By Nick Ward
Photos by Akintunde Akinleye
Academic-activist and new Instructor in the Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies, Dr. Manjeet Birk, has been challenging the status quo for as long as she can recall.
The interdisciplinary scholar whose research focuses on the lived experience of racialized and Indigenous girls and women in Canada has worked alongside many women’s organizations and communities with the objective of reconfiguring Canada’s patriarchal and colonial societal structure.
These days, much of Birk’s grassroots work as an activist starts in her classroom where she educates her students about the profound consequences of these discriminations, and how they are reproduced in the systems that we experience every day. “If I can teach my students about injustice and then support them to tangibly think through creative solutions that can disrupt day to day work, they can build a better Canada,” she says.
Birk’s passion, inclusive teaching methods, and ability to foster and create an equitable learning environment have not gone unnoticed by her students, who recently voted her as one of the most inclusive teachers at Carleton University through the Office of Equity and Inclusive Communities.
In late 2019, Dr. Birk sat down with the FASS Newsletter to discuss teaching, research, and activism in the contemporary Canadian social climate.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Dr. Birk! What inspired you to study the impacts of inequitable systemic structures in Canada?
This is actually a really personal story for me. I grew up on unceded WSÁNEĆ territory just outside of Victoria, BC. As one of the few people of colour in a relatively white environment, I was eager to see others that looked like me. It wasn’t until much later when I was reading and studying in Women and Gender Studies that I realized the prevalence of systemic violence and how it plays out within the lives of women of colour. I grew to see the numbers of ways that media, systems, and institutions erase young racialized and Indigenous girls and women simply by ignoring the added complications that exist for these communities in a white settler context like Canada. Once you have seen this type of injustice, it is impossible to un-see it. As a result, I was compelled to work alongside women to support communities in finding solutions to these systemic erasures.
In your opinion, how central of a function do activism and disruption play in trying to find these solutions?
Grassroots action is the only way to meaningfully interrupt the status quo and business as usual. This can look differently based on who you are and where you come from. For example, my activism starts in the classroom.
Informing and educating students about the ongoing lived realities of colonization and the myriad of ways this is reproduced in our everyday systems – like healthcare, education, government, and more – is imperative to provoke any kind of change. So many of our students will go on – or already do – work in government. They do so in a variety of different fields in a number of different departments. If I can teach my students about injustice and then support them to tangibly think through creative solutions that can disrupt day to day work, they can build a better Canada.
On the other hand, if they are not truly impacted by what I teach them, this opportunity will pass them like any other, and they will continue to reproduce the same systems they have been taught over and over again. It is a delicate balance because if they become overwhelmed by the injustice, they will also be paralyzed into inaction, feeling as though the task is beyond them. This is how I strive to disrupt the system. I hope faculty from any field approach their teaching similarly. Granted, it’s easier in Women and Gender Studies because we already attract engaged and passionate students eager to change the world.
Do you view your roles as activist and scholar separately from one another?
I do not see it as a divide at all. I don’t come to campus to do “academic work” and then leave campus to do “activist work.” These roles are one and the same. We artificially create this divide so we can maintain exclusivity in the academy. I say tear it down.
This needs to be done on many different levels. Like I mentioned earlier, this is something that I do in my teaching. I also translate this to other arenas, including my research. I believe that we need to think about things differently. We need new and fresh perspectives breathing life into our same old systems. This is also why representation matters so much. We can’t inject fresh blood if we all think and do things the same way.
As a result, I believe that the research I do has to have direct and real action attached to the research. I think it is imperative to do research grounded in the community knowledge that already exists. That’s not to say research is not essential, but rather to suggest that the old methods are insufficient in catering to the changing demographics we see on our campuses and accessing our institutions. This means engaging creative methodologies that translate into public scholarship. For myself, this looks like storytelling, but others are also using creative community-engaged pedagogies like visual art, poetry and theatre.
I believe in innovative research that seeks to answer real-life questions. Injustice is everywhere, and part of the work of my research (and that of my colleagues) is to name this injustice and dismantle the systems that support it.
Which types of organizations do you engage through your work as a scholar-activist? Are they in need of repair?
I have worked with several girls and women’s organization over the course of my research. The problem is not so much with the intentions and the people within these systems. Mostly, it has to do with the fact that these institutions mimic the systems they are working to dismantle.
For example, government agencies are often funding the programs within these organizations. As a result, they often dictate how these organizations can and should practise. This is obviously problematic because you cannot be critical of the system that is paying your rent cheque.
Our non-profit system relies upon these sources of funding to succeed and is therefore often handcuffed by their well-intentioned practices. This reduces organizational autonomy and puts it back in the hands of the same institutions. This means that the government subcontracts a non-profit organization to provide the programming and solutions that they should be providing. They have arm’s length control over the entire operation. Based on this model, the organizations that were intended to fill the cracks in these systems then reproduce the same blind spots as the systems themselves. This non-profit industrial complex is a complicated situation and there is no easy solution to it but ignoring it and reproducing the status quo is not the right way to handle a growing problem either.
How has your research demonstrated that these systems are failing women?
My work and the work of many other warriors show that systems are disadvantaging and failing the most marginalized communities every day.
For example, we understand that under patriarchy, women are more likely to be poor, experience violence, and globally have less access to healthcare, education, and well-paid sustainable employment.
When we are working, we also know that we consistently do it for less pay than our equally qualified male counterparts — all while also managing more in the domestic sphere, doing double duty with the domestic labour in our homes. Under this same system, one in five women experience sexual violence over their lifetimes and then will not be able to seek justice because of unjust, misogynistic, victim blaming, and shaming systems built for men by men.
Patriarchy also has some friends: racism, capitalism, heteronormativity, colonialism, and ableism… to name but a few. These interlocking and intersecting systems work in tandem to further discriminate against racialized, Indigenous, Trans and gender non conforming, and other multiply marginalized folks.
There are economic consequences to this.
Sick people are expensive to take care of. In other words, marginalized people have less money and as a result, have poorer health outcomes and more severe health conditions. Desperate people are unpredictable and are forced to make tough choices.. This means people who live with the daily realities of discrimination from systems cannot often meet their most basic life needs, like affordable housing and access to clean drinking water. This further perpetuates intergenerational trauma. If we do not look for sustainable solutions to generations of mistakes, the issues will continue to perpetuate causing continued and more dangerous addictions, foster care, the reliance on government systems, and so forth.
Just as importantly, there are moral consequences for these failures. How can we as a country stand up on a global stage and condemn the human rights violations of other countries when there are still communities in Canada, a nation surrounded by oceans and full of lakes and rivers, who do not have access to clean drinking water? I am constantly reminded of how quickly we dismiss the lessons of our childhood ⎼ share, be kind, take care of each other.
Those were definitely important lessons. Are the realities of our system mimicked and reproduced in the university context? Have you experienced them?
The university is flawed like any other system. One of the most striking ways I have seen this reproduced in institutions is that our student populations are not reflected in university curriculum, staff, faculty, and leadership. Institutions have to make deliberate and meaningful interventions to rectify this.
Personally, having recently graduated with my PhD, I have fresh insight into how this operates from a student perspective.
As a student, I was not interested in simply reproducing the same old systems which I had seen before. Instead, I wanted to do something that I could stand behind, and that would be useful to my communities. This sensibility was met with a lot of resistance I witnessed many like-minded colleagues leave academia or cross borders in search of institutions with more robust support structures. This is devastating. Unless we show up and make the necessary changes, they will never happen. In the meantime, we are losing incredible academics and thinkers.
In your keynote, at Capilano University, you cite one of the foundational tenets of feminism – “the personal is political.” How can storytelling help change the way we think and talk about large scale change?
This is a great question! Thanks!
My work is grounded in storytelling. I tell stories that expose systems and then force us to reckon with the brokenness that is all around us.
Storytelling is critical because it interrupts the assumption about who can and should be informing theory in our academic institutions. Storytelling is an accessible and interesting way for anyone to enter the conversation regardless of who they are or where they come from or which universities they attended. I firmly believe in the power of storytelling because it helps us connect as human beings; it informs our lived realities and sheds lights on the ways that we still need to grow. It teaches us lessons and supports developing that fundamental change. It is also a very intimate way to get to know each other.
Storytelling has been a foundational method of oral knowledge sharing in so many cultures, from Indigenous knowledge keepers to mother and child. I distinctly remember the intergenerational learning of hearing stories from my grandparents and parents. A well thought out story has tremendous power to create institutional change because it can reflect the challenges of that system which is required to spark that change. Storytelling is also a crucial and accessible entry point into having some of the challenging conversations that need to be had.
In your Capilano keynote, you also stated: “…we cannot centre the mainstream and then add on isms until we have represented everyone.” Could you unpack this?
Intersectionality has become a buzz word that everyone wants to talk about. Everyone adds it to their research proposals or throws it onto a poster with an assumption that it means you are “woke.” But the reality is, as Kimberlé Crenshaw, an early intersectional theorist, shared in her 2014 article, people are misusing and misappropriating the term.
Dismantling racism doesn’t mean having a person of colour as the president, it means carefully considering how racism operates at every level of the institution and then meaningfully disrupting that with anti-racist action. You have to do this over and over and over again. And sometimes you have to stop, change course, and try again. Dismantling systems that have been created and maintained over centuries are not going to be “cured” with a diversity policy. We all want easy solutions, and this is what motivates centering the mainstream – we want to fix the problem, so we sprinkle a little change on the existing situation – but unfortunately, that is not enough to make the necessary changes.
Finally, what brought you to The Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies at Carleton? What potential do you see at CU?
There are so many reasons I am excited to be at Carleton. The program, the faculty, and the University’s innovation in tackling some of these big stakes problems is motivating. But mostly, I chose Carleton because of the students.
Carleton has incredible students that inspire me to be a better educator, researcher, and ultimately, a better human. I am amazed by the diversity that I see on campus and the honest way so many students approach their learning. I have the gift of teaching a subject that most people are excited about so students come to the classroom ready to engage with their whole hearts and minds. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that. I think Carleton understands it has the responsibility to ensure the success of these incredible students.
Considering that you were just voted as Most Inclusive Teacher by students through Carleton’s Office of Equity and Inclusive Communities, CU students are clearly just as inspired by you as you are by them. Congratulations on your recognition, and thanks for having this important discussion, Dr. Birk.
My pleasure. Thank you!
Strange Weather, Shy Elitism and Soul Rebels
Strange Weather, Shy Elitism and Soul Rebels
Daniel McNeil discusses how public-facing humanities research can contribute to the critical discourse on energy and climate
Why We Find Things Interesting
Why We Find Things Interesting
In this talk which will be held at the Arts & Letters Club of Toronto, Jim Davies, of the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University and director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory, will... More
A Vanquished World
A Vanquished World
Palmyra, Hatra, Nineveh – the list is long and continues to grow. Ancient cities that have weathered centuries have all been savagely attacked in a frenzy of human destruction. These Middle Eastern archaeological sites link... More