Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Center director speaks out on social justice

photo of Ann Austin accepting the award
Dr. Ann Austin at the award ceremony in New York
Earlier this month, Utah State University's Center for Women and Gender received the Emerging Center Award from the National Council for Research on Women. At the ceremony in New York City, founding director Ann Austin was surprised when she was also honored as a 2013 Trailblazer, recognizing her work to make her world a more equitable place. 

In addition to directing the Center, she is a professor in the Family, Consumer and Human Development Department. We asked her to jot down some of her thoughts on social justice. This is what she had to say.

The USU Center for Women and Gender (CWG) is an academic unit dedicated to enhancing research, learning, and service opportunities for women and men.  We have a strong social justice mission, and all students, faculty, and advocates who are interested in exploring and addressing the challenges of intersectionalities (gender and ethnicity; gender and culture; gender and religion, etc) will find an intellectual home with the CWG.  It is my great privilege to be the founding director of this dynamic Center. 
Social justice has always been a strong interest of mine.  It came from my childhood and teen years in Midvale Utah, then a scrappy mining town, where my father was one of the few foremen at the mine to stand up for the rights of the Spanish-speaking workers.  It came from the summers I spent helping my grandfather on his ranch in Bear Lake Idaho, where I learned respect for the land and for those who worked it.  Certainly my interest in promoting equality, social solidarity, and human dignity also came from my experiences as the older sister of a sibling with multiple handicaps whose disabilities always drew stares, intrusive questions, laughter, taunts, physical violence, and, worst of all, solemn pronouncements from some in the religious community that my sister’s problems resulted from my mother’s “hidden” misbehaviors.  

My parents, although angry and hurt, were also remarkably philosophical about these episodes.  My father was a feisty little Dutchman who flunked first grade because he couldn’t speak English, and my mother was far too bright and forward thinking to be considered “normal.” They said the bullying that occurred almost daily was the result of a narrowly circumscribed system of “group think,” and that it was my responsbility to think beyond it.
These early experiences instilled in me the desire to be of service to the people of Utah and to advocate for those who might not be able to advocate for themselves.   I am fortunate that my career has given me many opportunities to try to make a difference for others.  I have been able to work on child care issues such as availability and quality, on children’s early education, and parent stress and work family balance.  

I am deeply troubled that here in Utah, the graduation rate from college for young women is the worst in the nation while the suicide rate is one of the highest.  Same sex marriage and reproductive justice are an anathema to many. 

I am proud that the Center for Women and Gender has spoken out frankly about these issues and others.  I am gratified, and astonished, that the pushback has been minimal. Rather, our attempt to bring about a more just and equitable climate in Utah seems to have been accepted by many.  This tells me that a many of our students and community members are tired of vitriol and the circumscription of rights, and grateful that the Center is providing an unapologetic voice for justice, solidarity, and human dignity.  

For us in the Center, the Emerging Center award and the 2013 Trailblazer award validate our vision for social justice and give us confidence that the social climate at our university and in our state is maturing and moving forward. 

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