How An Academic Conference Can Feel Like Home
As a black woman who attends a predominately white institution, I’m pretty used to feeling alienated in my academic spaces. I’m not rich, I'm not white, and neither of my parents attended a four-year institution - those traits alone distance me from many of the students at my school. If those disparities weren’t enough, lots of these students brandish confederate flag stickers on their laptops while idolizing Thomas Jefferson, our school’s founder - notorious rapist and slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, or “Good Ol’ TJ” as they call him. Yes, I do go to University of Virginia, the school that alt-right leader Richard Spencer calls his alma mater, the school that tiki-torch wielding neo-nazis marched through last August. But it’s not just the racist outsiders making UVA uncomfortable. I’m also surrounded by homophobes, transphobes, classists…this should all give you a pretty good idea of what the environment can be like. I love school and I love learning, but I’ve just accepted the idea that I’ll be uncomfortable in academic spaces. Which is why attending an academic conference was like finding a home in the last place I would have thought to look.
Thanks to my school’s Multicultural Student Center, I recently was able to attend the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE). In 15 years of schooling, I had never felt so at ease in an academic space. Going in, I was expecting everyone to have a certain level of consciousness about race - based on the title alone obviously no racists would be attending. Most attendees were students and faculty of color who were speaking of their specific experiences, which was already drastically different from my school. But it was more than that. The first session I participated in was the “Social Justice Training Institute” which taught the basics of engaging with social justice. The people in that room were all engaging with it from different levels. Some were social justice advocates who had been organizing on their campus and in their communities for years already. Others were completely new to the ideas of Social Justice. However, the fact that they were all there in the first place - that they had signed up for a nine-hour training on this topic - meant something important. All of these people were fundamentally interested in doing what is right. They truly believed in equality for all, and they didn’t merely claim to have that belief but then continue to go through life without challenging the status quo. They believed so deeply in equality for all that they wanted to learn how to fight to make that come true. That is a space I feel comfortable in.
I’ve only felt this way once before, and that was at the “Young People For” fellowship conference. Young People For is a social justice fellowship. Admittedly, I did expect a refreshing environment as I entered that space. If one wants to be a fellow for social justice, there’s a good chance equality is important to them. But I never could have expected how at ease I would feel. There was a comfort knowing no one was going to use homophobic or transphobic slurs. There was a comfort knowing that everyone in the room believed in a woman’s right to her own body. There was a comfort knowing no one in the room was going to be voting for Donald Trump! Considering the rise in hate speech at my university this past year, it was the complete opposite of how I feel at school. As I sit in class I think, “is the person next to me the one who wrote slurs on freshman dorm room doors? Am I safe here?” At the Young People For conference, and at NCORE, I never had to give my safety a second thought.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that every single person had the exact same views. There were people in the room who think of Obama as their cousin, and people who refer to him exclusively as the Deporter-in-Chief. There were people in that room that worked on Hillary’s campaign, and people who thought that the “lesser of two evils” idea was not only wrong, but also that Hillary could barely be considered the lesser evil at all. There was dissent in the room over particular issues, sure. But fundamentally everyone in the room valued the humanity of every human being on the planet, regardless of what marginalized community they came from. The “Young People For” conference and NCORE are the only places I have ever attended where I feel as though that’s true.
The result of all this is I finally feel comfortable in a way I haven’t before. We build a community. I feel at home. The people that I’ve met at these conferences, which only lasted a few days, know things about me that some of my closest friends don’t know. We may have spent three days together a year ago but we still talk. We have Groupmes where we share our art, our thoughts about the terrible things going on in the nation, memes, and news of good things going on in our lives. We try to meet up whenever we’re in one another’s cities. I built a bond with these people at an academic conference that I’ve never been able to get from the people sitting next to me in class.
So now I’m left chasing that feeling. LGBT Conferences, Leadership conferences, Diversity conferences…sign me up. I want to feel as though I am surrounded by people working towards a more perfect world again and again and again. Sure, there are organizations in my school working towards these things, but intersectionality isn’t their strong suit. I don’t want to be around people who care about race but are ignorant of misogyny, or care about homophobia but don’t care about racial issues. I want to be in academic spaces like these conferences where people are working towards all of it. And maybe the fight is futile, and yes, we know we won’t achieve it all in our lifetime. But I want to be surrounded by people who are aware of this and are working towards it anyway. Because those people believe we can leave the world better than when we found it, and that’s important to me.
I return to school in the fall for one last year. And honestly, I have no specific professional need to go to conferences like these. I don’t get any credit for it, and it likely won’t relate to my future career. And yet, here I am, filling out applications, trying to go home again.