So, for those of you that are my Facebook pals, you know that for the last three days I have been up to my neck in my first graduate school application. It is due tomorrow, lord help me now. Since I shared that I would be applying to a PhD program in addition to MFA programs, a number of you have asked me why. Specifically you've asked why a PhD versus an MFA.
The best way that I know how to answer that question is through the publication of my personal statement to the Feminist Studies PhD program to which I am applying.
William Brandon Lacy Campos
Until a few short weeks ago, the PhD program in Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota was not included in the pile of graduate school applications that has been haunting my desk since the beginning of the fall. Rather myopically, I had directed my attention to MFA programs in Creating Writing, specifically fiction. Though, I have a deep passion for scholarship, and I proudly describe myself as a NOC (Nerd of Color), I was finding it difficult to find a program that was flexible enough to allow me to explore both of my passions that are pushing me towards graduate school: honing my craft as a writer and exploring the ways in which gender, sexuality, sex, race, and the politics that intersect, interweave, and dissect these issues play out in an artistic and pedagogical manner in science fiction and fantasy literature and movies.
Having worked closely with three graduate students in the feminist studies department, specifically Jess Giusti and Charlotte Karem Albrecht—with whom I co-authored a chapter, in the recently published anthology from the University of Minnesota Press, Queer Twin Cities—and Dr. Kandace Creel Falcón, I had a fairly clear picture of the flexibility of the scholarship within the department. But it wasn’t until a recent conversation with Dr. Jigna Desai, a brilliant thinker that I have known for 13 years and with whom I would hope to work as a graduate student, that I was convinced that a PhD in Feminist Studies would help me achieve my personal and professional goals.
In order to understand those goals, it is first necessary to understand the multiplicity of identities and experiences that have contributed to creating the person that I am. As a staunch anti-post modernist, please allow me, in detail, to delineate the identities that I claim (forgive me-- the identity theory of Foucault and Wilchins makes my skin crawl—Lisa Duggan is my hero). I am an African American, Afro-Boricua, Anishinaabe Euro femme genderqueer male-bodied HIV-positive working class recovering addict queer feminist man born that was born in Duluth, MN and grew up in a geographical reality that stretched from Duluth to Pampanga, Phillipines. My Father is from southern West Virginia where he grew up in the same town in which our family lived as slaves, and my Mother’s family is a working class clan from just outside of Duluth, MN.
These particular narratives: coming out as queer, coming out as positive, embracing being a person of color, critically examining my relationship to masculinity, choosing my gender expression, working as an artivist/organizer, choosing to be a community scholar and people’s policy wonk, finding richness in my extreme Northern and beautifully Southern heritage, choosing to draw strength from my slave ancestors and my reservation-ized indigenous people, being raised by a single mother, having a beautifully complicated family structure, and acknowledging my penchant for academia have all participated in my decision to pursue a PhD in Feminist Studies as a specific means to push forward my personal mission, which is to create positive social change through research, analysis, and idea exchange through writing, particularly creative writing, and as an instructor.
In order to create a strong foundation for sustainable progressive social change, it is necessary to critically understand the role that current systems play in propping up regressive ideas and paradigms, stagnant notions of identity, and harmful concepts of being that are then codified into our moral precepts and propped up through the media, pop culture, public policy, laws, and jurisprudence. Once understood, and I believe we have made progress with that understanding, new ideas, institutions, thought patterns, arts, pop culture, media, educational systems, and other modalities of socialization and idea exchange must be created to replace the self and society concept delivery systems that currently exist.
This must include a fundamental integration of the arts and artists as tools and agents for social change. While the “artivist” most certainly exists, and in my role as a spoken word poet I count myself among them, there still remains a lack of scholar/artists that are or have the training to integrate critical pedagogies into their work as tools for changing the ways in which justice concepts, particularly of race, gender, and sexuality, are consumed and integrated into community.
Imagining ourselves newly is difficult if one removes the option of only recreating ourselves in an equality framework—I have no interest in being equal to straight, white, able-bodied, misogynist wealthy men with the same privileges they have. I am interested in a liberation framework that requires a full expression of my best self while at the same time committing myself and my work to the full and best expression of everyone else without regard to national borders or the dictates of privilege.
That is why, personally, I love the creative genres of science fiction and fantasy in literature, television, and movies. In worlds where literally anything can be imagined or created, one should not be limited to concepts of gender, race, and sexuality within the frameworks that exist in our quotidian reality.
Unfortunately, while speculative fiction has created brave worlds where non-humans can thrive and be object lessons in diversity, the mass consumed franchises of speculative fiction literature and movies reify and reinforce rigid concepts and stereotypes of race, gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation. There are notable exceptions in the genre, but, for the most part, the role of speculative fiction in socialization (the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Star Wars, the Wheel of Time series, ad infinitum) continues to be largely unexamined or critiqued. And in those rare instances when they are critiqued (for example, there was a plethora of conversation about alien racialization in the latest three Star Wars movies), there is still very few artists/scholars that are offering bold alternatives. Indeed, some of the best and brightest offerings in speculative fiction that challenge our notions of, for example, gender were Ursula LeGuin’s 1969 classic The Left Hand of Darkness and Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis trilogy, the first book of which Dawn was published in 1997. While there have been notable books between those two that have challenged our concepts of race, gender, and sexuality (specifically Mercedes Lackey’s Last-Herald Mage trilogy which was published beginning in 1989 with Magic’s Pawn featured a gay protagonist) the library of speculative fiction that challenges or lifts up different notions of gender, race, and sexuality are few, far between, and far from the most recognized titles in the genre. Thirty years between notable speculative fiction works that implode gender is much too long to wait.
And, forgive my skepticism, but while The Left Hand of Darkness was a work of literary genius that openly discussed issues of fluid sexuality and basic concepts of transgender identity in the same year that Stonewall took place (and I am sure that I do not need to mention that 40 years post-Stonewall trans and gender identity continue to be disconnected discourses from the LGB community let alone the community at large), I doubt it will be made into a Hollywood summer blockbuster anytime soon. While Harry Potter, as much as it is loved, still adheres to rigid concepts of male dominance, damsels in distress, distraught and overwrought mothers that turn to men for help, and the wise old crone that offers random sage advice to the young, white, male heroes that ultimately, time and time again, save the day (sometimes with a little help from Hermione) and continue to reinforce rigid gender roles and conventional mores around good and evil and the relationships between “men” and “women.”
My professional goals are to not only write amazing speculative fiction that is consciously, though not overbearingly, written to challenge notions of race, gender, and sexuality but to also create and teach coursework at the university level. My work as a professor, and the work I hope to explore through my coursework and dissertation, is to outline methodologies that use the arts, particularly the literary arts, to actively and consciously train writers and artists to address not only inequalities but liberated concepts of being and to provide the theory and the praxis tools in order for artists/academics/organizers to be able to do so.
On November 29, 2010 at NYU, I performed as part of program called Living Out Loud, which featured three artist/activist queer men of color living with HIV. During a panel discussion after the performance an audience member asked us a specific question about academia. The question was how did we deal with getting the ideas demonstrated through our poetry into classrooms with faculty and administrators that were resistant. My answer was two-fold: use community organizing principles to build relationships with instructors that are natural allies and get your work in front of students that way and become an instructor yourself. Pursuing a PhD in Feminist Studies is my commitment to walking the talk. I believe that sustainable social change starts with education and the classroom, and as a veteran community organizer and artivist, I believe the best way that I can continue to be effective in my work as a change agent is to research, write, and teach.
This begs then the question of why Feminist Studies? To be blunt I wholeheartedly believe that sexism is the root cause of not only gender and gender identity based discrimination but also homophobia and heterosexism. Further, it is sexism and its accompanying requirement of the oppression of women to maintain the privilege of men that is the ultimate roadblock for radical social justice. Even racism, which at its root is about maintaining economic hegemony for the elite, has at its core a fundamental roadblock built around sexism. Sexism has been so ingrained in many communities of color that it is a natural check on progress towards racial justice. It keeps men of color from working effectively with women of color and white women allies, and the feedback loop between racism and sexism often keeps white women and women of color from building with one another. As such, I believe that in order to effectively work towards liberation that my work must be centered in an overtly feminist approach, identified as feminist at its root, and the analysis and theory that it is built upon most come from a feminist ideologies.
Specifically, I am interested in the Feminist Studies PhD program at the University of Minnesota because of its multidisciplinary approach to scholarship, its cross university breadth and scope, the amazing faculty that I have had a chance to know over the years (particularly Dr. Desai, Dr. Torres, and Dr. Zita), and, perhaps most importantly, the students in the program with whom I have worked, and for whom I have the utmost political and personal respect: Dr. Kandace Creel, Jess Guisti, and Charlotte Karem Albrecht. And, considering my own extensive background in political movements and my work around community of color political ideologies, I am deeply excited at the possibility of working with Dr. Isoke. Finally, In my conversations with Dr. Desai as well as students in and previously of the program, I have been assured that my own commitment to a multidisciplinary approach to scholarship as well as my rock solid to making direct connections between academia and the broader justice community would be welcomed and nurtured within the department.
While I do not meet the program requirement of having at least a minor in a feminist studies concentration, I have consciously exposed myself to feminist thought and ideologies. My study abroad in Puerto Rico from 1999-2000 was specifically designed to study the feminist movement and impacts of colonization in Puerto Rico, including the course La mujer contemporanea en la sociedad puertorriqueña (The Contemporary Woman in Puerto Rican Society). I have been deeply influenced by feminist writers and thinkers such as Lisa Duggan (The Twilight of Equality changed the way I think about organizing), Barbara Smith and Beverly Smith (and the Combahee River Collective), Lisa Albrecht, Karín Aguilar San Juan, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Octavia Butler, Jacqueline Carey and Aurora Levins Morales. Lisa Albrecht and Aurora Levins Morales are friends and mentors, and I have also had the privilege of knowing, working with, and being mentored by Barbara Smith.
In the end, I am a feminist. I am also a man and as such work daily to keep in check my own privilege. Most of the time I am successful. Sometimes I am most definitely not. But I firmly believe that if only women identified individuals center their scholarship in a feminist framework, then our work to dismantle system sexist oppression, and therefore all forms of oppression, will continue to be slow, uneven, and ultimately less than liberating. It is for this reason as well as those that I have stated previously that I am interested in pursuing a PhD in Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota.