When Professor Andrea Smith was a young child, she had a clear sense that the world was not fair. Her mother encouraged her to explore this concept further, which led Andrea to volunteer to help women. She also developed a passion at a young age for working as a community organizer. Now Andrea is a professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of California, Riverside. She blogs and writes about oppression and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace. Andrea will be guest speaker at the Friends of Women’s Studies Annual Dinner on Feb. 25, 2015. I recently had the chance to ask Andrea a few questions about her work.
Q: What motivated you to become a volunteer and an activist?
A: I was always thinking about what did or did not work for this situation or for this group. My work is really about trying to change things for people who have been in need of healing because of the way our culture is set up.
Q: Your blog is titled “Andrea 366: the 18 Year Plan To End Global Oppression.” Where did that phrase come from?
A: When I was doing research about the Native American boarding schools—where children were sent and separated from their tribal culture—and learning about how we could help people heal from that experience, I found that the Japanese concentration camp survivors took an average of 18 years to recover from that traumatic situation. I thought, “Why not try to do more?” and so I had the idea we ought to aim to end oppression on a worldwide scale.
Q: You are an academic, a professor, and an educated woman. Your work teaching and writing has a big influence on students, and, through your work lecturing, on more groups of people. How can ordinary people work towards this goal of ending oppression?
A: There’s nothing about being an academic that enables you to work for justice. Really, it’s the responses from ordinary people who will change things, one issue at a time. The first thing is to never think you can’t do something that will contribute to solving a problem. The second is to find two or three friends who think this situation you see is not right and move forward to create awareness about it.
Q: On your blog, you have written about the use of “trigger warnings” by writers online or on class syllabi, which let people know that a particular topic or article contains something that may cause psychological stress. Can you talk more about this?
A: People have had personal histories and experiences which can make it hard for any situation to be completely safe for them. Sometimes, even a color could remind a person of a violent situation. I think it’s important and helpful to let people know that there could be something that might bring up a difficult response. Really, in the work I do, the subject matter alone may require a trigger warning. And though you can’t do it for every single thing, it’s really about helping people to have a safe space.
Q: You also serve as the North American delegate with the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. How do you see the role of religion in helping to solve the problems of injustice for many people in the world?
A: We know that there are always complicated relationships with organized religions, but it’s also true that when people see a movie like “Selma,” they see that civil rights work happened within faith communities. Certainly, we know that we tend to focus on centralized religion, the large organization of the particular religion, and its hierarchy. But in ecumenical groups, the work is really about restoring relationships with each other, more from a spiritual place, one on one, person to person. That’s what’s required to restore justice. And that’s what we have to remember as we move through the challenges we’ve lived as activists.
Kathleen Fogarty works in library science and lives in Virginia Beach.