Tag Archives: American Studies

Week 3, or Student Activism

One of the best things about my life as an American Studies graduate student this year is my role as an assistant to the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. I’ve written about the Branch Out Alternative Break that I’ve done with the Lemon Project, yet never about the other responsibilities that I have. As a project committed to rectifying wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by the College of William & Mary, we bridge the gap between the College, community members and the greater Tidewater area through research, community outreach and student engagement. We are responsible for putting together an annual report on the Lemon Project’s findings and other engagements, putting on an annual Symposium, organizing a Alternative Break trip that is public history oriented, and orchestrating a couple of smaller gatherings (Porch Talks) every semester.

The idea behind the Porch Talks is that they would be informal gatherings where you learn from your elders. The topics would be pertinent to the Lemon Project’s mission or things that are relevant to the College or community. I was deeply excited for the first Porch Talk of this semester on Student Activism because it was my brain child. The Lemon Project team went to a symposium on slavery last fall at the University of Virginia, where my coworker, Sarah and I, attended a panel on the removal of Confederate monuments at Clemson University. One of the panelists, an undergraduate student named Khayla Williams, stood out to us. Passionate, quick-witted, and oh so smart, Khayla was the portrait of successful student activism. As we listened to her story about how a group of students at Clemson had staged a ten day sit-in (now referred to as the Sikes Sit-In) and how the administration had begun to listen afterwards, we knew her experiences and her story might be a valuable one for student activists at William & Mary to hear.

After the panel, I gave her my card and she e-mailed me, which began a steady stream of correspondence in which we arranged for her to visit the College to give a talk similar to the one she had given at UVA.

Before I knew it, February 1st was here and I was eagerly awaiting her arrival for her talk that evening. 5 o’clock came and I was astounded at the turn out. We had amassed a substantial crowd of around twenty or so people primarily composed of undergraduate students, an atypical make up for Lemon Project Porch Talks. After I introduced Khayla, I sat with my camera out, ready to take the occasional photograph, when suddenly, I found myself enthralled by her words, eagerly taking in every bit. She spoke about herself, how she came to activism, how the term activist was strange to use to describe herself, yet one that she accepted. She spoke about Clemson, about the culture, about the Sikes Sit-In. And she spoke about what they did after the Sit-In to keep the momentum going. Her suggestions were encouraging and manageable. Khayla suggested that first, we continue to talk about the event after it happens. Educate younger students about how and why protests have occurred so they can pick up where you left off. She suggested, second, to work in teams. You need a variety of people to make a movement happen. And finally, she reminded us to make it bigger than a one organization problem. An incident of racism shouldn’t just be a BSO problem– it should be a school wide problem. Make it so.

I was impressed with how she commanded space so easily and how conversational her talk was. It flowed neatly into a workshop, where she came prepared by looking into incidents which had happened at William & Mary and helped students work through how they could then organize to address these problems. Her suggestions were primarily based on things which had worked at Clemson: a sexual assault alert system, making demands of the administration, keeping a record– but that was the key, these things had worked. I hoped the students in attendance understood her point that her suggestions were “not a blueprint” but also understood that these were actionable things.

I’m glad William & Mary students got a chance to meet Khayla. Sometimes it’s nice to have a fresh pair of eyes on your situation to give you some perspective. I don’t think Khayla gave them any answers (though she never claimed to, and at any rate who could?) but I do think she gave them something to consider as they move forward onto whatever their next activist project may be and, hopefully, some perspective.

I dropped her off at the airport after passing an amicable hour alternatively chatting and humming to the radio. As she walked through the doors, I found myself thinking about how much I learn outside of the classroom and from people who aren’t my professors. I’m so grateful for my assistantship with the Lemon Project, which forces me think critically in a different way and has brought me so many teachable moments.

Week 1, or “Branching Out” and Growing Up

This post marks the beginning of my fourth– yes, fourth— semester at the College of William & Mary. Before I know it, this semester will have flown by and then I will be standing at the precipice of my last semester of coursework in the fall.

This semester will be great. I’m speaking it into existence. I am currently enrolled in a Comics course, Histories of Race, and an independent study on Black Arts Movement literature. I’m bringing in a student activist from Clemson to speak at a Porch Talk for the Lemon Project. The Lemon Project 8th Annual Symposium will be in March. Johnetta Cole, Henry Jenkins, and Nikki Giovanni will all be coming to speak at the College this semester. And I had a paper accepted to a conference in April just a few days ago.

I already had an amazing start to the semester with Branch Out Lemon Project Alternative Break. If you don’t remember me raving about Branch Out, feel free to check out my post from last year’s trip. Students at William & Mary can sign up for Alternative Breaks, which are typically off-campus service trips– the Lemon Project Alternative Break is the only one held on campus. During the course of the weekend, the students learn about the Lemon Project, conduct their own original research and participate in a variety of other workshops. This year, as we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of residential African American students at William & Mary, our project was timely: the students conducted interviews with the first residential African American students and created an Omeka exhibit based on their findings. (For a more detailed description of what went down, check out my article about the weekend on HASTAC.org.)

As amazing as the final product was, as happy as the students were with themselves, as much as they praised the trip afterwards, it was still extremely nerve wracking for me. Not because I wasn’t enjoying myself– I love the Branch Out Trip. It’s been a highlight of both of my years at William & Mary. The problem was that the bar had been set exceedingly high for the trip because the Lemon assistant before me put her heart and soul into organizing a project that would be meaningful, productive and effective. I had a large pair of shoes to fill.

Through a few well timed pep talks with Adrienne, who helpfully tagged along for the entire weekend (you the best, Adrienne!), I came to realize that I was gripping onto the project too tight. I was taking any minor setback too personally. And I was doing it because I cared so much. I wanted the same effect, the same magic, that I had come to love from last year’s project. But in trying to recreate the magic, I neglected what unique skills I could bring to the table. I was trying too hard to teach in someone else’s comfort zone instead of my own.

I did some growing up last weekend. I realized that I don’t teach like anybody else– and that’s a good thing. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but there’s so much to be said for making your own path. I think the next time I try this, if there will be a next time, I’m going to not be so afraid to be myself. It was also encouraging to realize that despite all of the difficulties I was going through, the students didn’t see it. They thanked me for the trip and said all kinds of nice things about me as a person and as someone to look up to. One of the students spoke about me as if I were a role model for her but, little does she know, I feel it is the highest honor to know her at all. I’m proud of one of the site leaders for going from the quiet girl in the corner last year to the leader of the pack this year. And she still has two more years to go! Who knows where she’ll be by the time she’s a senior.

What these students don’t know is how much they are an inspiration to me. It brings me so much joy to be around people outside of my program, in particular undergrads who are so bright, intellectually curious and genuine. They make me laugh, they challenge me and make me want to work to be a better teacher for them.

If this was only week one, I can’t wait to see where I go from here.

Week 12, or The Mental Health Project, Part 2

Last semester, I wrote about my mental health struggles and how I would be working through them, convinced that, after a few months of dedication, I would be on top of my mental health and the picture of emotional stability.

The truth is that I have a mood disorder, and no matter how much I want to con myself into believing it can be conquered, the best I can do is regulate myself as best as I can to minimize the damage of a mood episode. It’s the mental equivalent of batten down the hatches, because my mood, like the sea, is really going to do whatever it wants to do, whenever it wants (usually when I’m least prepared for it) and all I can do is be ready and vigilant.

Now, stress is the enemy of so very many people with mood disorders. Unusually large amounts of stress are likely to trigger a mood episode. (Mood episodes are honestly like weathering the worst sea storms imaginable for days, weeks, sometimes months at a time. You’re being controlled and beaten by your own emotions, and all you can do to save yourself is hang on for dear life.)

As you can imagine, the added stress that comes at the end of the semester is no good for me but I do my best to take care of myself. Here are just a few of my self-care techniques:

  • Bulletjournaling. I love the ability to track everything– food, medicine, sleep, gratitude, dreams, goals, to do lists, etc. I especially love the freedom of getting to create and organize my own planner/diary exactly how I want.
  • Therapy. Sometimes, you just need to talk it out and your usual chat with your girlfriends won’t cut it.
  • Hydration. Kelsey pointed this one out to me, but sometimes if you’re more tired than usual, you might just need to drink some more water. Try to hydrate a little more before jumping to any illness related conclusions.
  • Healthy Eating (or just eating, generally). I am a terrible eater. I blame my mom– she’s a bad eater, too. Anyone that knows me, knows that during finals season I pretty much exist on granny smith apples, popcorn and hazelnut lattes. Cooking in bulk on Sundays ensures that I have food at the ready the whole week and no reason at all to avoid eating a real meal.
  • Playing with my dog. Playing with Genghis or taking him for a walk for thirty minutes, with my phone off, is a great way to reset if I don’t want to take a nap and just need a little boost of happy energy.
  • Pleasure reading. This seems impossible, particularly in graduate school, but I find that I actually can make the time to read a little of what makes me happy every day. During hard times, I read a chapter of a Harry Potter book every night before bed, but now I’ve been slowly making my way through We Were Eight Years in Power.
  • Knitting. I’m a serial binge watcher and I always tell myself I’m going to do something productive while I catch up on my CW superhero shows, so knitting is the perfect way to do something with my hands while enjoying a relaxing few hours of entertainment.
  • Essential Oils/Aromatherapy. Lavender Stress Relief essential oils are the plug. They’re also amazing for helping me fall asleep, too. I put a few drops on my temples and on my wrists before bed, and on my soap for my morning shower. (You can get oils in packs of 3 or more at TJ Maxx for about 10 dollars, and if you have a little more money to spend, you can always try Bath and Body Works’ Aromatherapy line!)
  • Reaching out to friends. I have about five friends who I can always count on to make me laugh during the most trying of times and a couple grad school buddies who have always got my back.
  • Meditating. It’s a hard habit to get into, but once you start meditating consistently, it’s so worth it. Start your day with a five minute meditation, and you’ll feel calmer and ready to take on the day.

As often as you can, I think it’s worthwhile to list out things you can do to pick yourself up when you’re sad, things that you love doing because it feeds your soul, and just things you need to do to feel like a functional human. When it feels like nothing will make you feel better, just looking at list of things that make you smile reminds you that, at some point, all of this made you happy. During finals season, I’m going to make sure I come back to this list, so I can do things that center me and bring me a little peace. I deserve to have a quality life, and I am the only one who can ensure that for myself.