Gavin P. Johnson
As we contemplate growing challenges within and beyond the academy, the work of coalition is indispensable. In what follows, activist-scholar-professor Karma R. Chávez and I discuss her theorizing of “coalition building” as a rhetorical practice and consider the work needed to continue moving toward a more just world. The interview took place via Zoom on October 15, 2020, and the transcript presented is composed from excerpts from a much longer discussion, which has been edited for clarity and length.
Gavin P. Johnson (GPJ): What draws you to the idea of coalition? And what kind of genealogies do you follow when theorizing that concept?
Karma R. Chávez (KRC): I’ve always been interested in what brings people together, people who maybe don’t “naturally,” whatever that means, fit but who come together in various formations for various reasons in various ways. And I think part of my interest in that is just the strong identification with Women of Color Feminism, which is itself a coalitional construct. There’s no such thing as Women of Color unless we create this thing together to say it’s important for us to be unified. And that’s also the intellectual trajectory I follow. So I’m very much thinking about Black Feminisms, Chicana Feminisms, Asian/Asian American Feminisms, and Indigenous Feminisms, which emerged in the era of what some think of as Second Wave Feminism in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, that were really trying to figure out what it meant to be “women” as a coalitional term itself, and what it meant specifically to be “women of color.” I know there’s some good thinking about coalitional formations that come out of political theory, in a kind of more traditional sense, but I’m really interested in the Women of Color legacies.
GPJ: Yes! I think that’s key to remember as we’re thinking about introducing or bringing in these activist concepts into rhetorical studies. Our work needs to be aware of where we’re pulling from and what we’re doing with the terms. That kind of leads me to thinking about how coalition works with other rhetorical terms and strategies. Do you have any kind of concept or thoughts on how “coalition” can fit into our rhetorical vocabulary, but also how “coalition” also disrupts our rhetorical vocabulary?
KRC: I think that’s a really complicated question. When thinking about the rhetoric of social movements, we’ve got a huge lexicon to study social movements from a rhetorical perspective, including as it sort of transitions into being studied through the lens of counter public sphere theory. And I think that work has been very generative. For me, it’s where I got my start. But largely it focuses on what we might call single issue movements and thinks of movements in very traditional ways : a movement activity is a thing that happens in public, often in the streets, through the mechanism of speeches, or more contemporarily, if not through speeches, through digital technologies. And when you have a perspective like that on movement activity, it really does limit what you’re able to grasp. I think coalition helps us to turn attention a bit away from the streets, and toward the work that happens behind closed doors, for example, which is often where the work of coalition is done. It turns us toward what can’t be easily characterized as social movements because the work is building political power, but not in ways that necessarily make sense within some of the ways we’ve come to discuss these things in the field. And so, I think, “coalition” adds to the rhetoric of social movements in the sense that it gives us something else to really think about and take seriously. But I think it also critiques or turns our attention in a different direction than a lot of the studies within the rhetoric of social movements in ways that I think are quite productive.
GPJ: I’ve been thinking about this when working with students, and some of the students in my classes are really interested in “social movements” and thinking about what that it means when we have what contemporary media and traditional scholarship would identify as single issues. And a lot of the work that I’ve been doing in my classes is talking about coalition in this issue of solidarity and how these different movements actually overlap and can be thought of intersectionally. And that’s mind blowing to students. And mind blowing for many people to think, “Oh, wow. These practices are not isolated.” The movements are not purely based on a kind of a homogenous identity or locale, but really are springing forth from the larger public discourse. With all of the events of summer 2020, we see a kind of disruption across the globe, of movements that are intersectional and are calling for intersectional justice.
But in what ways does the scholarly discourse not encourage us to think in these coalitional terms? Institutions prefer to discuss activism and social movements in homogeneous terms, and in identity-based terms, that it doesn’t make room for intersectionality or coalition. On the other hand, some activists and scholars critique the adoption of activist practices into academic theories. So, there is this issue of taking what’s happening out on the street and trying to theorize with it. “Coalition” is obviously an example. And while those critiques are valid, are there ways that we should separate the coalitional activism from scholarly deployments of that idea? Or do you think that doing that kind of separation damages the overall rhetoricity of coalition?
KRC: A lot of smart people are going to come down on different sides of that question. My view is that what we do with ideas is all about accountability. And so, one of the reasons why a lot of organizing and activist communities are so anti-academics being in their space at all, let alone building theory from their ideas, is because academics have been historically and notoriously completely unaccountable to the communities that they study, even if they’re members of those communities. And there’s very good reasons why people have those critiques. From my vantage point, I try to do my work in a way that is deeply accountable to the communities I work with, the communities whose voices I want to engage, whose voices I want to work with to build theory. And it’s their theory as much as its mine in certain ways. And that’s tenuous too, because who’s getting credit for it, who’s getting tenure and promotion, who’s selling books, etc.? But for me, I’m in constant conversation with those communities, not necessarily the direct person who I’ve written about in chapter three, or whatever it is, but with the communities about which I’m writing, generally speaking, when the work is in the present. Now I’ve got a book coming out next spring that’s all historical. And I have none of those connections to those folks. So that’s sort of a different thing. But can you still be accountable in ways that aren’t directly in an interpersonal relationship? And I think you can because you’re being accountable to putting forth ideas, helping to build ideas that hopefully intervene in oppressive structures without reproducing them. And maybe that’s too big of an ask, but I think that’s, for me, the kind of litmus test I operate under.
GPJ: And these ideas of accountability include citational accountability, especially when doing historical/theoretical work, and a more intercommunal accountability. I like the way that you’re positioning that not only as interpersonal because interpersonal accountability is not communal accountability.
But I want to shift a little. So, Queer Migration Politics (2013), your first book, as wonderful as it is, was published seven years ago, at this point. And you’ve been doing so much work including two really wonderful, new collections Palestine on the Air (2019) and Queer and Trans Migrations (2020). But I’m wondering if you continue some of these conversations in upcoming work. How are you continuing these conversations about coalition and action, and maybe adding new textures to the conversation?
KRC: Well, hopefully, I will add new textures. The next book is called The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance (forthcoming, 2021). And that book has taken a very long time, I did the first archival work on that in 2011. You can do the math. And I originally wanted to write a book about AIDS activism and immigration, but it occurred to me at some point that it was too narrow of a frame. And then I began to ask: “Why was AIDS always about immigration?” Even though we don’t tell the story that way, of course. But it always was. So, kind of going one step back from myself. What that did is it opened up a project that answers that question, to talk about the ways that disease is always an opportunity to alien-ize people, basically. And there’s this long history of that, which then makes sense why quarantine discourse in the early 1980s was a perfectly rational response, but when it becomes clear that there’s no quarantine, en masse, was going to happen for US citizens, we shift focus to criminalization. Of course, those architects of quarantine become the architects of the ban on HIV positive immigrants. The first part of the book kind of tells that story of how we ended up getting a ban, but then the second part of the book, turns to activism. And I’m interested in how predominantly queer folks—some who were, some who weren’t immigrants—were resisting this ban on immigrants, and the treatment of immigrants in relation to AIDS.
GPJ: That’s really interesting when thinking about the trajectory of scholarly conversations. And I’m really interested to see how that historicization helps us unpack contemporary issues as well. I mean, there are some pretty clear parallels to contemporary discourses. I think historical work is most valuable when we can make those kinds of parallels back and recenter activism that has had an impact but maybe has been lost to the archive.
KRC: I think so too. One of the reviewers for the book, of course, really wanted me to just basically rewrite the whole book and kind of make it also about COVID. And I was like, “Haha. No, I can’t do that.” But I do try to think through what it is about AIDS and things that happen with regard to AIDS activism, government responses, etc. that help us think through this moment. And, I mean, I think there are obviously things at the same time that we want to be cautious about the analogies too.
GPJ: Yeah, there’s a lot of talk, especially on social media, making quick analogies between the Reagan response to AIDS and the Trump response to COVID. And that acontextualizes a lot of what happened. Trump’s response to COVID was obviously dangerously slow and incompetent. But historically speaking, Reagan’s response to AIDS took years. Part of the texture of this conversation gets lost whenever quick analogies are made. That’s why the historical work is particularly important to understand the parallels, but also recognize that there were particulars.
KRC: Yeah, absolutely.
GPJ: And amid everything that’s happening right now in Fall 2020—COVID, the upcoming presidential election, ongoing cultural trauma, and more visible racist violence—how do we orient toward action and act not only as allies but accomplices to the revolutionary work that must be done here and now? What coalitional work do you see happening here that we need to amplify through our positions as scholars and teachers?
KRC: I think the biggest, most important work right now for those of us in the academy is to turn our attention to our own house. And I think right now we have a tremendous opportunity to be building powerful coalitions among faculty (tenure-track and tenured faculty), non-tenure track faculty, staff (both academic staff and more), folks who are doing the custodial work and serving in the kitchens, and with students, particularly around issues related to labor politics, related to policing on campus, related to healthcare, related to health and safety. We have a really important opportunity to build labor coalitions. Also related to the moment of Black Lives Matter, that we’re always going to be in, but that we’re in especially following the rebellions this summer. Students have made demands at many campuses related to getting their University Police Departments off campus and demands to stop the collaborations with local police departments. And faculty need to be listening to students about why those demands are there and how they’re making them, as well as helping educate the students if they’re not making radical enough demands. Figure out how we can all use our collective positions to put pressure on administrators. Our homes are not safe when our home is the academy. We are always under attack, and we are often focusing that outwards, but what happens if we really turn our attention to the inside of our houses? I think there’s tremendous opportunities. And it’s going to require people with the privilege of tenure-track and tenure positions to be courageous. And to step back so that student voices and the voices of laborers on campus who don’t have the privilege of tenure protections can take the lead, and we follow the lead. I think that’s where we should be turning our attention and documenting how that’s playing out. What’s the power structure? Who’s taking the lead? What are the rhetorical strategies that people were deploying? And why? And how are they different across contexts?
GPJ: And thinking about what that means to do that now and not in three years or in five years or however many years down the road. I know my own frustrations as a very recent grad student and now first year faculty is the refrain of, “Well, don’t do that until you get a job.” Or, “Do that after tenure.” And the kind of ways that delays coalitional work while the institution does not stop, the institution continues to do what it’s doing.
KRC: Absolutely. We have an opportunity right now. And it’s right now. And it’s always right now, and there’s always going to be reasons not to do something. Good reasons, real reasons, justifiable reasons. And yet, the time is now. The time is always now. If you don’t do it now, rest assured…people who don’t do organizing work when they’re on the tenure track, they’re not doing it once they get tenure. I don’t know any examples that I can think of off the top of my head. You get entrenched in a position. And you’re always figuring out what you can and can’t do and what’s comfortable for you.
GPJ: I have one final question. We’re recording this in mid-October, about three weeks before the US elections. Regardless of what happens on November 3rd, we know that there will be coalitional work to be done. There is always work to be done. What are your thoughts or your advice on doing or preparing for the work to come?
KRC: The work to come is the work now. No matter who is elected, the work is now. I think 100% now, as always, we follow the leadership of radical Black, queer thinkers. And I will always stand behind radical Black queer thinkers. I think that’s the way forward. And so in figuring out the work that we can do in support of those efforts—the Movement for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter, and local organizations that center that leadership—that’s where, no matter our identities, we should be putting our support in whatever ways they want our support. Which may be nothing, or it may be financial, it may be space, but being open to what that means and knowing that that is our role, and that those roles or whatever they are, are important.
Coda: In this coalitional moment, March 2021
It seems like a century since Karma and I had this conversation. In fact, it has only been five months, but we have all witnessed the election of Joe Biden, the promotion of Trump’s “Big Lie” that led to armed insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the second impeachment and acquittal of Trump, the global death toll from COVID-19 exceeding 2.5 million lives (the U.S. alone exceeds 525,000 lives at the time of writing), and a numerous list of other fresh hells. And, as Karma predicted, the work that preceded November 3rd is still very present: global climate change still looms large, infrastructural failures still restricts basic necessaries like clean water, economic inequality still feverishly increases, violence against communities of color without accountability still defines our “justice” system, governments still enact discriminatory laws, and access to higher education is still prohibitively expensive. The work is still here, the time is still now.
While this incomplete list of necessary work is daunting, coalitional work steadfastly continues across communities. On a global scale, for example, we have seen the lightening-speed development of three COVID vaccines and the election of Black, brown, and queer leaders in regions previously unthinkable to progressives. On a local level, coalitions of student activists and university faculty are bringing attention to long-standing institutional problems and demanding change. For example, at my own university, Christian Brothers University, major changes are being enacted following years of coalitional work and community-engaged action: workers are seeing their base-pay increased to a livable wage, campus security has undergone an administrative assessment and reorganization that brought in Black safety officers and mental health professionals, and institutional and community leadership has reaffirmed financial, educational, and communal commitments to DACA (Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program) students and staff.
These actions (and my institution) are by no means perfect, but coalition is never perfect. “Coalition,” as Karma wrote so persuasively in Queer Migration Politics, “connotes tension and precariousness in this sense, but it is not necessarily temporary. It describes a space in which we can engage, but because coalescing cannot be taken for granted, it requires constant work if it is to endure” (Chávez, 2013, p. 8). To these ends, let me offer some questions for reflection that, I hope, help you and your coalitional commitments endure:
- What communities are you engaging with, whose voices are you listening to, and with whom are you conspiring to generate meaningful change in your local and institutional contexts?
- How can you leverage your privileges in service of coalitional work?
- What work comes after the disruption of institutions? How do we—as rhetoricians, activists, and/or teachers—move beyond the tendency to simply critique and toward an ethic of coalitional accountability and restorative justice?
 “Single issue movements,” here, invokes social action that focuses on distinct, essentialized identity categories without explicit concern for the intersecting identities that bodies inhabit based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, religion, disability, citizenship, and geopolitical place. Such an approach often dismisses or outright ignores multiply marginalized bodies from social movements. See Crenshaw (1989), Chávez and Griffin (2012), May (2015), and Nash (2019) for extended conversations on this topic. return
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1(8), 139–167.
Chávez, Karma R. (2013). Queer migration politics: Activist rhetoric and coalitional possibilities. U of Illinois P.
–. (2019). Palestine on the air: Adding nuance to the Palestine-Israel issue. U of Illinois P.
–. (forthcoming, 2021). The borders of AIDS: Race, quarantine, and resistance. U of Washington P.
Chávez, Karma R., & Griffin, Cindy L., eds. (2012). Standing in the intersection: Feminist voices, feminist practices in communication studies. SUNY P.
Luibhéid, Eithne, & Chávez, Karma R., eds. (2020). Queer and trans migrations: Dynamics of illegalization, detention, and deportation. U of Illinois P.
May, Vivian M. (2015). Pursuing intersectionality, unsettling dominant imaginaries. Routledge.
Nash, Jennifer C. (2019). Black feminism reimagined: After intersectionality. Duke UP.
Gavin P. Johnson (he/him) works as an assistant professor at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, TN, where he teaches courses in cultural rhetorics and multimodal writing and coordinates the Certificate in Professional Writing. His dissertation, Queer Possibilities in Digital Media Composing, was honored by NCTE/CCCC with the 2021 Lavender Rhetorics Dissertation Award for Excellence in Queer Scholarship. He is a proud first-generation college graduate from southeast Louisiana.