Finding My Voice as a Female Veteran

Recently, I had an epiphany. In the entirety of my time working in the student veteran realm I’ve only met one female veteran with whom I’ve spent time. I’m surrounded by men at every veteran event I attend, and when my significant other (who is not a veteran) gets thanked for “his service”, I stand there with a fake smile plastered on my face and a fire igniting in my chest. I realized that I need some female veteran friends who truly understand this struggle. The problem? Finding women who have served feels like finding a unicorn, and finding someone I could identify with regarding some of the most significant struggles I’ve faced hasn’t really happened up to this point in my life. I shouldn’t say it hasn’t ever happened. In fact, my best friend was the only other female in my company on my COP with me overseas, so she understands. But our experiences were very different as well, and the strain of re-integrating into society actually caused us to despise each other for a good 3-year span. So, where are all the women? This is the question I want to answer. I want to find these beautiful warriors and hear their story.

Organically, the conversation of my frustration led to the idea of using The Facing Project as a platform to tell the stories of woman veterans. I am incredibly excited about this opportunity, but as I began my marketing strategy an interesting thing happened. It took me weeks to find the appropriate words to talk about the project…I felt too close to the topic. It seems silly, because this project is something I find to be imperative to the understanding of the veteran community as a whole. I also know how many women fall by the wayside because they want to fly under the radar. However, I would type phrases like “come contribute your voice and help build a community of women who have been silenced for too long,” or “your voice is important and often overshadowed, come share your story!” and immediately over-analyze what I was writing. I found myself questioning how to phrase this sort of “call to arms” without offending male veterans. It seems like I have to exercise caution in how “overly-feminist” I seem.

I can just hear them saying “Oh, there’s another female fobbit (term for people who aren’t out on the front lines of combat) trying to get her voice heard about how hard her life was with a bunch of men,” or “there’s another woman who probably had men carry all of her things and thinks her life is too hard,” or “this is why females shouldn’t be in combat, they can’t handle it,” or perhaps “What’s your story, how many dudes you slept with overseas? How hard could your life have been?” or maybe “I never had a problem with women serving with me, so why am I being attacked?” I know that many veteran men do support women who served, but the overwhelming majority of men who served act suspect when I introduce myself. Not only am I a female, but I was in the National Guard; to any grunt I am automatically disregarded until I validate my position and explain to them what my service entailed. I receive respect once I have verified that I deserve it; that everything wasn’t just handed to me.

This is my mindset, and it’s a hard one to get out of. So, as I’m sitting here trying to create a public flyer promoting this beautiful and exciting project, I am still stuck in my own head. I’m trying to appeal to the women like me, who years ago would have responded the same way as the quoted language from men above. I also want to ensure that if my name is on the flyer I’m not pushing away the male veteran population who are also part of my community. As a female in the military we are conditioned to think a particular way. If we want to integrate and be accepted by our male counterparts, leadership, etc. we must take on a very particular persona. We are tough, hard to offend, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to prove we deserve to be in the position we are in. It takes very little to be labeled as the weak link and there are no such things as slip ups. It’s very hard to get out of this frame of mind when re-integrating back into society. I know very well that I should advocate for myself and tell all of those who don’t support me (without having to hear verbal confirmation of my active participation in the war and service) to go to hell. But it’s so hard, because I fought for my ability to validate my badassery. I worked incredibly hard, too hard to be written off. The result of this is that I find myself with a flyer, unable to promote my own project appropriately, because I don’t want to be the weak link, the victim, or “that girl.”

I am confident I am not alone in this narrative, which is why this Facing Project we’ve named “Sisters in Arms” is so important. Being a female veteran isn’t just about how strong we are physically, or just about stories of sexual assault, although these are important topics of discussion. Its about the lasting impact of our service as a whole, on our psyche and on how we approach and embrace our identity not only as veterans in society but as veterans within a male-dominant veteran community. It’s imperative that the men who have served also understand this because their voices are much louder than ours, and if they can help promote and validate our time in service then maybe we will all feel more comfortable sharing our stories with the rest of the world. As I navigate this project I have found myself regressing to where I started years ago, hiding my identity and avoiding veteran events as a whole. But I always come back to the importance of this project not only for myself but for all the other wonderful women warriors out there. The first step is finding the right words, and consequently, the women to help me share this story.

Vanessa Moore

Why I failed my Texas History class in the 7th grade…

It’s a true story – I failed Texas History in middle school. I can’t even remember why I failed the class. What I am pretty certain of is that the Texas history I was taught did not dive into the history of colonization in the state (at least not without the romance novel version, complete with Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston on horseback wearing flouncy shirts and saving everyone from savagery). I had no notion of local movements or struggles, either historical or current, that shaped my community. National news and issues were part of my thinking self, but not so much for the underlying context of those issues in my local community. And so the past remained as interesting as a summer reading list…entertaining, removed from my everyday life, and not taking up too much head space.

In thinking of how we educate about local social movements and weave those stories into the now to keep them alive, I immediately thought of two groups working here in Colorado. These groups bring together members of the community in ways that entertain while they challenge and inform, and create dialogue based on shared experiences that emerge from stories of the past. The Romero Theater Troupe is a social justice organic theater company focused on giving voice to those who have been silenced by history. The Troupe’s People’s History of Colorado is a series of productions about historical figures left out of text books who shaped the state in critical ways. Their method is to teach history through stories from the “bottom up”, broaching topics such as the history of white supremacy in Colorado, attempted border closings in the 1930’s to keep immigrants out of the state, the legacy of Adolf Coors and anti-LGBTQ legislation, and the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII in Amache, CO. The Troupe itself, as a collection of community volunteers, is part teacher, part organizer, part activist, and part convener.

Another group educating about local social movements in a slightly more irreverent way is Warm Cookies of the Revolution, a civic health club in the Denver metro area. Just as folks go to the gym for their physical health, Warm Cookies hosts events for civic health. My favorite of these events is the Stompin’ Ground Games, where participants learn crucial historical lessons about a specific neighborhood and its landmarks, as well as current issues affecting those areas and ways to take action for change. This dive into historical and current issues of a neighborhood are accompanied by musical performances, food vendors, and other cultural events selected by members of that neighborhood as relevant to them. In addition to the Stompin’ Ground Games there’s also This Machine Has a Soul, The People vs ______________, Sin Tax Bingo, Civic Stitch and Bitch, Bring Your Government, and lots more.

I’m not saying I definitely would have passed 7th grade Texas history if it was conveyed through a community theater focused on the unheard voices of social movements, or if it was incorporated into an experience that mixed levity with the seriousness of social change. But I do know that these groups, among many others out there in communities across the country, are powerful vehicles for bringing together community members in the name of social justice and understanding, starting with the understanding of what struggles and movements have come before to shape the struggles and movements of today.

Hopefully you’ll join the Agora Project conversation on March 16th at 11am MST to talk more about local social movements and how these are integrated into higher education engagement in and with communities. Here’s the link to join the conversation. As a final note, I ended up majoring in History in college, writing my thesis about the migration of maquiladores from Mexico to Texas when the Great Migration of African Americans to the north shifted labor supplies and demands. And I passed that time.

Gatekeeping, innovation, power, resentment…What’s up with the faculty?

Over the weekend, I came across Douglas Dowland’s piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Academe Breeds Resentment.” My first thought, petty though it may be, was how much I resent the term “academe.” As a late-to-the-party PhD candidate with 15 years under my belt as a higher education administrator, the term just smacks of elitism. Is it any wonder that the public rolls its eyes and questions our public purpose when we talk about ourselves in niche language that’s just close enough to colloquial (academy, anyone?) that the average layperson can “get it” and its exclusive tenor? Yeesh.

Dowland argues, if I may employ my own academic speak for a moment, that the neoliberal condition has taken a concerning toll on academic culture. He writes:

“Opportunities for resentment only increase as new academics attempt to position themselves in a virtually nonexistent job market, as established academics are increasingly ranked, and as budgets are slashed in the name of the latest managerial mantra.”

Sure. I can get down with that. After four years of coursework while working full-time, and now the muddle and strain of slogging through a dissertation, my colleagues affectionately refer to me as a benevolent nihilist. And, yeah, higher education’s commodification has had real effects not just on faculty culture and experience, but on American society writ large. It’s unsettling if you think about it for a minute, and downright frightening if you allow yourself to linger. Dowland suggests that the faculty needs to move beyond resentment, a sentiment which hobbles, isolates, and drains the power from those who fall under its spell. Solidarity is the tonic, the healing space in which we can all see one another as humans engaged in collective struggle.

Cool.

And.

Today, more than 75% of all faculty are contingent, and more than 60% of full-time faculty members are neither tenured nor on the tenure track. The majority of those faculty are in their prime earning years (between the ages of 36 and 65), they are more ethnically diverse than tenured faculty, and more than half are women. And indeed, the working conditions of the contingent faculty writ large should give us pause. More than 50% earn a salary at or below the federal poverty level. Using the median pay per three-hour course, $2,700, and factoring in preparation time, the average full-time contingent faculty member earns approximately ten dollars an hour.

Dowland, I can’t help but note, is a white, male, tenure-track professor, albeit a junior faculty member. I can posit that he’s writing from that junior faculty lens in observing the behavior of his senior counterparts. Having worked in the ranks of the contingent faculty and watched that model chew up and spit out some of the brightest folks I know, however, I’m okay with resentment. And anger. Because the problem, though it’s quaint to think so, isn’t the toll of pursuing a life of the mind, or the spiraling of academic critique into petty gossip. The problem is that there is no one faculty. It’s not just a perception of powerlessness.

Dowland writes, “In academe, it is easier to be a gatekeeper than to be an innovator.” Gatekeeping requires power. So does innovation. If Dowland’s version of the faculty seeks solidarity, the onus is on those who enjoy access to the tenets of academic freedom and faculty governance–yes, even despite the inequities within that rusty and antiquated model–to leverage that power and start lifting.

 

 

 

 

Lyrical Realities

“If our struggle is a strain then the strain is dominant
My name is prominent for entertainment that’s laced with consciousness…
The common myth that we’re savages with no history or accomplishments
Or knowledge of ourselves, they did a job on us
Considering the prediction of economists
Machines will do our jobs for us
The future for the working class is ominous
They got is indoctrinated through a brew
A religion mixed in with abuse…”

-Talib Kweli-

Though I didn’t watch the Grammys, it made me think about lyrics and how powerful (or not) music is to relate struggle, joy, history, identity, and on and on. Full disclosure: I’ve got a small obsession with Talib Kweli and Mos Def (Black Star). There are scores of artists out there who are adept at telling stories of local struggles and local knowledge, and how that local knowledge has been systematically de-legitimized, but I choose to focus on Black Star for today. Here’s my contribution to deeper thinking about social realities through lyrics. What’s yours?

Local Knowledge & Expertise

I’ve been thinking about the guiding question for the upcoming February Agora Project conversation concerning how we legitimize (or not) local knowledge within higher education, particularly within the field of community engagement. Two recent experiences stick out in my mind as pivot moments for me (which, thankfully, seem to happen a lot…otherwise, I’d be going nowhere fast).

In October 2017 I attended a Highlander Center workshop as part of the Conference on Community Writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. Highlander workshops “help create and support strong, democratic organizations that work for justice, equality, and sustainability in their own communities and…build broad movements for social, economic, and restorative environmental change.” A great deal of time during the workshop was spent learning about social movements that have led us, as a country, to where we are now. It was also spent talking with others in the room about our own work, aspirations, fears, etc. I remember feeling a bit confused/put off/dismissive because we weren’t being provided concrete tools, foolproof rubrics, or evidence-based program ideas. Instead, we were being guided through connecting with people, understanding social movements, and letting stories lead action. I was disappointed in myself for being dismissive, albeit temporarily, in the lack of “formal” expertise that was shared. For someone who relies upon informality and relationship building as a prerequisite to partnerships (I’ve been called folksy, but I think that was intended as an insult), I was upset at my own reaction.

The second recent experience occurred during the Collective Impact Summit hosted by The Civic Canopy in November 2017. During an informal roundtable with other event participants, a conversation began about how to reach across difference (particularly race) to build relationships and create coalitions for change. I listened to one person talk passionately about her own story and her own expectations for how folks should build relationships based on brutal honesty and transparency. She was the only person of color at the table, and when she was done speaking you could have heard crickets chirping. I realized that I was creating this strange, artificial barrier between my work life and my personal life that prevented me from responding to her story in a way that was real. As someone working in higher education, I felt conversationally stuck, as if I needed to have the “right” answer in order to respond. As a person in real life, I had a story to share that allowed the conversation to move forward. The notion that local and personal knowledge is not expertise is something I have to actively push against, both in my own mind and in the work that I do. I see it in myself, I see it in who is elevated as keynotes and trainers, and I see it in how individuals are professionally recognized or dismissed in higher education.

I’ll leave this post with a resource about local knowledge that includes a chapter on the work of the Highlander Center, in case you want to learn more about what they do. Enjoy!  http://www.cambridgescholars.com/download/sample/63174

The Journey Begins

Welcome to the Agora Project, a space for civic dialogue and reflection about campus and community engagement, hosted by Campus Compact of the Mountain West. Over the past 17 years that I’ve been a part of Campus Compact I’ve noticed that while formal workshops, conferences, and trainings are essential to moving the field of higher education engagement forward, they rarely provide opportunities for dialogue about the unanswered and oftentimes unanswerable questions that arise within the field.

The Agora Project is a space to dialogue, to share resources that deepen our thinking about the world around us, and to elevate the practice of learning from one another without the goal of winning an argument or emerging as the conversational victor. We all have a perspective to share that is real, that is valuable, and that is true. Share what is real to you. Share what is valuable and sacred to you. Share what is true for you. Join us in the Agora Project.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton