Mutual Aid in Our German Studies Communities: Why and How to do Collective Organizing and Care Work in Academia
Emily Frazier-Rath, PhD (Davidson College)
Maggie Rosenau, PhD (University of Colorado Denver, University of Denver, & Anderson Language and Technology Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder)
Founded in 1966 to address the needs of the underserved and systemically oppressed Black community in Oakland, California—and later far beyond the state—the Black Panther Party of Self Defense originated in order to provide meals to the hungry. It also provided transportation to the sick and elderly, other forms of support to differentially situated members of Black communities across the country, and instituted a “copwatch” in an effort to prevent and challenge police violence. (Organizations like Copwatch emerged again after the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2015. See their website here for more information.) At a time when institutions, governments, and formal aid organizations systematically kept Black people out of decision-making bodies; when calls for resources were ignored or diminished; and as gatekeepers have regulated and dictated who is worthy of getting help, the Black Panthers have intervened, giving space and voice to vulnerable people struggling to survive.
Likewise, sick and disabled trans and queer BIPOC have organized collective care for decades (Piepzna-Samarasinha). As Alexia Arani writes, “Long before COVID-19, many TQPoC [Trans Queer People of Color] were redistributing wealth, sharing meals, offering rides, and opening up our homes, while struggling to gain the support we need in the face of rampant racialized, gendered violence and structural inequalities” (2020, 655). Amid the pandemic, however, as more people are awakening to the importance of community care, Black community and disabled knowledge is receiving increased attention and consideration. The experiential knowledge TQPoC have cultivated on forming networks of mutual care for themselves and others have come into view as valuable models for those now experiencing the debilitating effects of neoliberalism and the pandemic.
The mutual aid work of the Black Panthers and TQPoC community organizers serve as examples of what is possible despite and in the face of structural barriers, frustratingly complicated and ineffective bureaucracies, and violent institutions. In his 2020 book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), Dean Spade writes that during the COVID-19 pandemic, “ordinary people are feeling called to respond in their communities, creating bold and innovative ways to share resources and support vulnerable neighbors. This survival work, when done in conjunction with social movements demanding transformative change, is called mutual aid” (Kindle Locations 58–60).
With this piece, we want to make the case for mutual aid in academia more generally, and in our German Studies communities more particularly.
What is Mutual Aid?
A mutual aid network is a network in which people share their skills and resources in solidarity to strengthen their community. Such a network assumes that all members have something to offer, but also that every member is differentially subject to various forms of vulnerability and power.
You can find more detailed information about mutual aid in these three resources:
The DDGC Mutual Aid Action Group has been discussing what a mutual aid network can do to address the needs of the German Studies community, and our academic communities as a whole. We have taken a great deal of our inspiration from groups and communities like the Black Panthers and Sins Invalid, as well as the organizational work led by Rad Comms Network.
Why Do We Need Mutual Aid in Academia?
Mutual aid must have a place in academia so long as our institutions rely upon the labor and money of vulnerable populations made more vulnerable through their association with colleges and universities. There is hope in mutual aid. There is also the framework and action needed to build the kinds of institutions we actually want—ones that ultimately serve us all.
It cannot be overstated that academic institutions are in crisis. Just as women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled individuals have begun to finally gain access to a several hundred years-old institution, the neoliberalization of the academy has begun to increasingly rely upon and benefit from precarious labor, further stratifying already stubborn hierarchies. Between 1975 and 2015, the percentage of tenure line faculty decreased from 45% of the labor force in postsecondary education to 30%. During this same 40-year period, the percentage of the labor force identified as contingent rose from 55% to 70% (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). Our institutions and their gatekeepers have exacerbated precarious conditions for people at all levels. This includes people who hold contingent positions--adjuncts, VAPs, lecturers, postdocs, TAs, clinical professors, professors of practice, and others—in addition to essential service workers (e.g., food service, maintenance, and custodial staff). Students from underserved and historically excluded communities, including graduate students, are also among those experiencing precarity. Un- and underemployment, anti-minimum/pro-starvation wages, high tuition, and inflated rent prices further a severe increase in multiple insecurities and uncertainty.
The corporatization of higher education is working really well for those at the top and harming those of us who are doing education—teachers and learners. Labor conditions play a significant role in an instructor’s effectiveness in the classroom: teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola, and Daniel T. Scott succinctly describe the contours of academic precarity in their 2019 book, The Gig Academy, as follows:
Non-tenure-track faculty members, now 70 percent of the faculty within US higher education, average pay of $22,400 for teaching eight courses, making less than most fast-food workers and often with less job security and benefits than fast-food workers. (1)
The poor material conditions under which gig academics work—i.e., low wages, no benefits or healthcare, no opportunities to build curriculum, no access to funding for research or participation in conferences—become serious barriers not only to productivity and effectiveness levels the corporate university desires and expects, but also to living dignified lives (for more info on this, see this political, conceptual art project that invites emotional processing on the harm academia causes).
A very candid and important mentoring up discussion:
Dr. Melissa Johnson talks about the realities of contingent labor, how COVID has been a “good thing” for gig-academics, offers advice on how to support our most exploited colleagues, and how to change a system that is hurting us all.
There is hope here, however, as groups like Tenure for the Common Good have advocated for increased job security, improved and meaningful support, and changes to hiring practices amid the pandemic and the abolishment of what they call the “casualization of labor.” There is hope in the mobilization and uproar around the decisions of many--many, many (William and Mary, University of Kansas, and Guilford College to name three)—institutions currently in the process of firing faculty members (or, in euphemistic terms, refusing to renew contracts of long-standing faculty members), weakening tenure, and closing programs. But again, these efforts cannot be the work of a few.
To be sure, administrators are using students as scapegoats to justify exploitative policies (e.g., increasing or rejecting demands to decrease course loads, even if only temporarily to account for the lost time and increased stress during the pandemic), while also refusing to do anything about student debt and gig contracts. And, lest we think that reaching tenure is equivalent to obtaining immunity, colleges and universities are finding ways to justify getting rid of tenured professors and their programs.
Indeed, the very shape of our universities is changing as a result of austerity measures (see also this news about William and Mary) and corruption. And the neoliberalization and profitization of our institutions of higher education is supported by dark monies. Corporations like Koch Industries, for example, pay an exorbitant amount to protect private education, not public interests.
Elizabeth Stelle, an employee and representative of The Commonwealth Foundation, a self-described right-wing think-tank, recently advocated for a $0 minimum wage. (This is unsurprising considering that Charles Koch of Koch Industries sits on the board). Other university donors, such as billionaire businessman Sam Zell, do not believe college students (whose labor is grossly undervalued and undercompensated) should receive COVID-19 relief checks. In an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in February shortly after the GameStop Controversy, Zell shared that he believed a lot of the money used to buy GameStop and other low-cost stocks in an effort to drive the stock’s price upwards came from stimulus check money (the second stimulus check), sent to American families before January 15.
Angering many on Wall Street, the attempts by everyday people to artificially inflate the worth of GameStop and other beloved companies revived conversations about power and the distribution of wealth in this country, as well as who gets to manipulate the market, when, and for what purpose. The disconnect he worries about is between a business’ worth and its stock cost. He seems less worried about the disconnect between what he goes on to say and reality. Zell says, “You know, unless you’re in the restaurant, transportation, hotel business, etc., the economy is in real good shape,” and so he was not a proponent of the stimulus checks sent out due to the fact that they could bring back inflation. (“Billionaire Real Estate Investor Sam Zell on Market Volatility amid Coronavirus Fears.” CNBC, 5 Mar. 2020.) The people shaping our institutions are out of touch with the realities of the people who make up these institutions; their aims are not ours.
There is hope and arenas of action here, however. Organizations like Unkoch my Campus exist to expose the way donors have weaponized philanthropy in order to protect private interest over the common good. But these efforts cannot be the work of a few.
Academia has failed us all and has failed some of us much more than others. According to a study by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 3 out of 5 students (there were approximately 200,000 respondents who are attending 202 colleges and universities in 42 states) are experiencing basic needs insecurity during the pandemic; 44% of those at 2-yr. institutions and 38% of those at 4-yr. institutions are experiencing food insecurity; 15% at 2-yr. and 11% at 4-yr. institutions are experiencing housing insecurity as a result of the pandemic; and, the basic needs gap between Black and white individuals is 19%. We also know that depending on where students are from and where they are living, they face various and vast disparities in terms of access to resources and opportunities.
It is for this reason that activists have lauded the addition of a basic needs statement in the syllabus and a welcome survey to start off a class, which not only signals to students that we indeed see them as whole people, but aims to normalize the act of asking for and getting help. The area of trauma-informed teaching and care work has also gained much needed attention over the course of the last year.
How Do We Agitate for Change in German Studies?
We have to work for the changes we deserve and begin living and working in ways that align with our visions for just presents and futures. For us, this means acknowledging the working and learning conditions for German Studies. Financial insecurity among our faculty, staff, and students is the norm, not the rare exception. Precarity within the field is rampant: our relationships to our institutions are constantly in question; the futures of the field and of our place(s) within it are unknown; insecurity has been normalized and even celebrated (e.g., Rob Jenkins’s 2014 discussion about how some adjuncts “relish the intellectual stimulation of teaching a couple nights a week”); and, we continue to work in ways that foster and perpetuate various forms of racisms, xenophobia, ableism, sexism and misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia.
The sooner we accept these problems instead of spending energy to justify or ignore them, the sooner we can work together to hospice the institution that is not serving us and build one that does (see Andreotti, et al. for information on ‘hospicing’). Mutual aid calls us to:
1. Engage in Direct Action
We must support our existing unions and join one when the opportunity presents itself. We need to push for unionization where there is resistance and stand in solidarity with frontline and essential workers on our campuses and beyond.
2. Normalize and Politicize Our Needs
So often we attach ourselves to shame. And shame attaches itself to some of us more than to others. We need to address why this is. Those of us who live in poverty need not be ashamed—the system has failed us. How can we get comfortable asking for financial support? How can we help others get comfortable asking for financial support? Collective action and organization are ways to mitigate the precariousness that has shaped our lives; moving our private realities as they are related to our chosen professions into the public sphere is necessary if we want to change the conditions under which we work and live. We must share our stories and normalize asking for and getting help.
3. Mentor Up & Listen / Act
Based on information gathered from a survey administered by the DDGC Mutual Aid Network in February, there is serious need and desire in German Studies for socialization, pain sharing, and mentoring up—i.e., sharing, listening, and learning about each other’s needs and suggested ways to help.
The survey revealed contingent and graduate student workers’ deep need for tenured and tenure-track faculty to listen and understand the conditions under which we are living. The following are some concrete actions that securely situated faculty allies can engage in.
Because so many of us experience isolation within our departments, have no time off, have limited or no funding or access to institutional benefits, have no healthcare, and are on semester-only contracts, departments should, at minimum, follow the guidelines developed by Julie Shoults. In her MLA 2021 talk, “Incorporating Contingent Faculty into the Campus Community,” Shoults challenges department leaders to:
Inclusion and recognition are also vital. Shoults suggests that tenured allies need to:
Being contingent today comes with a plethora of unique challenges not faced by those who now have tenure and being contingent during a pandemic is even more unimaginable for many whose positions are stable. Colleagues on the tenure-track or with tenure would do well to:
Departments can also consider some equalizing (and not so equalizing) effects of COVID-19. Remote teaching and learning conditions have taught us a lot about in/accessibility. As directors begin thinking about how to sustain and improve their programs, they might consider:
This year, many of us who are disabled, sick, and/or underemployed have emphasized how critical remote work accommodations are for us. We have been able to maintain patch-worked teaching situations (and albeit not universally ideal, this has been lifesaving for many), as well as attend and present at national and international conferences. To be sure, disabled academics have long demanded for many of the kinds of inclusion and access the pandemic has afforded us, and we would all do well to listen to these thoughtful concerns and learn from their collective experiential knowledge.
But much more needs to be done to narrow the divide between well-intentioned tenured faculty and the contingent faculty that work aside them.
4. Offset Precarity through Care Work
they might best situate themselves in higher administrative positions. But it is also possible to engage in care work that avoids reinforcing hierarchical structures by joining a union, organizing a mutual aid chapter, or getting involved in advocacy work to address issues like ethical hiring practices, alternatives to traditional student evaluations, and better distribution of resources.
5. Distribute Knowledge and Wealth and Opportunity
There are many ways to distribute and share resources within our institutions. Creativity and compassion will drive our efforts. Mentors should be informing students what and where resources (e.g., funding, TA-ships, writing groups, collaborative projects) can be found. Some scholars, for example, are allowed to “co-sponsor” colleagues’ work (e.g., research trips, academic conference presentation) by giving money to people and projects if aligned with their institutional funding structure. Getting creative about funding resources and how they are used is one practical way to redistribute financial resources and support graduate student, adjunct, or contingent faculty research. We can strengthen our community and connect with each other in other (financial) ways too. Are you a scholar who has extra research funding? Pay for a graduate student’s conference fees by inviting them as a real or honorary “co-presenter.” Your department wants to support Black German studies on your campus? Fund (or secure funding) to sponsor a TA or RA position, which would contribute to organizations like the Black German Heritage Research Association (BGHRA). What else is possible?
What Can We Imagine and Enact for Equitable Futurities?
Mutual aid is about addressing present needs in direct, manageable, and sustainable ways. Though we are starting with what is most proximate—our German Studies communities--we are not alone in our endeavors. We deserve better than how we are being asked to exist right now. There are needs to address and coalitions to build, and there are futures to scheme. The DDCG Mutual Aid Network’s goal is to help organize and mobilize within our institutions (as discussed above) as well as outside of them. There are people in our community who need shelter, who need help paying for life-saving prescriptions or basic eye and dental care. Others could use a few bucks to help with rent, food, utilities, graduate student fees, vehicle maintenance to be able to get to work, and the several hundreds of dollars in parking fees gig academics must allocate out of starving wages to each university in order to teach at those institutions.
There are also so many of us right now who could use a supportive, engaging, inspiring, and uplifting community in- and outside of German Studies. As we move into the summer months, needs will shift as contracts or as 9-month pay cycles come to an end. And we in the DDGC Mutual Aid Network are learning how to address these urgent and existential needs. As we roll out our next plans, it will no longer be an option to say “I’m good! I’m secure/stable/situated/sound. I’m not in need.” All of us are in need in one way or another. We recognize that this means for some gaining access to spaces where “mentoring up” can happen. We all need to hear the lived experiences of the most vulnerable in our communities and learn how to engage in solidarity to enact more hopeful and equitable futurities. And, until our profession changes, until our institutions implode, and until something saturated with inclusion is built not out of the rubble but in spite of it, our collective work must embrace care.
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Organizations and Further Resources
Academic Mutual Aid Foundation
Black German Heritage and Research Association (BGHRA)
DDGC Action Groups
Disabled Academic Collective
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief
Radical Communicators Network
Tenure for the Common Good
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice
Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning (Blog)
Unkoch My Campus
Visionary Futures Collective
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