Dr. Civil on Civil Activism

This week I had the incredible opportunity to sit down with esteemed professor Dr. Gabrielle Civil of the Women’s and Gender Studies department at Denison University. Dr. Civil is a performance activist who uses art to communicate issues, meaning and even a need for change. She is also currently the Laura C. Harris Scholar-in-Residence, which is a Denison series created in memory of Laura C. Harris who was a pioneer in the medical field and for women as a whole.

                                                                  Photo courtesy of Dennie Eagelson

I was lucky enough to take her ‘Issues in Feminism’ class last fall semester. Dr. Civil is a strong communicator, knowledgeable soul and an even more impressive educator. During our course she made sure to utilize the world’s current events to propel our learning (the #MeToo movement was born during my time in this class, not to disregard many other life-changing happenings as well). The classroom was a safe space where we could share, debate and think freely.

Nearly two months ago, the Parkland tragedy first appeared on our screens. Many of my peers and I were saddened but expected the same course of events to follow; excessive media coverage, “thoughts and prayers,” angry adults yelling about various positions of gun control and then silence that leads to forgetfulness. Yet, despite their grief and sadness, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were able to build a movement that would eventually lead to a march on Washington. I craved the kind of discussion I used to have in Dr. Civil’s class, so we met for a discussion on Parkland, activism and where to go next.

Dr. Civil is from Detroit, Michigan which is a city often lost under its negative reputation. For a while the city held the title “murder capital of the U.S.” and was ransacked by deindustrialization and the exodus of car manufacturing. Dr. Civil saw it from a very different perspective. “I was a first-generation, middle class person who grew up in a nice house with a front and back yard. Most of my friends from Detroit also came from that background. I didn’t see the news or media representing that aspect. It taught me I didn’t always need to be afraid of places that are publicized as not as nice or safe.” Growing up in a predominantly black city but attending majority white Catholic schools taught her that interacting with people of many different backgrounds was the key to knowing and understanding the wide variety of opinions of other people.

                                                                   Selfie of Civil with Angela Davis

Dr. Civil shared that she was often allowed to visit her suburban friends’ houses, but they were not allowed to go to hers because it was past 8 Mile Road. Once, she took a friend to a movie at a theater near her house and watched her friend’s shock grow as they walked under metal detectors. “I asked, ‘Do you feel safe now?’ and my friend shook her head,” Dr. Civil told me with a chuckle. She realized then that there are certain knowledges you gain when you’re within a certain area, boundary or margin. “If you’re not within that community or area you may never know the same issues.”

Dr. Civil credits much of her interest in activism to her upbringing in Detroit, where she says there are now multitudes of grassroots movements growing as we speak. Now, as she’s learning more about the community she’s currently in, Dr. Civil has been pondering the meaning behind activism as a whole. She believes there needs to be “multiple ways to activate social change.” Marches, walk-ins, phone calls and boycotts have been useful before, and still can be, but there are more opportunities to tap into. “A ‘one size fits all’ approach will not activate social change.” Dr. Civil believes sponsoring more alternate ways to come together will spur even more motion.

As a student who watched, and was amazed, by the power and determination of the Parkland survivors, I was curious as to where Dr. Civil believes we should go next. She took a long pause after this question, and then stated, “We’re in a moment of crisis. We’re in a moment of opportunity. These moments can provide chances for transformation.” We both recalled a peer of mine, Rezo Arveladze, who took the same ‘Issues in Feminism’ class as I had. He often referred to needed change as reimagining. Dr. Civil agrees, “America could use some reimagining. It needs to be on a really deep cellular, granular, level. We need to think about how we engage with one another, how we speak to one another, how we interact. There are different pieces for everyone to pull apart in different ways. But we need overall to engage in productive imagination. We need to ask more questions and engage in more listening before making these large blanket generalizations. We need to be willing to be wrong and that’s hard. We like to think we’re always right.”

The issue, she says, isn’t that we aren’t hearing others speak. The problem is we aren’t listening. “Something is happening in society where so many groups do not feel listened to. Even those who we think have privilege. Why do you feel marginalized? We need to provide more spaces and opportunities to listen. And really listen, not in a way to shutdown arguments or demean their statements. Those who are listened to also need to know that those who are paying attention aren’t subject to doing their will. There needs to be balance.”

We live in a country so polarized it can be hard to escape the hold of our political opinions. We handpick what news to watch, what social media to use and follow and who in our friend group to speak honestly to. Not often are we given, or even allow ourselves, the opportunity to engage in honest conversation with those of all political opinions and sides. “In the future we need to rethink what it means to win. We need to reimagine how to do power.” Dr. Civil feels that through engaging the community through listening, art and other activist works we, as a society, might be able to bridge the boundaries we live within so comfortably. “How will we reimagine if we don’t talk and listen to each other? This should be the goal. It may take time and patience to arrive there, but we can do it if we reimagine.”

Dr. Civil and her class this semester will be hosting a class event entitled, “Activating / Performance \ Activism.” It will be held on April 26 at 7:30 PM in the Knapp Performance Space and all are welcomed to come. Check with the Women’s and Gender Studies department to confirm the details.