by Vicente Blas-Taijeron
Life is a confusing, happy, sad, and beautiful thing all at once. Our paths in life bring us joy and heartbreak, and somehow we learn to navigate them and pivot when needed. On Friday, we got to learn about the experiences of navigating life’s nuances through the perspectives of Mona El Omari, Iris Rajanayagam, and Dana Maria Asbury. Each of these guests were featured in In Audre’s Footsteps: Transnational Kitchen Table Talk, sharing their perspectives on numerous topics from family to the pressures of academia. Mona El Omari is a social worker and systemic, individual, and family therapist based in Hamburg; Iris Rajanayagam was the former Director xart splitta, where we’ve had several classes, and now works for the Federal Agency for Civic Education in Berlin; and Dana Maria Asbury is a co-author of In Audre’s Footsteps and is a longtime friend of Dr. Lewis who now resides in Toronto.
The conversation started with a brief round of introductions and each of the students asking questions of the guests. The format in which the conversation was conducted didn’t seem like a normal lecture or panel. It was more like a conversation between good friends that we had the privilege of silently observing. I really enjoyed this, because it seemed as if the authentic self was present instead of the filtered and “professional” faces we usually see in academic settings. Moreover, some of the questions I was inclined to write about were focused on the pressures of academia, the idea of family, and how each of them balance experiences rooted in frameworks of abolition with their occupations.
As a rising junior at a challenging liberal arts college, I resonate with the feeling of being pressured to perform well and succeed in the cutthroat field of academia. There’s this over looming mission to get a degree, pursue graduate studies, and make a lot of money. However, it was nice to hear this topic addressed in a more complex way in this space. In In Audre’s Footsteps, El Omari speaks about the pressures of academia and how a piece of paper gives you automatic legitimacy regardless of context. More specifically, she notes, “One reason I decided to go down the path of pursuing a Ph.D. was because I was told I would need one to be taken seriously as a social worker” (71). She critiques the notion that in order to be taken seriously one must surrender themself to academia and value forms of knowledge that have historically only been afforded to the privileged. I found this liberating, because I often find myself saddened by the struggles I face when navigating higher education. I feel lost and question my ability often, but this makes it clear that many challenges I face are not a result of the incompetency of first-generation or marginalized students; rather, they are a result of operating within a system that is often against us.
When asked about navigating between academic and nonacademic spaces, Rajanayagam spoke about the feeling of isolation she initially had entering spaces focused on German history and research. However, what helped her navigate these challenges was counter-spaces, which she contextualized more when she referenced “a safe bubble” that allows her to work with “people who you don’t usually meet in academia,” spaces that also help with her teaching and research. Moreover, it was comforting to see how these often “foreign” spaces can be interpreted and made our own by finding other anomalies or outliers like BIPOC people or marginalized folx and working with them as a way to navigate the whiteness and racism that pervades these conventionally elite areas.
The pressures of expectations in academia also have to do a lot with our upbringing and familial contexts. Parents with different positionalities may have different goals for their children and different ways of viewing success and the path to it. Due to this, our interpretation of family, biological or chosen, differs based on our experiences with the concept itself. Dr. Lewis talks about this in In Audre’s Footsteps when she notes, “My new family’s needs were the driving forces that pushed me through the program” (74). In this sense, family becomes a motivator that fuels a sense of obligation and the urge to provide. However, family isn’t only those we grow up with or raise, it is also those we build meaningful relationships with, despite no blood connection. El Omari talks about this as well, claiming, “I learn so much from those young Muslim brothers and sisters…they teach me of what it is that preoccupies their minds, of what makes up their lives” (77). She describes the deep connection she made working with Muslim youth that took on a more familial relationship overtime. Moreover, Asbury also spoke about her experiences with feeling empowered by chosen family in the book, noting, “There’s this built family I can determine and choose for myself” (78). I appreciate the ways they address the liberty that comes with choosing people around you who celebrate you, hear you, and care about you. On a personal note, my time away from home in college has made me see the importance of both perspectives. On one hand, my biological family is a driving force for me to work hard and give back to my parents for their sacrifices and love. On the other hand, I find myself seeking out communities to build familial bonds with as a sense of comfort in predominantly white spaces. Family takes on a multiplicity of meanings and not all of them are positive, but it’s important to remember that such concepts are complicated and that it’s okay to think about them in various ways as you go about life.
Lastly, I asked each of them about balancing their personal beliefs within systems that, in some ways, demand them to surrender certain aspects of themselves. With this question, I was seeking guidance on the struggles many marginalized folx experience when pursuing higher education. For us, there’s often the puzzling question of how much of ourselves we have to sacrifice to appease “the system.” Dr. Lewis and El Omari both link this struggle to feminism in the book, describing how they’ve sometimes felt pressured in some feminist spaces to be overtly critical. As a result, feminist in those spaces have sometimes pressured them to forget the work of their elders, some who may have been the most influential feminists in their lives but did not label themselves as such. In this sense, their passion for feminism co-exists with their ability to extend grace for those they care about. This inspired me, because I often feel like some feminist spaces require me to critique my elders without ever taking a moment to appreciate the good things they taught me. Moreover, this approach allows us to see the nuance and complexity in feminism.
During the conversation, each of them spoke about their beliefs in critiquing and potentially abolishing oppressive systems like the prison industrial complex. However, they each realize the complexity of operating within some of those same systems. Whether it be counseling inmates, educating students, working for government agencies, or simply just listening, each of them are making a positive difference and empowering the marginalized by infiltrating such spaces. Additionally, Rajanayagam also mentioned the significance of practicality, which ties back to the motivation of family. On a real note, people have to survive, they need money to make it in the world, and that may require them to face areas of discomfort or people that don’t share their politics.
After reflecting on this intimate and thoughtful conversation, I realized more than ever that life is complicated and nuanced. It’s not normal nor feasible for us to believe one set of things. It is not normal for us to believe in feminism and cancel our loved ones at the expense of being approved by the community. It is not normal for us to comply with “woke culture” by resisting while our health is deteriorating and our stomachs are hungry. We must believe in our mission and our vision for this world but also understand that there are many complex factors in the present to which we also must pay attention. Furthermore, this helped improve my understanding of transnational feminism, as it broke some U.S.-centric narratives of feminism that center individualistic and narrow ways of thinking and often require us to comply with a single set of beliefs without leaving room for culture or philosophy. In the context of marginalized communities in Berlin, this conversation allowed me to see the various struggles with family and academic expectations that are exacerbated within the context of immigration and foreignness in a predominantly white metropolis. It allowed me to see the nuances of life reflected in the experiences of three phenomenal people. It taught me that despite the stringent narrative perpetuated by some feminists, there is always room for me and the multiplicity of nuances in my life.
Vicente Preciardo Blas-Taijeron (he/him) is an indigenous CHamoru son from the village of Tamuning on the island of Guam. Blas-Taijeron, a rising Junior, is majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies with a minor in Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies while on the pre-law track at Colorado College. As an indigenous child, he is interested in thinking about how his identities are similar to and distinct from those of Black feminists and others in German society who come from positions of marginality. Moreover, Blas-Taijeron seeks to build a stronger understanding of Black transnational feminism and the legacy of scholars like Audre Lorde. When he is not studying, you can find him cooking, watching films, or listening to some of his favorite artists, including Ella Mai and Kiana Ledé. Blas-Taijeron is excited to have the opportunity to study in Berlin, a city of historical gridlock, and to unearth the truths of brilliant minds that are often forgotten.
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