University faculty share how the impact of their activist backgrounds

By Sydney Berger, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 14, 2012

In the second event of the newly launched lecture series based on the Occupy movement, University faculty shared how activism shaped their youth and inspired and influenced their professional careers at Weill Hall last night.

Philip Deloria, LSA associate dean for undergraduate education, reflected on his experience growing up in an activist household during periods at the root of social justice movements. Deloria was joined on a panel comprised of Maria Cotera, associate prof. of American Culture and Women’s Studies, and Matthew Countryman and Kristen Hass, associate profs. of American Culture.

At the event, Deloria said he grew up in a home in which activism played a key roles in the dynamic of his family and helped shape who he is today.

“Activism and commitments like this pass across generations,” Deloria said. “And it is this action that is passed down form generation to generation.”

Deloria shared that prior to his work at the University, he taught at the University of Colorado in the same department as his father, where they shared an office. For several generations, the Deloria family acted as cross-cultural mediators among the Native Americans in the area, and his father authored more than thirty books about Native American policy.

Deloria said he aimed to translate the vast activist work of his father into a different academic form.

“I realize as I went back how much my own work rips off of what is in (my father’s books),” Deloria said.

Hass, whose father was an environmental activist, said his beliefs stemmed from a correlation between the limitations of language and a struggle to find an ethical order in the world of the Catholic Church.

“What I learned from (my father) was that there is enormous value in thinking not just about the social good that you want to get in the end, but thinking about the problem of language and how it will get you there.”

Cotera said her parents were politically active on issues relating specifically to police brutality, segregation and educational equity. Her mother worked to mobilize women and focused on the idea of intersectionality — a feminist theory on interactions in relationships — as one of the most important legacies of the feminist movement in establishing female intellectual pride.

“People use the term ‘intersectionality’ to try and describe the intersecting nature of oppression,” Cotera said. “Now we talk about Chicano feminism in a scholarly route … these theories were developed out of a praxis of trying to organize women who didn’t have an education.”

Similarly, activism played a large role in the live of Countryman, whose grandfather was one of the first African American educators in a public high school and his father was a self-taught lawyer.

“There is a deep sense that the way you made a revolution was the way you lived it,” Countryman said. “A sense of purpose, the link between family and social justice were things that I very much continue to inherit and to think about and to feel as part of a sense of identity. It is who I am, it is the legacy of how I became who I am, and it is also completely fraught.”

Countryman said with the vast technology resources of the 21st century, its easy for anyone to start a social movement almost instantaneously.

“Technological transformations are all of a moment,” Countryman said. “It’s got extraordinary possibilities, but it’s also got its own limitations. The fact that I can push a button on my keypad and do all this stuff is both empowering and complicated. We are all doing the best we can with the kind of conditions we are in. I think social media is very exciting, but it’s the conditions, the technological conditions, the economic conditions that we all have to navigate to shape the experience we live in.

Cotera urged that students remain politically active in taking a stand on their believes, may that be through utilizing social media or other forms.

“Nothing will change without youth stepping out,” Cotera said. “The thing that makes the difference is not what faculty do,” Cotera said, “It’s what the students do.”