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Talking Union E2: Organizing while Trans

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Transcript:

Narrator

Hi there. My name is Stephen Marrone, and I’m a Graduate Student Worker at The University of Virginia.

You’re listening to Talking Union, a podcast produced by United Campus Workers of Virginia. We’re a union made up of workers at universities across the state of Virginia, and here’s the really important thing: we’re what’s called a “wall-to-wall” union. That means that, for our local chapters, anyone who works for the university can join. Student workers, faculty, staff. This organizing model is all about challenging the idea that different workers at the university ought to remain separate, and instead coming together to build power for all workers. We’re also a rank-and-file union, which means the union is run by its membership—people like me, as well as the other workers you’ll hear on the podcast today.

This podcast aims to demonstrate the principle of “wall-to-wall” organizing in practice. It’s also a way of reconstructing the norms of our workplace, and doing so intentionally, with our collective aims bringing us together instead of keeping us apart. So, on this show, you’ll hear workers from different universities, from different parts of those universities. There’s no interviewer, and no host, so you won’t be hearing much more from me. Instead, you’ll hear two people in conversation, talking about their experiences in their words. Unions are their members, and our goal is to make ourselves heard.

Today’s episode is called “Organizing while Trans.” It features two union members who are also trans people: a graduate student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

You’ll hear our interviewees reflect on the isolating effects of academia, on their Batman-esque origin stories of how they came to organizing, and how the lived experience of being trans is actually kind of a superpower when it comes to the work of consciously building a union community.

Okay, here’s the show!

• • •

Rose
Hi, I'm Rose. My pronouns are they/them. I'm a member of the United Campus Workers VCU Chapter Steering Committee, which is a chapter in the United Campus Workers of Virginia Local. I started organizing there as an adjunct and I have since become a member of the full-time faculty of the Department of Focused Inquiry.

Ida
My name is Ida. I also use they/them pronouns. I'm on the UVA side and I'm also on the Steering Committee. Rose and I also serve on the Joint Steering Committee, the statewide steering of the union. And I'm a PhD student in the Anthropology Department at UVA.

Rose
Yeah, so I've known you primarily through our shared organization, and met you after UVA's chapter had already launched, so I don't think I ever found this out before you joined UCW: what was your previous experience with organizing and how prepared do you feel like you were for what we do now?

Ida
Yeah, none! Zero! Absolutely not at all! I had actually read Jane McAlevey's book No Shortcuts, which we take a lot of strategy from because it is wise and based on a lot of experience. I had just happened upon that and read it in the summer before we started getting involved with thinking about building a union at UVA. So that was the extent of my organizing experience: I read one good book and then I jumped in. But I will say I think I was prepared in the sense that I've spent a lot of purposeful time figuring out how to build community. And I think that's a large part of what I do on steering at the moment and also figuring out how to build structure in organizations, which is also necessary for us to survive and build power. So the answer is: sort of woefully underprepared, and like, actually quite well-suited. I think? What about you?

Rose
Yeah, I know what you mean about that community building stuff. I've done some small projects like organizing a queer and trans clothing swap event, the kind of thing that is a ‘one-and-done.’ You do it, everybody is pretty happy, and then you walk away and take a nap. But I'd started thinking about a different model of community living for myself, perhaps like a year or two before. My friend group was getting a little bit older and starting to sort of implode in terms of our ability to make meaningful time for each other and we'd also had some internal group conflicts around Dungeons & Dragons that we hadn't handled well, as like every queer friend group over the age of 25 could probably attest to. And so I started thinking a lot about what it means to be a leader and to participate meaningfully in your communities and engage in conflict resolution and deliberately build community. And a lot of that stuff is what I've sort of built on in working with this organization. Like, I put together a Discord server and came up with really clear rules for it and started insisting that we all hang out once a month in ways that were specifically designed to help one another and that kind of thing has been really useful to draw upon.

Ida
That makes me like you so much!

Rose
I think I said to my partner like, "OK, I want to be king." And he was kind of like, "Well, somebody should be, because this whole situation is not currently working." And I think what I meant was we need somebody who's willing to take accountability and responsibility for what's happening and what we're all deciding to do together, and if someone doesn't take responsibility, it's not going to happen.

Ida
Mmhmm. You know, I also don't think it's coincidence that we're sitting here as two trans members of the Steering Committee of this new union and both of us are like, "Yeah, we've thought about how to build community intentionally in our lives."

Rose
Yeah, 'cause there's a lot of sort of pre-existing structures in, let's say, a cisgender heterosexual paradigm that gives you a packaged community.

Ida
Mmhmm.

Rose
You know, you get married and then you have your parents and your in-laws, and you raise children, and there's all these structures that sort of exist to help you figure out what your role is in people's lives and people to help you when you fall down or get in trouble. And yeah, there's…there's certainly less of that if you're queer or trans.

Ida
Mmhmm. And I also have always felt like, even when it has been there for me—sometimes it is, sometimes it's not—it doesn't feel the same as having trans community or having queer community. There's a solidarity there, and a trust. There's a different vibe. Do you know what I mean?

Rose
I think I've struggled with that sometimes, because as someone who never felt entirely at home in just the ‘queer community’ writ large, to me what's valuable about it is not necessarily that everyone in it is queer specifically, but that it's deliberately built.

Ida
Mmhmm.

Rose
And that deliberation, and that we've all made a choice to be here for one another and this isn't something that happened to us by default, is what I've found meaningful.

Ida
Yeah. That's a really good way of putting it. Do you feel that way about the union?

Rose
Yeah! I mean a little bit. I think that it's been really exciting to see people join and become invested in it. And to see people sort of, like, take on responsibility for one another and for the shared project and to figure out where they fit into that structure. And it's made me feel really close to people who if I had just met them casually, socially, I don't think I would have realized how excellent they are. And that I feel like a new criterion that I have for thinking that a person is excellent is like, how solid are you in a crisis? How solid are you in the day-to-day mundane operation of our organizations or the structures that keep us alive?

Ida
Hmm. Yeah, I feel that.

Rose
Now… so I wanted to talk about something that was really exciting for me personally, which is when I met the UVA chapter leadership. I think I met some of y'all first on Zoom and was individually sort of like, "Oh, I think this person might be trans," and then you all came to our big union picnic and it was clear that the majority of UVA chapter's leadership was trans and I was like, "Hey, same hat!" So that was really exciting for me. And you know I'm over here, like as far as I know, the only trans member of VCU's union leadership. But is there some meaning or reason behind that overlap? Or is it just? Did it just happen coincidentally?

Ida
I think it's totally...totally and not at all coincidental. I remember being on early calls and looking around and being like, "Wow I'm not the only person...I think this is the first time in my UVA career that I'm not the only person in the room who uses they/them pronouns. What a cool space to be in! Like, I want to keep coming back." And I know I'm not the only person on the UVA side who felt that way either, because of course we all talk to each other about how we got into the work and how things are going. And almost every person I know who's genderqueer in some way is like, "Yes, that was really a moment for me getting into the work." I'd seen that I wasn't alone in the work in that way. So, we certainly didn't do it intentionally. None of us knew each other before we started organizing together actually. But I also don't think it's not meaningful. You know what I mean?

Rose
Yeah! And I've been now to one of the events that UVA started holding, the "Drank-and-File," and it was really clear that you all have become this really tight-knit community who are in each other's lives in these really meaningful ways, which is so exciting! So, it's very interesting to me to hear that this wasn't, like, you all were a pre-existing friend group who decided to unionize, but rather, that you were all drawn to this work at this time. And that makes me want to ask you: do you think that there is something about this particular historic moment that is bringing queer and trans people into labor organizing? Or have we always been here, but we just never saw each other before… like, what's going on?

Ida
Oh my gosh, both/and. I just started reading Leslie Feinberg's work. Have you—yeah, you've read Leslie Feinberg.

Rose
I read that last summer and was just crying a lot.

Ida

Yeah! Yes! Yes! So for those listening who don't know Leslie Feinberg: total badass, amazing human who is unfortunately no longer with us, but was really outspoken about unity across different kinds of queer activism that were deeply divided in ways that I don't think are… don't feel true to me any anymore. A lot of reading Leslie's work I'm like, "Man, everything that's in here about unity I feel, in terms of labor organizing, how important it is." But I no longer feel like I have to say that to a lesbian community, that they need to understand that trans well-being also matters in terms of queer well-being. I don't know, I'm sure that there are people who need to hear that but that's not at the forefront of my mind as the fight. Anyway, Leslie Feinberg: amazing. And I say that to say yes, we have always been here. Of course we understand that we need to stand together because we're freaking vulnerable [Nervous laughter], and it's super clear. And that's also a core tenet of good labor organizing, of solid, sustainable labor organizing that leads to wins, is, because we do have to do it together to have power. So in that sense, we've always been in the fight. The way that we understand the world to work has always jived really well with good labor organizing. And also… there must be something about the internet and queer things being super visible now in ways that haven't been possible before in America in past decades that I imagine… and things just being garbage! I learned the other day that Virginia, in the list of 50 States and the District of Columbia, is 51st in workers' rights. That's madness! So there's also something there about, yeah we are in a moment of things being real, real bad and people not just want, but desperately need solutions… and labor organizing is a real one that I think is an amazing, maybe the one. Of course. Let me wrap that up by saying I think the need is there. I think the path is there. I think the understanding that it matters is there and we're finding each other.

Rose
Yeah, absolutely. I've been thinking a lot this year about the purpose and meaning of my life and about how I've been weirdly good at getting the things that I want for myself. And how I think what that tells me is that it's very important to think about what I want for all of us. Or maybe I'm just really good at being happy with what I have. I don't know. But I was feeling really frustrated with our lack of progress on a couple of issues, and thinking, "Oh what if I just quit or took a step back?" And then I thought, "No! I can have anything I want for myself, the challenge is getting what I want for all of us."

Ida
Mmhmm. Mmhmm.

Rose
So I wanted to ask... Are there struggles that are associated with being both out as trans and a public facing member of UCW and how has that experience been for you?

Ida
Yeah. Honestly, nothing has happened that's been really uncomfortable for me, specifically, around me being trans. Yeah… I think about it. And I have some fear around it, but so far I'm OK. What about you?

Rose
I think the only thing that's really happened is that in the course of some of the advocacy work that I've been doing in email threads, a group was talking about the need to be able to let students debate and discuss, say, whether it's OK to use somebody's correct pronouns for them or not. And I jumped in that thread to say that I would never want to put myself or my students in a position where in the classroom, we were debating my existence or their existence. 

Ida
Uh-huh.

Rose
And a faculty member—and I think this is a really normal thing—pushed back by saying like, "Oh no, of course, that's not what I mean! I can't imagine ever allowing such a thing to take place in my classroom. I just meant that they could write essays about it." And I found myself thinking about how—and this is not exactly in the context of UCW work, but— there is this real idea in academia that the intellectual or the professor is separate from the comings and goings of the world, even if it's the same person.

Ida
Right.

Rose
And this expectation that “well, of course I would not allow this in my classroom to protect my students. I should try to objectively grade an essay about it.” As though the gold standard in academia is to set aside your selfhood and view everything as… I think Emerson called it, like, the invisible eyeball or something.

Ida

Uh-huh.

 

Rose

The transparent eyeball is what he called it! I no longer have any interest in being a transparent eyeball. I don't think that that serves myself or my students, and I think that when the academic community asks people to sort of disembody themselves in order to take part in the Academy, it makes us all into weird, neurotic little animals.

Ida
Yeah? [Chuckles] God...Yeah, I was having a thought earlier when you were talking about leadership and intentionality also that I think ties into this. I'm having the same thought again, which is that there are ways that our experience having to live in the world as trans people, particularly "out" trans people and people who've been in front of a classroom and have some amount of public… I don't want to say 'scrutiny' but… presence, whether we like it or not, I think makes us really well-suited to learning how to be organizers on the fly pretty quickly because of things that you're naming. That we have to figure out how to navigate situations that other people might not even have to think about. I mean this is the definition of privilege. I was thinking about this when you were talking about intentionality and how what you really appreciate is when a community comes together intentionally and that is... I don't know if you said it felt safe, I might be putting words in your mouth there, but that's true for me. And that's also true in a union. It's like this vehicle for our power, does that happen by accident? [Laughs]

Rose
No!

Ida
There is no way! You have to do it on purpose and we have—I am going to generalize here—we also have to think about things on purpose that cis people don't. We have experience looking at our lives and going, "OK. Nobody is thinking about this 'cause they don't have to, but we are super going to put a lot of thought into this." And that is also a part of organizing a powerful, durable union.

Rose
Alright, so while you were saying that, I was thinking I've spent a lot of my life very, sort of carefully and intentionally crafting myself.

Ida
Yeah.

Rose
And feeling like a fraud—

Ida
Yeah!

Rose
—for having to deliberately decide how to present, how to dress, how to act, how to talk to people. And I worry sometimes that I come across as fake to people who don't know me well and don't know that this is like a… that my personality is hard won. And sometimes, I think that made me really open to organizing methodology, which asks you to carefully consider how you're talking to people, what kinds of questions you're asking them—

Ida
Yes.

Rose
—the semantics that you use when you're describing organizing with your coworkers. See, I didn't say "The Union!”

Ida
[Chuckles]

Rose
And I think a lot of people who've never had to sort of deliberately craft an identity or think carefully about how to get through social situations in order to achieve the outcomes that you need in order to do OK—

Ida
Uh-huh.

Rose
—struggle a little more with the idea that they should change how they speak or act in order to get the results that they want. Like, that feels really normal to me.

Ida
Yeah! Struggle a lot! Yeah, like have this idea that for something to be true and authentic—

Rose
It has to be unconsidered yet has to come from an intuitive place.

Ida
Yes!

Rose
I had to go to therapy to think about whether I was lying to myself and everyone else about being trans because I like to wear beautiful dresses.

Ida
[Chuckles] Yeah!

Rose
You know, so if somebody wanted to hand me a toolkit that says on it, "Here Is Power," I'm going to look through that toolkit and not immediately slam the lid on it because I don't immediately identify readily with everything inside of it.

Ida
Mmhmm. That actually gets at something else I've been thinking too, in terms of a queer liberation and labor organizing and being trans and being a leader. What you just said about not slamming the lid on something just because it doesn't all resonate or you're not on board with all of it… I think one of the other deep commonalities, besides what we've already talked about, with being queer in the world and needing a better world for us and doing labor organizing, is that particularly the way that we organize at UCW, "wall-to-wall," we have to be able to build real unity in solidarity with difference. And not just tolerant of difference or across difference, but that that is strength. That is a part of our power! Which is so necessary for a world in which you and I can also live safely as the people that we are. Right, I think that that is… as we're building the skills for ourselves and other people to do labor organizing with everybody who works at the institutions that we work at, we're also building those skills to be a person who makes the world safe for all kinds of other people. Does that resonate for you?

Rose
Yeah, absolutely! It's really challenging to organize with people who are quite different than you in terms of surface level traits. I think about some of our organizers who are radically different than me and where I think it would be really easy to say, "Oh, this is a straight white guy. How could he possibly understand what I've gone through and been through?" But the deeper that I've gotten into organizing, the more I've seen that when you are fighting against powerful institutions, they deploy the same kind of dismissive and discrediting playbook regardless of your level of privilege in, let's say, day-to-day interactions where you're not trying to fight power.

Ida
Yeah.

Rose
And that increasingly, I feel a lot of loyalty and compassion toward everybody who's been in that position and that it matters a lot to me to make community with other people who have been through this and are compassionate to what I'm experiencing and able to say, "that's fucked up and I think that we should do this about it."

Ida
Yeah, totally. Yeah, the more I'm thinking about it, I'm also teasing apart in my mind that I'm talking about two kinds of difference here. What you named with the toolkit is like being uncomfortable with methods because you were socialized to be uncomfortable with, particularly, some of the methods that we have to use to build power. And then there's being uncomfortable with people or kinds of people 'cause you were socialized to not be okay with particular kinds of people. Both of those sorts of unlearning are really fundamental to us winning.

Rose
Yeah! I want to dig into the methods a little bit 'cause I feel like that's… I was hanging out with some strangers recently and got a little too drunk and realized I'd spent like a whole hour talking about the beauty of structured organizing conversations with somebody I really didn't know very well.

Ida
[Laughs] Relatable!

 

Narrator:[1] 

Hey there, it’s Stephen again, your host for this episode, jumping in to provide a little bit of context. Rose just referred to what’s known as a “structured organizing conversation.” This is a bit of tried-and-true methodology that’s been a part of union organizing for a long time. But if you’re new to the concept, it might take some explaining. And that’s why I’m here.

A structured organizing conversation is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a series of steps, almost like a formula, that makes it easier to talk to people about joining us in union membership. First and foremost, before you make any kind of hard ask, this line of thinking emphasizes listening to each another’s individual stories, and building connections through those stories. Structuring these conversations, rather than just winging it, helps us be very intentional about how we do union work—because the truth is, these conversations can be scary for both parties, as you’ll hear Rose and Ida discuss in just a moment. A structured organizing conversation can help people work through some very common fears associated with joining a union, while also helping them understand what it is that unions can do, and have done already. The end result is a conversation where both parties understand the stakes of joining, and where new members feel safe and informed in their decision to empower themselves and their coworkers.

Okay, back to Rose and Ida!



Rose
I want to talk a little bit about your experience with structured organizing conversations and ask: what is a structured organizing conversation to you? And were there any parts of it that you were resistant to when it was first described to you?

Ida
Oh man! OK, so my origin story—Batman origin of organizing—is like I was super into it... This is not a great metaphor! [Laughter] I was super into the idea and I haven't gotten to the point where I really understood what was going on, but I just so desperately needed to hope, to be able to think that something better is possible. And then, I sat in my first training for structured organizing conversations. And I came out of that—I think it was a two-hour training—came out of that chunk of time... It's a real watershed moment in my life of 'before and after' of having a lot of need and desire. And then after, seeing that there are real steps! That people have figured out from hard won experience of "if you follow this arc and you're able to skillfully adapt it to the situation that you're in..." Like, "we have these principles and if you go through them this way..." There is a path! We're not just flailing in the dark here! You can really take one step and the next step and then get to where the hell it is you need to be. You see the road. I saw the road and it has changed everything about how I am in the world, like what I'm willing to tolerate. Like what kinds of projects I'm willing to take on. If there's not a road, I'm not doing it. 'Cause I know there is a road to power and liberation and that's the one that I'm on! So yeah, my experience with structured conversations is that they are—or the training in particular—is that it can be life changing and I want that for everyone. And at this point, I think what I say to people when I'm like, "Here is the purpose. Here is whether you know you succeeded or not," is two things: one is, were you able to move someone from where they started the conversation to what you think needs to happen in order for us to build more power? And that doesn't necessarily mean getting a 'yes' from them to a particular ask in the span of one conversation, but could you move them? And two, I think I run against this a lot when I do trainings. People feel really gross about the idea that they're persuading someone to do something  I think if it's persuasion you have done a poor job. I think what happens in a strong organizing conversation is that people come in with a framework—generally speaking, we all have—of particular powerlessness, and you put a framework in competition with that one that leads not to powerlessness, apathy, and despair, but to responsibility and commitment. And the discomfort is not because you are strong-arming someone into something, but the discomfort is that there are frameworks at war, and that's really hard to hold… and it has to be resolved somehow. And if you've done that, you've made people feel the discomfort of there's an alternative framework and you really could decide to take responsibility and commit to something, then that's—to me, that's a successful structured organizing conversation. And then if you get the 'yes' and you're able to commit them to a particular kind of work, and you follow up with, that's the ideal situation, right? Does that make sense?

Rose
Yeah! It feels to me sometimes like the process of having this structured organizing conversation is, ideally, mostly just listening and asking questions. And then the thing that I think a lot of people interpret as coercive is the fact that at the end you ask them a question that has specific meaning for you and that you have an answer that you want, which is you ask them, "Are you going to join with your coworkers in our organization?" And you have to just… the uncomfortable thing about that is that you have to just sit there—

Ida
Yeah.

Rose
—and not say, "... and I understand the 20,000 reasons why you wouldn't. It's OK if you decide not to." Because you've already, ideally, talked about all of that stuff with that person and you have to own that you want something from somebody else and that you would like them to say 'yes'..

Ida
Yeah!

Rose
And I think that a lot of our culture trains us that it is unacceptable to express that you want something that requires someone else's participation.

Ida
Yes!

Rose
I think that's some of the same logic that allows members of the faculty to say, like, "I would feel uncomfortable stopping a student from debating trans existence." Because I think this is… this is like, galaxy brain connection here. [Laughter] I'm not sure if this is actually good or not, but I feel like the thing about being trans that makes people uncomfortable is that it to some extent requires other people's participation. It's not something that you can just do privately behind closed doors and never talk about. If you want to be out and in the world, at some point you have to make a hard ask of other people that they respect you and treat you with dignity. And that is putting something on somebody else. I don't think that it's an undue burden. Like when I was talking to my partner about coming out initially, one of the things that they said from their perspective as someone who is marginalized in a number of ways is, "You're going to have to ask other people to respect you, and that's setting yourself up for disappointment."

Ida
Yeah.

Rose
And yeah, that's true when you ask some stuff of other people. They can say 'no' but that there is nothing coercive intrinsically about saying "I want you to do this with me."

Ida
Yeah, totally! That super tracks with all of the structured organizing trainings I've ever done with people. Yeah, especially people who are socialized to protect others from disappointment or the sting of rejection or to protect other people's egos. I feel completely comfortable asking someone to do something that I deeply care about, and them to say "no," and we're still friends, or we still have a relationship. I'll still talk to you tomorrow.

Rose
Mhmm.


Ida
Well, I want to talk about difference and queer liberation and labor organizing and unity. This is the stuff that's on my mind all the time so this is just what's gonna come out of my mouth. I have the experience… I'm a PhD student at the moment, and I'm in my 7th year, it's not my first rodeo. I have experienced and I'm watching a lot of other people around me also experience grad student life as an isolation chamber. You're nodding, this is familiar. [Laughter]

Rose
Mmhmm.

Ida
Yeah, it really feels like you're walking into this wall. It's like… what are those, scream rooms? You're like progressively shutting the door and barricading yourself in. By design, in a lot of ways, like you have to be doing, at least in my discipline, you kind of have to be arguing that you're the only person doing this work in the world, and that's why it's valuable and you're making your contribution that no one else could be making. You're like really staking out your claim in order to be academically valid, so there's an amount of self-isolation that you have to do intellectually and socially also. Like, only you can write this thing. At least in my discipline, we don't co-write, certainly, dissertations. We don't do team fieldwork… there's this whole idea, the myth of the—what we call "the lone ethnographer," which we don't need to get into. But it's there, the idea that you do this stuff by yourself and it gets worked out through you, and that's the best way to make the kind of knowledge that we're trying to make as these particular kinds of scholars. Anyway... So there is isolation baked into every level of my grad student life. And I am looking at that as somebody who has really been hurt by lack of community almost my whole life and honestly, my dissertation, my fieldwork is basically about… I don't want to ever feel that isolated again, and I don't want it for anyone else, and I want to know how people make community so that I can tell everybody and we all have the tools to, none of us, end up in this situation because it's so… it hurts my soul so much. And I just don't want to see that kind of suffering. I don't wanna feel it and I don't want to see it. That's what it boils down to for me. And I'm looking at other people go through this program and I'm really clearly identifying in my mind, the more privilege that you have and the more you're able to easily be in, I think what you called earlier 'default community' or structure that's just there for you, the more you can handle shutting yourself in an isolation chamber for six to ten years. [Laughs] 'Cause you have other stuff around you that's un-isolating you. But if you're queer and your parents have disowned you, or if you're trans and you lost your entire social support group when you came out, because nobody was OK with that and then you go into this program and shut yourself in the isolation chamber for six years you're gonna go insane! You're gonna lose your mind. You're not going to make it through. So there's really a way in which doing grad student life in the way that we're asked to do is awful for people who lose community, which is a lot of us. And this ties to labor organizing in my mind because what has to happen in order for us to build power is that we have to un-isolate ourselves and each other. So it is, in my mind, the work that we're doing is for the goal of building worker power and if we do it right along the way, what happens is liberation.

Rose
Yeah! Yeah, I completely agree with that. I think that the prestige side of academia really fosters and encourages that kind of isolation, because like you said it creates this idea of the myth of the individual researcher who's going to solve the problem by themselves and encourages you to sort of adopt that persona in order to distinguish yourself, in order to receive accolades, and in order to even graduate from your program.

Ida
Mmhmm.

Rose
Something that gives me hope in that regard is… So I'm a part of a department now at VCU that focuses on teaching first- and second-year students academic practices. And that department is made up entirely of term faculty who are not evaluated on scholarship but on teaching and on service to their community. And the result of some of that structure that's been created is that they feel really invested in the community to which they belong, which is their department. And there's a lot of shared resources, there's a lot of expectation that if somebody asks you… you can email anybody in the department and ask them to talk you through what they've been working on and the expectation is that they'll say ‘yes’ or have a really good reason why they can't this week. And one of the things that I've noticed about it is that this department has been incredible at pushing back against decisions that they don't like that come from upper administration. There's a lot of unity, there's a lot of willingness to get together and talk through the problems. It's really incredible to see. And that department has now come together and saved, like, seven people's contracts on different occasions including [Chuckles] my own recent hiring, which is a longer story for another time. But you know, part of how the department has done that, I think, is by dismantling some of the ideas about what it means to be an academic, and I would love to see more departments adopt a model that's like this, that's focused on collaboration and on sharing processes and practices with one another. Because I think that's how really interesting work gets done. This department produces an enormous amount of practical pedagogical research every year 'cause people are running pilot programs to try out a new way of teaching the classes, people are engaging in so many different committees and communities that process new ideas. It's like, yeah, basically people are constantly trying to figure out how they can advance the field, but they do it together.

Ida
Yeah I love that!

Rose
Yeah! Shoutout to the Department of Focused Inquiry if you're listening!

Ida
[Laughs] Props to y'all! Yeah, that reminds me of something else that you were saying earlier that I also want to bring out in particular and name when you were talking about…we were both talking about academia being from the neck up and disconnected. That theory and practice are disconnected and you were talking about being trans and that's not how you can live in the world. I really feel that too, and I think that's also true for labor organizing.

Rose
Mmhmm.

Ida
You can't organize on theory alone. It's all… it's also practice! It has to be practice, you know! It has to be both.

Rose
Why would you want to?! I think people sometimes think of theory as a dirty word. Like, I had to convince someone recently of the utility of philosophy because I think so often it's disconnected from the idea of practice, of like, "OK, but how do we apply this?"

Ida
Yeah.

Rose
And to me, theory and practice have to always be in dialogue. You always have to say, "OK, well, what happens if we take this into the classroom?" Or "What happens if we take this into our department meetings?" Or "What happens if we take this to the streets?" Like, how does this function in the real world? Because ideally, any academic subject is following some degree of scientific method where we're trying it out and seeing if it works.

Ida
And I think what I'm saying is, I think you and I are predisposed to doing that well, both in academia and in labor organizing. We're great contributors in both of those arenas because we already have to do that in life.

Rose
Because we've had to reconcile theory and practice in our own material bodies. 

Ida
[Chuckles] Exactly!

Rose
Yeah, I mean, definitely! For years I was like, "OK, it's fine for 'people' in the abstract—

Ida

[Pained laughter] God, I feel that so hard. Yeah.

Rose
—but not for me specifically because I would not be an attractive young man." [Laughter] And then you know, I… not to get too real here on the podcast...

Ida
That's so real, yeah. Woooo.

Rose
[Chuckles] So I think we should finally tackle the question of 'what do you think is the role of queer liberation and organizing?' If we haven't already.

Ida 0
Oooh. What do you think is the role of queer liberation in labor organizing?

Rose
Alright, so I feel like the other question we had was 'what is the role of organizing in queer liberation?'

Ida
Sure.

Rose
And I feel like these… one of those asks, "What can organizing do for us?" And then the other one asks, "What do we bring to the table… that maybe other people could learn or grow from?"

Ida
Hmm. I have such answers.

Rose
Give answers.

Ida
One answer is that I think to be queer in this world at the moment has to be to bring—we said this before—to bring an intentionality that isn't the default to things that are usually the default and that is a huge asset in labor organizing. I also think part of being queer in this world at the moment is to understand that you have to do things together to be strong, to even get through, and that's a huge asset for labor organizing. These are things that we don't have to be taught that some people do have to be taught. And the feeling of having actual solidarity is something that not all adults have felt in their body before.

Rose
Mmhmm.

Ida
But it's one of the things that, for me, gets me out of bed in the morning. Like that that's possible and that I want to feel that today. I don't have to be taught that.

Rose
Yeah, that you can tell when you are in a state of solidarity because you have been in many situations where the structures weren't set up to support you.

Ida
Yep.

Rose
And so you know what it feels like when, absent those structures, solidarity with others is there for you. 

Ida
Yup.

Rose
Yeah. I would say that to me, a certain amount of it is something that I feel like we have to teach, and that I am thinking about how to teach, is the idea of having an unstable self and a willingness to change not just what you're doing, but how you're thinking or conceptualizing problems, as just a constant way of life. I had a professor once who said that, "Coming to college is consenting to be changed." And that makes a lot of people really nervous. I knew I was very nervous when I came to college and realized that there were people further left than me.

Ida
[Laughs]

Rose
And they moved me substantially to the left of where I was in high school, but it was an uncomfortable process. I have a tattoo inspired by a Rilke poem, the last line of which is "You must change your life."

Ida
Oh my God, I love that poem.

Rose
I love that poem so much. It's my hot statue tattoo. Yeah.

Ida
[Deep sigh] You just became even more my favorite person. I love that! 

Rose
Well, I'm happy! So I think that changing from just being a person who did small community-based projects to being a labor organizer who is dealing with these large, systemic issues on the university level, the state level, to some extent on the national level… was a massive change and one that I certainly felt a lot of resistance to. You know there are days where I'm just like, "I'm a potato in a blazer. Please don't make me learn about the state legislature. I really don't want to know!” [Laughter] And that this idea of it, that I have to be open to fundamentally changing what kind of person I am over the course of my lifetime, you know, I've done it before.

Ida
Yeah.

Rose
And that makes it feel more possible to do it now. And a lot of the time when I'm feeling cranky and coming up with reasons why I can't or shouldn't keep doing this, I have to ask myself, "Am I actually done or am I just resisting a big change that's coming for me?" and "Will I be happier? And better able to get the things I want for the people I care about if I'm able to participate fully in this change?"

Ida
God! That rings so true to me. Yep. I have one last thing to say on the subject of changing and always being in the process of changing and I deeply know that in my body as a trans person. That's part of my life, it's not ever going to stop being part of my life. But there is a particular way in which building this chapter of UCW has changed me that I really didn't foresee. And this is a whole other podcast episode that I could, that we could really talk about. But I have become a person who has hope. Period.

Rose
Yeah.

Ida
I didn't have that before.

Rose
Completely. I was definitely thinking, "OK, what can I do for me and my closest twelve people to protect us all in the coming apocalypse?" And now my sense of what is possible has expanded so dramatically.

Ida
Mushroomed!

Rose
Yes!

• • •

 

Narrator:

So that’s our conversation! Huge thanks to Ida and Rose for sharing their stories.

This episode was recorded by Rose, and by Piers Gelly. Piers Gelly and me, Stephen Marrone wrote the episode, and Emily Gadek edited and mixed it. We had production help from me, Stephen Marrone, and transcription help from Evan Brown.

The music in this episode is by Guy Blue; you can hear more at guyblue.com.

And if you’d like to learn more about United Campus Workers of Virginia, please check out our website, ucwva.org, or say hi online. We’re @ucwva on Twitter, and on Instagram we’re @ucwvirginia.