Becoming a Better Advocate In a Time of Isolation

Like for many other students, the spread of COVID-19 in my city–and the subsequent university lockdown–interrupted another hectic semester of trying to balance research, teaching, and writing. As weeks and months passed without the usual daily structure, I found myself quarantined at home in anxious isolation. PhD students like myself are notoriously stressed and solitary as it is, often far from our families and reluctant to spend too much time away from the lab for fear of seeming “unproductive.” In these socially distant times, and with the major activism resurgence across the country, I needed to recenter my sense of purpose and community engagement. Since stepping back from the usual academic pressures, I was able to learn more about social justice movements and reflect on the evolution of my own relationship(s) to advocacy.

Before this year, I had been fortunate to meet and grow with many incredible people through advocacy work in my current home of El Paso, TX. The four years I’ve lived here have been a time of unrelenting injustice for people at the border, and I’ve had to unravel the many layers of privilege I hold as a white, U.S.-born, cisgender person in order to show up in true solidarity. 

Since the pandemic began, I’ve shifted my advocacy to connecting and joining efforts remotely. I’ve voiced concerns at my university and created advocacy resources to support fellow students who are increasingly threatened by the current administration. I’ve also continued creating spaces for underrepresented scientists to connect and share opportunities for mentorship in a non-academic setting via our local pod of 500 Women Scientists. Outside of science, I have continued to be active in the El Paso bike community and the fight for mobility justice across this region. In lieu of our usual group events and rides this summer, I helped launch a series of Bike Month webinars and coordinated with others to (safely) support local direct actions by bike. 

Engaging in diverse projects through many predominantly non-white spaces has taught me to accept and grow through my occasional feelings of discomfort and uncertainty. I recall my intermittent participation in climate justice activities as an environmental science undergrad student. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp what an incredible privilege it was to read about ongoing oppression and marginalization rather than experiencing it firsthand. I had yet to deconstruct my self-centered and ego-based motivations for involvement. 

Since that time, I’ve learned (and unlearned) so much about what it means to advocate from a place of humility and authenticity, without resorting to white saviorism. In recent years attending protests against the violent femicides in our sister city of Cd. Juárez, I’ve come to recognize that true solidarity means first considering how much of my privilege I can offer (or give up) to help build networks of care and communication necessary to support those at the center of this work.

I’ve come to recognize that true solidarity means first considering how much of my privilege I can offer (or give up) to help build networks of care and communication necessary to support those at the center of this work.

It’s clear now that my previous “activism” lacked investment in this mutual relationship-building and support. It was naively shallow at best and at worst, incredibly harmful to those who couldn’t “opt out” of active resistance. No matter how well-meaning the intent, this type of performative solidarity is of little value to Black and Brown communities whose safety is compromised every day by incessant state-sanctioned violence and the current public health crisis. We’ve seen the true power of organized, collective action as Black-led protest movements in every major city (and around the world) have prompted numerous legislative changes in just a few short months. We’ve also witnessed that some are using this moment to justify enacting discriminatory and xenophobic policies. This is an important turning point in our country’s history–and we must take this opportunity to genuinely listen, learn, and show up in solidarity with BIPOC leadership.

As we invest in a radical re-imagining of this country’s future, it’s more important than ever to evaluate our roles and our relationships in advocacy spaces. I am still learning what lifelong, everyday solidarity looks like for me, especially as a STEM advocate and educator. Scientists like me who hold multiple privileges must engage thoughtfully and intentionally in our fields to disrupt and correct the history of harm, violence, and exclusion against non-white people. There is a place for everyone in dismantling the structures of white supremacy, particularly for all of us who benefit from whiteness and the systems created to our advantage. 

The following pieces of advice have helped me grow my advocacy from a place of individual outrage (and helplessness) to one of collective care and accountability:

1. Acknowledge and contribute your privileges/skills and fit in where needed.

  • Ask yourself: who are you showing up for (yourself or others)? What is being asked and what skills/resources can you offer?

2. Learn to decenter yourself and your need for validation.

  • Acknowledge and work through your feelings of guilt and/or defensiveness without demanding more time and energy from your non-white friends. 
  • Consider whether someone with your privileges could potentially create unsafe conditions for others, and accept that not all spaces are for you.
  • Remember that growth is supposed to feel challenging and uncomfortable!

3. Prioritize the health and safety of those most vulnerable; listen to and plan for the needs of those with disabilities, essential workers, caretakers, etc.

  • Understand that impact is greater than intent. 
  • Create virtual meeting spaces that allow for greater flexibility and accessibility (e.g., video calls, asynchronous webinars).

4. Strengthen your support systems by encouraging radical self-love and community care.

  • Learn how to ask for and offer support without expectation, and patiently and respectfully reinforce boundaries.
  • Amplify fundraising and aid efforts, especially those that honor the labor of Black and Brown femmes.

My hope is that these points help remind other white people like myself of the necessity of being mindful, not absent, as these movements adapt and sustain beyond recent moments of crisis. Together we can–and must–uphold our vision of a better future.

A graphic that says "Take the Science Rising Challenge" with stars coming from the words.

This article is published in partnership with Science Rising, a network of partners and advocates coming together for one purpose: to fight for science, justice, and equity in our democracy leading up to the 2020 election. Take the Science Rising Challenge and join the movement at www.ScienceRising.org.

Cat Cort
Cat Cort

Cat Cort is an ecologist and educator working towards her PhD at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her research focuses on understanding the connections between plants, fungi, and biological soil crusts in the Northern Chihuahuan desert. She is passionate about engaging in scientific and social justice movements, bicycle advocacy, and building local opportunities for environmental education. You can follow her on twitter at @cat_quart.

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