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Where Is the Joy?

April 15, 2020

Mental exhaustion is setting in. The desire to give up and give in is very present. Coping with uncertainty is itself a stressful experience. There are so many questions for which we still have no answers: Will the university continue virtual operations through the Fall 2020 semester? Will the tenure clocks of junior faculty be extended? How can the institution creatively address the economic needs of our students who work in order to afford tuition? Can we really plan for an uncertain future? How can we step back from the ever-present push for productivity and concentrate on work that is meaningful and life-affirming? Whether we are parents, caregivers for younger siblings or aging parents, intimate partners, or sharing space with family members during this period of sheltering in place, the emotional and economic toll being exacted–individually and collectively–will live with us long after the virus has left our bodies and communities.

In this moment, let us pause to mourn the passing of Javier Navarro, a member of our UIC community who was an employee in Facilities. I have had the pleasure of working with Javier for as long as I have been at UIC, from organizing office moves for GWS faculty, to driving for Heritage Garden field trips, to setting up exhibitions and our center’s workspace. He will be missed. I am reminded that, alongside the concern and effort for students’ wellbeing, we would do well to consider that our university community includes individuals like Javier whose labor is critical to UIC’s social infrastructure. As we take account of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Chicago, let us recognize the ways in which university staff–from healthcare to administrative to auxiliary–are carrying an outsized share of grief and responsibility for our collective wellbeing right now.

It is never too late to learn important lessons about what and who we need to fight harder for, and about how important it is to build compassionate and resilient communities in order that more of us can survive.

This week is celebrated by reproductive justice and public health communities as Black Maternal Health Week. The intersection of economic inequality, racism, sexism, and ableism shapes Black women’s relationship to their bodies and to the work of making and sustaining families in many ways. The toll that COVID-19 is taking on Black communities in the U.S. has implications for Black women as family members become ill or die, as the care for children and elderly is passed on to women, and as there is more political constraint on women’s abilities to control the conditions under which they have and raise children. To quote Dr. Jennifer Jackson, “Audre Lorde teaches us that mothering Black children is community building, resistance sustaining, survival work.”

In these difficult days, we are also learning about joy and optimism, and discovering the unexpected places and moments where the beauty of nature, human creativity, compassion, and the will to live fully in the present eclipses the realities over which we have little control.

There is hope in organizing against sexual violence and believing that we can win: Activists and advocates are doing the important labor of lifting up undocumented and women of color survivors of domestic and sexual violence like Nan-Hui Jo and Liyah Birru, calling for an end to the criminalization of all survivors, and pushing for more just policies and practices including releasing people from detention and prison during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow Love and Protect (@LoveProtectOrg) and Survived and Punished (@Survivepunish) on social media to learn more about their campaigns and education projects.

There is joy in making sure that people can eat during difficult times. Food security in the midst of a pandemic is a critical concern for many individuals and families, especially where workers lost their jobs, are working fewer hours, and/or whose various sources of income have disappeared. In most communities, women bear the heaviest responsibility for and burden of sourcing, preparing, and ensuring that others eat. We know that UIC students also experience food insecurity, and UIC’s Pop-Up Pantry (located at the Wellness Center in Student Center East) continues to address that need every Tuesday and Wednesday, from 2 to 4pm. If you can donate to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which provides support for food pantries in churches and community organizations around the city of Chicago, please do so.

Food is comfort, salve, and sustenance; food offers a way to feel connected to a past and to each other in the present. Food is also a deeply feminist issue. It is true that people are baking more bread; new shipments of flour leap off the shelves of grocery stores within hours. I have certainly made more bread in the past two weeks than I have in the past five years!

Faculty members are not immune to the call to the kitchen. For inspiration in breadmaking, check out Eve Ewing’s (@eve.ewing) Instagram and Twitter pages.

Through Facebook, you might catch a glimpse of the meals created by Professor Anna Guevarra of UIC’s Gender & Women’s Studies and Global Asian Studies Program. Cynthia Blair, faculty in History and African American Studies and director of the African-American Cultural Center, has been perfecting her beef patties as part of AACC’s Tasty Tuesdays virtual program.

If you have the space to do so, make something and share it with us!

I have gotten much pleasure from watching videos of animals taking over villages while humans are sheltered, as well as the various TikTok challenges that are essentially quarantine fashion shows. So far, my favorites feature women and gender nonconforming individuals from across the continents of Africa and Asia doing the #dontrushchallenge and Inuit women modeling to the tunes of “Fight For the Rights” by Inuk singer Kelly Fraser.

As WLRC continues its programming–from the social media campaign for Sexual Assault Awareness Month highlighting critical issues about gender-based violence raised in the Shake It Up! discussion series, to Friday’s lineup of the Write @ WLRC virtual writing group and The Breathing Room–let us consider how to bring questions of joy back into the ways we support and work together to make change.

In solidarity,

Natalie Bennett