Dear Meg

Dear Meg, how do I progress?

Is there ever a way of pushing aside this capitalist mindset of comparing to others? Can academics be a vessel for change and a causative form of activism?

Dear Meg,

From a very young age I have been seen as a “golden child”. I was always the intelligent one, the thinker, the achiever. It didn’t bother me, and still doesn’t, as I have always had a thirst for knowledge and a drive for wisdom and found myself seeking learning as one of my primary sources of pleasure.

It therefore seemed obvious and amicable that I follow the academic path all the way to a doctorate or a few and become a researcher in the fields that I’m passionate about. I still know that it is my dream to be just that: someone who seeks knowledge for a living.

But a few years ago I joined my first movement — the climate fight became my full-time job. After that came other social injustices that impacted me (a queer woman in a post-Soviet conservative-led country) personally and that I couldn’t just pass by. I collected movements like badges, immersing myself in activism and finding comfort in doing so; learning that there are many ways of learning, skillsharing with incredible people all too wiser than I ever could dream to be.

I still want to follow the academic path and still want to achieve everything I have worked all my life for. I have my areas, all connected to humanities, all somehow connected to the social justice fight. I know that activism and voluntary work will always be with me, but I now stopped being sure of what I only begun to acknowledge — working in academics and culture also can be socially impactful and a form of activism in itself.

Many of my friends and acquaintances have chosen to quit their pursuits of a degree altogether, others paused it for the time being, prioritising full-time activism. I can’t and that makes me feel like my input is lesser than: less important, valid, impactful.

How do I progress? Is there ever a way of pushing aside this capitalist mindset of comparing to others? Can academics be a vessel for change and a causative form of activism?


Dear L,

Thank you so much for writing to me, and for all your efforts towards the urgent work on climate justice.

I also want to say that I’m happy you’re asking these questions, and appreciate you talking about your life and your values, your dreams and hopes. It meant a lot that a younger activist is eager to do more for the world, especially these days when I feel you’re constantly being told the opposite. I of course hope you’d never waver in your ideals, that you find joy and meaning, whichever path you take.

I believe that’s what you were asking about, and for weeks I had been working on the piece extolling the virtues of the academe, if one made the most of it. Off the top of my head I am reminded of academics who did the indispensable work of honing minds, but more particularly, honing critical minds. We have the likes of Angela Davis and Mike Davis, progressives who studied and wrote and talked about the issues of their time, and inspired students to do the same, and find solutions to social ills.

I think you have what it takes to follow in their footsteps, if you like. Teaching, as you know, is a most noble, underrated profession, and a great opportunity to train a generation of smart, brave, and socially engaged members of the community. Scholarly research can inform important policy changes, as well as people’s action. Outside of these formal mechanisms, you can also help nurture the University as a gathering place of changemakers.

You’re probably already very familiar with the first two, so I’ll talk about the third more.

Nicolas Whittaker, in a piece I really liked,* wrote about the radical work academics can do, as eloquently put by Moten and Harney: “it is work that aims at, and helps achieve, the abolition of the structures of evil that organize the university, and the modern world more generally. The undercommons aspires both to their abolition and the construction of new and more loving forms of life.”

Were you to stay in the academe, it would be good to face questions related to what they argued: are you working to reproduce class oppressions and championing essentially elite agenda? Or are you inspiring our students or readers to stand against all of its forms, particularly through organized action?

I remember that my best teachers were those who did the latter. They exposed the academe’s tendency to replicate the real world and its cruelties, and urged students to build a new, freer one on its ruins. The goal, they said, is higher than the attainment of knowledge. The goal is to help build much better, fuller lives than this tragic world order can offer, by letting knowledge guide the tedious work to be done.

If that’s a bit of a mouthful, I was reminded of a phrase, a mantra, that might help you more easily navigate this crossroad in your life.

Throughout my stay in the country’s state university, three words often found their way into protests and speeches, posters and statements. Serve the people. Serve the people, because we were their scholars, and our very place in the University was made possible by their toil. Serve the people: the farmers, workers, and Indigenous peoples, the homeless and jobless. Serve the people, by contributing all that we know and will know, to the movement for social change.

STP! We signed our letters and notes with it, a reminder to the other as much as to ourselves to learn about struggles beyond the walls of our classrooms. That is, I suppose, how many of us found ourselves in the streets or communities, joining campaigns for food and land, healthcare and housing.** At the end of each year, the new graduates would troop to the stage, a banner with the phrase in tow.

Today, the phrase is under attack; saying serve the people gets you red-tagged. And for the longest time, but more recently with less subtlety, our youth are being taught to look only after themselves, to chase power, influence, and money, other people be damned. It’s the most unfortunate thing, because what is social responsibility if not the bedrock of society?

There is, therefore, a sore need to reaffirm the values of community, of the importance of caring for each other fiercely. To be reminded that we are responsible for our fellow human being, or there is little point to living. That to serve the people, even when it’s difficult, is the least we should expect of the other.

L, I think “Serve the people” is a great guide for making decisions around what to do in life. And it’s a good guide, too, in the everyday decisions as an academic. Is my writing grounded in truth? Will planning my syllabus this way help mold socially conscious students? Will this study help promote virtues of community or social justice, or if it’s in the sciences, then of curiosity and interest in nurturing life?

So long as you keep measuring yourself against this ideal, I believe you’d be less inclined to look to your peers as a reference for success. Because the more you serve the people, the more you’d see that the only parameter that matters is whether, as Táíwò in Whittaker’s piece says, we are doing “the infinitely more grim and infinitely more productive work of chipping away at oppressive structures, transforming them at the minutest levels.” I urge you to hold yourself to this standard and this standard alone, and everything will follow.

I wish you the very best in all your endeavors, L, and I hope that you always take care.


*I wrote more about this here:
Beautiful artwork by Kenikenken