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How to Remember

By any measure, the past week has been tremendously hard on university students across the country. The killings at the University of Idaho and University of Virginia took the lives of promising young men and women. But the violence also entered their families and home communities, as well as the new communities to which they belonged—athletics, Greek life, departmental majors, honor societies, courses they took, places they lived.  Creating rituals of mourning and healing is a critical step for universities to take to recognize the humanity of those members of the community who died as well as those who continue to live with the memory of the tragedies.  It can’t be the sole responsibility of their immediate communities to figure out how to mourn them.  Virginia shows us that, and clearly.

Closer to home, the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts (CADA) is organizing a memorial for Emery Jordan, a BFA student who passed away in October.  The event will take place after the Thanksgiving break.  Members of the university community are only just learning about this tragic loss.  I learned of another student’s passing during this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event organized by UIC’s Gender and Sexuality Center and Asian American Resource and Cultural Center.  The organizers marked the 10th anniversary of the death of MFA student Mark Aguhar, who passed away in March 2012. Of note—it is Mark’s broader Asian American community that sought to recognize her contributions during her lifetime.

I can’t help but wonder why UIC’s policies about how to mark students’ deaths are so murky, at best.  Each time a tragedy occurs, the same questions seem to arise: why doesn’t the university notifying the entire campus about the death? Why is information disbursed in piecemeal fashion, such that some university administrators appear to have ownership over information, while others are in the dark, or feel they have no authority to even mention the death? Is being a member of the campus community not sufficient for collective recognition of one’s passing? What are the options that units and community members have for responding to deaths and for memorializing their loved ones?

I know that there are discussions taking place about how to respond to these questions.  It seems to me that there are at least two ways that an institution could proceed.  On one end, it can take a top-down communication strategy that produces silence and discourages the community from knowing or grieving.  On the other end, it can actively develop shared norms that acknowledge the importance of recognizing the lives of all of those who make up the campus community.  Learning how to talk about the life of people who are taken from our community is a practice of inclusion.  Acting as if the deceased community member never existed at all would feel antithetical to inclusion. I can’t imagine that the former approach is healthy for the campus community.  At its worst, silencing sends a clear message to students (and to faculty and staff, for that matter) that the many hours of their lives spent engaged in campus life—whether in classes, working, providing leadership, developing projects, etc.—don’t really matter.  For students coming from marginalized communities and who often struggle to feel as if they belong to the campus community, it can be devastating to watch one of their own being denied proper recognition.  Such non-recognition suggests that their presence only counts when it is convenient.  This is an additional emotional burden that our students simply should not bear.  Celebrating the diversity of our student body includes recognizing the rich traditions from which students come; those traditions include how to mourn and how to remember.  As a minority-serving institution, UIC can lead on how it responds to students’ deaths in a community-centered way, whether or not the tragedy happened on the campus.  I look forward to what comes out of these discussions.

The attack on Club Q, the queer nightclub in Colorado Springs, reminds us of what can happen when groups are systematically misrecognized, defamed, and threatened with violence and when there is inadequate recognition and defense of their humanity.  The rhetorical and physical violence against the LGBT community, and transgender persons of color in particular, is well documented.  A range of the efforts that are underway—from book bans, to anti-trans legislation, to media reportage that proffer a “both sides” approach which serves to elevate and legitimize transphobic arguments—sends the clear message that the LGBT community is not deserving of the right to live fully and authentically.  I hope that UIC is paying close attention and is ready to speak up and advocate for the LGBT community here.

There is a key thread in the coverage which connects to the issues that I raise about UIC’s response to students’ deaths. The first is that the people at the nightclub saw it as a safe space, as a place where they belonged, and a respite from the hostilities that they experienced outside of there. The patrons were ready to defend the space and themselves, knowing that they were their own best allies.  This was echoed in the TDOR event where a participant spoke to the importance of a community honoring its members when “one of our own” dies. That stuck with me. Who do we claim as “one of our own?”

The second is related to a conversation that I had with Jennifer Brier, director of UIC’s Gender and Women’s Studies Program.  The language of “family” has shown up in many ways in the coverage, perhaps most poignantly in the comments by Richard Fierro, the veteran who was instrumental in stopping the shooter.  For Richard, a straight man who was at the club with his spouse and children, the moment called for him to choose to embrace the people inside that club as part of his family.  Within queer communities, “chosen family” is as, if not more, important as biological family.  Chosen families embrace their members in all their complexities, affirm each other, and, despite internal differences, defend their members from external attacks.  For the moment and through the crisis that cost lives and saved others, this idea of being connected to each other, of being interdependent and where one’s survival was a collective decision—the idea of chosen family was made real in that nightclub on that night.   I don’t usually use the language of “family” casually or without caveats.  But, it occurs to me that if we—members of the UIC campus community—saw each other as part of an extended family, we might make different decisions about how we treat each other, how we hold up and affirm each other’s right to exist as full human beings, and how we respond to the death of one of our family members.  Maybe that can be the starting point for many conversations.

We are heading into the holiday season where questions of family and belonging are so fraught for so many.  Some of us are able to take family for granted; others will have to wrestle with it and, hopefully, be able to make choices about who they spend time with, and who will affirm their humanity.  I know that many of us work very hard to make UIC feel like a loving, caring family for our students.  I wish for that work to be validated at all levels of policy and practice in this institution.  Our students should feel as if they matter to us, in their presence and their absence.  Our collective wellbeing depends on us claiming and embracing each other.

Giving Tuesday (November 28 – December 2)

#GivingTuesday is here.  Please support WLRC’s funds where and how you can.  We are always in need of emergency funds to support survivors of gender-based violence.

Take care of yourselves and each other.