As summer officially closes, I am left reflecting on the systemic hardships that our most vulnerable communities have been presented with, as well as the ongoing collective efforts of many to try and change things for the better.
From an unprecedented increase in fuel costs, energy prices, and levels of inflation, to a harrowing heatwave in the UK and further climate disasters like the widespread floods in Pakistan, it is hard to not feel despondent with our current society, politics, and environment.
Concurrently, I am lucky to have taken moments between breaths to learn from friends, communities, and countless groups who are working to respond, replenish, and renew. This includes those working at a local and national level, like St Michael’s Primary School, the Newbiggin Community Trust, Civic Square, Healing Justice London, No More Exclusions, various Trade Unions, and the Enough is Enough movement.
This summer the typical activities one would associate with an academic or doctoral student have not at all entered my reality. Quite frankly, I have felt distant from the idea of burying myself in literature, spending hours at a screen, and writing things for the sake of writing.
These activities have felt completely counter to my values and my purpose at such a time of strife and insecurity.
In this piece, I will reflect on the possibilities and pitfalls of balancing academic work with advocacy and action, a balance many of us are actively tussling with.
Grappling with guilt
My own motivations to make an impact beyond academia stretch far back into my parallel journey in mental health advocacy through Taraki. With this foundation, I have always tried to find ways to balance my academic work and redistribute my academic skillset with other social change orientated activities.
However, one feeling I still find myself grappling with is a feeling of guilt which can rock my sense of Self:
- Am I doing ‘enough’?
- Should I be doing more?
- Am I fulfilling my potential value to the world?
Sometimes, I find these questions to be a helpful prompt to evaluate my current activities and assess whether I should be allocating my resources differently or further afield.
However, at points, it is easy for me to become stuck in a spiral of self-deprecation, fear, and impulsive action.
Unfortunately, in our society, I often see value intrinsically tied to ‘production’, a way of thinking which has become embedded both at an individual and collective level. I perceive meaningful production as enabling pathways to flourishing. When feeling guilty and questioning my practice I often find myself wanting to do ‘more’ in a sense to alleviate said guilt, feel a sense of contribution, and feel valuable.
I have spoken with countless individuals whose sense of guilt has led them to seeking value through action. This has often resulted in them over-committing to movements and having to leave shortly after. This does no favours to the movement, those it’s looking to serve, or the newly burnt-out individual.
Whereas feelings of guilt can be a useful reflective tool in guiding the allocation of our resources and time, it should not be the driving force that over-populates our calendars and centres us in movements in which we are allies, supporters, and even outsiders.
Overlaps and smart working
While the academic landscape presents a number of systemic issues, including financial and employment precariousness for staff, it also enables a way of working which can meaningfully contribute to advocacy and action.
In my experience, I have noticed that the sometimes flexible nature of academic work can lend itself well to supporting movements and social action. Working closely with a local school to support its pupils and parents, I have been able to take forward work which would otherwise involve staff needing to take time away from their already full days. For me, that means taking the lead on ‘dull’ administrative work: ordering materials for projects, following up with community contacts, or even sitting on hold with customer services.
While these actions are not glamorous, they involve short bursts of energy during the standard working day, which might be impossible for existing staff members. I can do them in between readings, on a lunch break or at the start of my day due to the fluidity and flexibility of my academic schedule.
Having been within the academic space for 8 years I have become accustomed to writing. Whether an essay, critical appraisals, or a longer thesis, I have practiced what it means to construct and evidence an argument through written communication. This skill set is absolutely key in the context of social change and I believe it is one of the most valuable skills that people in academic spaces can offer society more widely. In practice, I have taken the lead and worked with local community groups to structure and write grant applications. In these contexts I have worked with the groups to understand their background, the aims of the project, its intended outcomes, budget, and evaluation mechanisms, which is then distilled into a concise grant application. Successful applications have helped to provide key support to projects which are focusing on fuel poverty, food insecurity, and youth violence.
Some of us in academic spaces are privileged to have work flexibility. While this may mean we can’t attend events and rallies due to impending deadlines and pastoral responsibilities, it still means we have a part to play in enabling positive social action.
Furthermore, writing grant applications is but one way people in academic spaces can support community groups, organisations and movements using their experiences of organising, constructing and communicating information.
The key is to engage with movements and communities to reflect on whether the skills we already have can contribute to enabling social change.
Rekindling the relationship: moving forwards
Often the idea of the ‘town’ and the ‘gown’ presents a distinct binary between academic and non-academic spaces. However, academia and communities need not be in opposition to one another. The two can connect, build, and enable change alongside one another.
Academic spaces have a lot to give and a lot to learn from established community groups. Both are currently facing serious systemic challenges which risk stability, security and wellbeing. A less supported community will impact the academic spaces and vice-versa; our obstacles are intertwined and our responses need to be collective. So, go out, listen, learn, engage and move towards social change together.
I finish this piece with three statements I think of whenever working in a context of inequity:
- “We have two ears and one mouth for a reason, we should be listening twice as much as we talk.”
- “You may think you are yourself but you also carry the weight and baggage of the institutions you are perceived to represent.”
– Junie James, Afrikan and Afrikan Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative (ACKHI), Oxford
- “It is absolutely integral to build at the speed of trust.”
– James Carter, the Mental Forge
And with that, back to the PhD!
I will use bimonthly posts to share my honest thoughts on PhD life for someone whose work spans several areas. I am lucky to be supported and supervised by three inspirational figures, Professor Trish Greenhalgh, Professor Kamaldeep Bhui and Dr Nayanika Mathur.
If you have any questions you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org