from institutional evaluations seem to converge at this conclusion.
I am no longer puzzled by the constant need to underscore the department as a part of the whole. It is concerning that the department needs to seek mediation for the other components of the institution to play their role to support its work. Take for instance the process required to hire the intern. One initial key task is the administrative element of completing government paperwork, carrying out the routine orientation for the intern or simply providing a door pass-key to her. It is not a question of the individual failing of the administrator who chooses not to play his role, rather, the problem lies in the institution’s silent support of his choice not to be accountable. The instances of differential treatment add up and so does the evidence.
The examples are endless and the point is not to list them here. Rather, it is to underscore a pattern of differential treatment. A one-time omission may be attributed to an oversight. Several oversights become a pattern which then constitutes itself into a body of indisputable evidence of, in my case, systematic marginalisation. I begin to wonder whether perhaps the work done in and through the department is considered marginal, trivial and hence unworthy of support. Perhaps because the work asks questions about the margins that the mainstream tends really not to trouble itself with. In stark contrast to the department’s contribution to raising the institution’s profile not only in circles interested in that type of feminist work, but also in the broader academic discipline and field within which the work is situated.
I have seen the patterns repeated in other institutions in which I have worked. Gender departments or in some cases, gender ‘desks’ tend to be marginalized and receive little support from the other constituent departments in organisations. Only in fully feminist or women-focussed organisations does gender work have the space to thrive unfettered by questionable attitudes (of course within the constraints posed by ordinary institutional functioning struggles).