The Academic Feminist: Virginia Eubanks on Feminism, Technology, and Activism

Welcome back, Academic Feminists! This month’s interview features
Virginia Eubanks, who teaches in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY. Virginia is the author of Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age, and the cofounder of two grassroots community organizations focused on making technology serve social and economic justice: Our Knowledge, Our Power: Surviving Welfare (OKOP) and the Popular Technology Workshops.  

Virginia shared some of the inspiration for her interest in feminism and technology, how participatory action research led her to better understand women’s technology issues, and some of the projects she’s currently working on.

1) How did you come to be interested in technology and women’s studies?

My interest in technology as a feminist issue came from two places: first, my experience taking a class with Donna Haraway in 1994; and second, from my activism in community technology and media.

I was baffled and beguiled by Haraway in equal measure. She assigned piles and piles of incredibly complex reading, and her lectures left me puzzled, but so intrigued that I felt as if I had left my body. I finally worked up the nerve to meet with her one-on-one around the time we read her generative essay, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” in the class. I asked her some question about cyborgs–I don’t remember what–and she replied, basically, “Why are you getting hung up on mechanical parts? Do you get that we’re all already cyborg? Even if you’ve never seen a computer, or a steam engine, or an Erlenmeyer flask?” The idea resonated in my head like a gong. We’re all engaging technology all the time — whether you live in a high-tech high-rise in Bangalore or a hemp yurt in Alaska. It’s such a powerful force in our lives, but often our thinking about it is not very sophisticated.

It was around the same time that I got started working in community media and community technology movements. I worked at KZSC, a community-college radio in Santa Cruz, CA, and with a number of community technology centers in the Bay Area, including Plugged In in East Palo Alto and Artists’ Television Access in San Francisco. These experiences got me interested in technology and economic justice, and I’ve been working on the issue in one way or another ever since. I see technology not only as a tool for organizing, but as a social justice issue in itself, a site for struggle, just like other issues we engage in: fair labor, economic justice, LGBTQ liberation, civil rights, etc.

2) My students at Douglass Residential College at Rutgers University are reading the selection on “Technologies of Citizenship” from your latest book, Digital Dead End as part of their required course. From the perspective of the author (which may be cheating!), why should this text be “required reading” for young women? 

At root, Digital Dead End is about my struggle to acknowledge and overcome my own ignorance. When I moved from San Francisco to Troy, NY in the late 1990s, I was convinced that poor and working-class women’s lack of access to technology was a fundamental social justice issue that could be addressed through community technology solutions. But because I was engaged in participatory action research – an approach that insists that you do research with people rather than on them – I had the chance to find out that I was framing the problem, and its solutions, completely incorrectly. Women in the YWCA of Troy-Cohoes community, where I did the research for the book, were generous enough to share their day-to-day encounters with technology with me, and I realized that they had tons of experience with it, particularly in low-wage high-tech jobs and in the social service system. It wasn’t that they lacked interaction with technology; it is that their interactions with it were so often invasive, exploitative and limiting, especially in the welfare office, which is the focus of the “Technologies of Citizenship” chapter that you assigned to your class.

I think the two most important lessons of the book are equally valid for academic researchers, students, policy makers, and activists: “meet people where they’re at” in order to understand the world, and we’re smarter together than we are alone. So I think the book is great reading for first year college students, Beltway veterans or seasoned activists.

3) Tell us a little about the mission of the organization[s] you helped found, OurKnowledge, Our Power: Surviving Welfare and the Popular Technology Workshops, and your reasons for founding them.

One of the great things about doing participatory action research is that working in collaboration to improve our community endlessly uncovers new things to put on the research and action agenda. You never get bored! I work with two organizations that I helped found – Our Knowledge, Our Power: Surviving Welfare (OKOP) and Popular Technology Workshops -which are funded by royalties from the sale of Digital Dead End.

OKOP is a grassroots anti-poverty and welfare rights organization with more than fifty members in the Capital Region of New York. We fight for the rights of families on public assistance. We founded OKOP in response to ongoing conversations about economic justice in the YWCA of Troy-Cohoes community. I never expected to become a scholar/activist of welfare and public assistance, but the social service system has such a huge – and often negative – impact on the everyday lives of my friends and neighbors that we had to build an organization to address it collectively.

Right now, we’re working within an economic human rights framework that holds that all people have an inalienable right to food, housing, high-quality education, affordable healthcare, communication and living wage jobs. We are collaborating with a national organization, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) to collect testimony of economic human rights violations in our community and to take that evidence to the World Courts of Women on Poverty in the US.

I’ve been lucky enough to able to use my book tours and public lectures to connect with other activists working on digital justice issues. In these meetings, I realized that we were having the same conversations over and over again: people see technology as a tool for activism, but not as a social justice issue. The Popular Technology Workshops were born out of an acknowledgement that technology touches all aspects of our social justice work. Technology can be a powerful tool for organizing and mobilization, but it is also a site of social justice challenges, including battles around unfair and unsafe labor practices, environmental degradation, gender and racial discrimination, loss of community memory and resilience, failing educational institutions, and collapsing health and human services systems. In response, the Popular Technology Workshops train community organizations, non-profits, students and social movements to think through the relationship between technology and their other social justice goals.

4) You’re currently working on an edited collection of interviews and conversations with pioneering Black lesbian feminist Barbara Smith with your colleague, Alethia Jones. What drew you to her work?

Barbara Smith and I first came into contact when she learned that many of the members of OKOP live in her ward in Albany, New York, where she serves on the Common Council, and reached out to express her support. So our first real connection was through shared political commitments, though I had also assigned the “Combahee River Collective Statement” and The Truth That Never Hurts to my students in the Women’s Studies department at SUNY Albany. I am glad that we had already developed “solidarity through practice” before Alethia Jones invited me to co-edit the book, because, to be honest, I was deeply intimidated by the prospect of trying to capture Barbara Smith’s legacy in a single collection. It required doing crazily nerve-wracking things like editing “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” down to a handful of pages! Without prior knowledge of her remarkable kindness, generosity and humor, I never would have had the guts.

When I talk to friends about the book, I call it my “master class in feminism.” Smith’s is still, I think, the best articulation of a broad, inclusive, expansive feminism. In “Racism and Women’s Studies,” she writes, “Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians, old women, as well as white, economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.” The process of developing the book was an honor and an opportunity for learning that challenged me in profound ways; I’m immensely grateful for the experience.

Extra Credit!
Adding to the links above, below is a list of resources for those who want to find out more about the issues discussed here. Add relevant resources in comments. You can send additional comments – including suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees – to Gwendolyn here.

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

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