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To Be Essential

April 30, 2020

The semester is drawing to a close.

If you are completing your studies at UIC this semester–congratulations! Taken together, your perseverance, hard work, mistakes, successes, and awakenings make your journey unique to you. We are proud to celebrate this milestone with you in the days ahead!

If you still have a way to go–whether summer classes or another academic year or two–we encourage you to keep going and to stay connected with us–and all available university resources–to get the support that you need to make it across your finish line.

Over the past few weeks, time has taken on a different meaning than before the pandemic rearranged our lives. Without the usual structures imposed by routines–whether commuting, appointments, deadlines, classes, and or even bedtime–days have flowed into each other, making March feel like the longest month ever! If April seems to have flown by at warp speed, it may be that we have begun to internalize social distancing and reliance on virtual engagement with co-workers, family, and community. Still, enough of us are dreaming of planting gardens and returning to life outside that I think there is a part of us that has not surrendered to quarantine life.

One thing is sure: the politics of the recovery from the pandemic will affect the lives of faculty, staff, and students in many ways, and for a long time. For example, calls for student loan forgiveness will have particular implications for women, and especially for Black women. As elected political leaders debate when to bring shelter in place policy to a close, activists and advocates paying attention to the particular impact of COVID-19 on marginalized groups–African Americans, undocumented immigrants, low-wage workers, survivors of sexual violence, people with disabilities, incarcerated people–are asking important questions such as: who will be sacrificed in the rush to “re-open the economy”? How can we work to ensure a stronger safety net for people who were already vulnerable before the pandemic?

The category of “essential worker” has become part of our pandemic vocabulary. And yet, we have also learned that the pre-pandemic structural inequities are defining who gets ill. Since the 1990s, intersectional feminist scholarship has documented how class, race, and gender intersect to shape who works in what we now call “essential” jobs and where the jobs sit in the economic hierarchy. Not surprisingly then, many of those who are being expected to keep various sectors going are also among the lowest paid and at highest risk of contracting COVID-19: women of color, immigrants, people employed in caring work.

While there is wider visibility, recognition, and respect of the key role that healthcare workers play in containing the pandemic, the media representations of such have largely centered white nurses and physicians. You could never know that Filipina, Indian (Kerala),and Afro-Caribbean immigrant nurses are key figures in pandemic hotspots like London, Chicago, and New York City. What does it mean when immigrant healthcare workers get sick and die during the pandemic? Who will take care of their families and communities who depend on their remittances in their countries of origin as national economies constrict both here and abroad? How will the futures of the children they support be affected? These are important questions that are not always at the front of our minds. From the media stories then, we are also learning about the enduring racial hierarchies within healthcare fields that shape which women workers are recognized as important and even essential. Many of our UIC students who are studying nursing, medicine, and allied health fields are first- and second-generation immigrants. As they get ready to graduate and take their place in fields that are changing and adjusting to the pandemic, I hope that they will learn about those who came before them, and continue the important work of making their disciplines and fields more inclusive.

Closer to home, how can we organize–inside and outside the university–to hold onto the beneficial policies that are being enacted during the emergency period? What are the lessons we have learned–about generosity, flexibility, possibility, community–from this pandemic moment that we will need to rely on for months and years to come?

Through faculty members’ interactions with their students, we are learning that members of our UIC community are already in mourning. There must be a way to formally recognize the losses suffered due to COVID-19. I hope that we can make space for such collective grieving in the near future.

Universities around the country, including UIC, are trying to figure out what a fall semester will look like: Online? In-person classes? A hybrid? What will happen to administrative staff? Maintenance workers? Contingent faculty? Graduate student workers? Emergency funding? Job and internship opportunities for undergraduate students? Budget cuts are nearly certain as institutions come up with their own formula for recovery. If the public discussions about such tell us anything, we are not hearing enough about how state universities like UIC–whose populations are primarily first-generation college students, students from low-income families, and commuters rather than residential–plan to address the additional stressors on their student population.

Still, April is ending on a strong note.

If there is any moment to remind ourselves about the enduring importance of building solidarities among radical feminists of color during difficult times, I think Thursday, April 30 counts as an extraordinary day:

At 3pm CST, check out “Sisters Siblings In The Struggle” on Instagram Live, where the organizations Black Women Radicals and Asian American Feminist Collective will come together to share analyses around COVID-19 and the post-pandemic future we want to build.

Immediately after that (5pm CST), hop on over to a virtual celebration of INCITE! and 20 years of badass radical feminists of color organizing against all forms of violence. Founders and leaders of this organization include UIC Professors Beth Richie (African American Studies and Criminology) and Nadine Naber (Gender & Women’s Studies and Global Asian Studies). INCITE gave us abolition feminism and asked us to think critically about the linkages between interpersonal and state violence. Rather than embrace policing and prisons as necessary responses to violence, we are pushed to consider how policing, prisons, surveillance are themselves consequences as well as forms of violence.

Closer to home, we hope this week’s programming will fill your souls in different ways.

Thursday, April 30 is the final meeting of this semester’s Black Hair Quilt Project. We will discuss the Netflix series “Self Made” inspired by the life of Madame C.J. Walker, an African American woman who became wealthy by making products for Black women’s hair, along with the short film “The Big Chop” in the Issa Rae Presents series on YouTube.

On Friday, we continue Write at WLRC at 10am.

The Breathing Room (noon – 1pm Friday) will feature fibre artist and craftivist Shannon Downey of Badass Cross Stitch. Bring your crafts and crafting friends to join a conversation about the many ways one can use needle and thread to channel feminist fury.

Closing out the semester on just the right note: at 4pm Friday, the UIC Asian and Asian American Student Collective and faculty from UIC’s Global Asian Studies Program lead a teach-in on “Yellow Peril & COVID-19” to educate the larger community about the history of anti-Asian racism and the various forms and experiences of activism by Asian American students.

The breadth of perspectives and insight offered through this week’s programs hint at some of the ways our faculty, staff, students, and wider community are helping us to reimagine essential knowledge. I believe that we need these ideas, practices, activism, creativity, and commitments to help us chart a more just post-pandemic future. Let me know what you think!

With care and solidarity,
Natalie Bennett