Activism and the academy: Professor Eliza Willis speaks

Professor Eliza Willis, political science professor and activist, in her office. Photo by Mahira Faran.

With student activism heating up on campus — from divestment art  to actions supporting increased gun control — the wisdom of our College’s most seasoned activists is becoming increasingly relevant. The S&B’s Saiham Sharif met up with Professor Eliza Willis, political science, to learn about her first call to activism and her consequent participation in political actions, all the way to the present day.

The S&B: When did you first begin your activism?

Eliza Willis: Well, I probably first began my activism when I was a college student, protesting some U.S. policies abroad. Most of my activism, early on, was about international involvements of the United States, so I was involved in a protest following U.S. policies in Central America and Latin America, also, in other places in the world, where the U.S. was intervening in ways I disagreed with. So, mostly early on I was doing things like marches. I was more of a participant, not a leader. That was when I was an undergraduate and a graduate student. I’ve always had some level of activism in the institutions that I’ve worked at or where I’ve studied, more on things that the institutions were doing, not necessarily political. The activism that I’ve been doing the past couple of years has been more politically focused because I have more time for it. I’m what we call Senior Faculty Status, so I have more free time to devote, and I’ve really stepped up my involvement in voting rights, in particular, something I’ve been working on. And now, in regard to gun violence and gun control — I’m getting involved in that now.

How does your academic interest feed into your activism?

Because I had spent a lot of time living in Latin American countries, I had a perspective that came from there about U.S. involvement. I think I probably felt a lot more informed about what those policies really looked like in practice, and how people were affected by them. Rather than just accepting the official story, the reasons for these involvements, I had a rich perspective, more complete because I was studying the politics of the region. I had a deeper understanding of the impact, and it did seem out of step [with] what the purported values of the government were. That disconnect really struck me. That informed a lot of my activism.

Do you teach activism in your classes?

My classes are taught from a really scholarly, academic point of view. What I’ve tried to do in the classes is try to provide the kind of knowledge that has been important to me in my activism, in informing the activism that I’ve done. Knowing what a situation is in a deeper way, and not just accepting the superficial understanding. Getting to a deeper understanding informs my activism in a deeper and more sustainable way. My classes have been devoted to providing a variety of perspectives on issues. Well, I take that back. I used to teach a tutorial about the fight against global poverty, which was about the way to act, if you call that kind of social entrepreneurship about how to act. How do you create an organization to address an initiative that you would like to introduce activism? I haven’t taught from the perspective of how to lead a social movement.

Your activism seems to be very information based. People say we live in a post-truth society. We have fake news swarming around. How do you think activists or maybe students can stay informed?

I think it’s gotten a lot harder. I think that you really need to study the sources that you think are credible, [some] have been around for a while. You can examine their credibility by looking at what other news entities say about the same issue, and see how well those align. Of course, if you’re reading media that has a really strong perspective, you’re going to get that news through that filter. Just be aware of what [that] filter is. Maybe that filter is consistent with your own worldview, or not. I do think there are credible sources out there and they’re identifiable. But you might have to work at it. I agree it has become more difficult. Never take one story for the basis of anything. Never. You really need to look beyond one particular report, whether it comes from a newspaper of record, like The New York Times or Washington Report or Democracy Now, or some other site with a stronger perspective. You always want to have multiple sources to be using. I still believe in facts. They exist.

How can we reconcile activist efforts even though we’re still complicit in oppressive systems?

That’s called living in the United States. That’s called living in the modern world. You can’t completely divorce yourself from that reality, and I think we all are going to be complicit in certain things because you can’t fight every front at every time. I’m not very interested in isolating myself in the woods. It bothers me, but — this might sound kind of lame — we do the best we can. You know, we do. Each individual needs to decide which thing they’re being complicit in that bothers them the most. I’m going to say something about activism: You need to do things that you feel passionate about. You simply cannot feel passionate about anything. You’re going to put your best energy into things you’re passionate about, whether that be divestment from oil and gas, or be gun control or reproductive rights. You have to choose where you have to put your energy. You have to address the complicity involved in that. That seems most realistic to me.

What is your general philosophy of activism? What can students take away?

Just this recent activism I’ve been involved with, it has its ups and downs. It has its high heady moments of, “Wow, this is incredible what we’re doing” and these other moments where you feel like you’re not making a difference or you can’t agree with other people about how to move forward or you’re exhausted, energy-wise, monetarily-wise. The passion will carry you through. That will be a very important message. Another important message, which we hear all the time is: take care of yourself. It’s so important to take care of yourself in that process. To be an activist is taxing. In this day and age, it’s gotten worse because you’re concerned about the blowback you might get, which has always been there, but there are more ways one can experience that than in the past. Inform yourself. Be a well-informed activist. Activists lose a lot of credibility when they don’t inform themselves well.

Some of my activism isn’t connected to Grinnell, but connected to my training as a political scientist, looking at voting rights, voter registration, and trying to really address issues of low registration in marginalized communities — a lot of what I do, in Iowa City, where I live. Some of my activism is associated with Grinnell, what policies Grinnell has, where it’s located and so forth. I would say it’s still institutionally-tied [and] disciplinary, to some extent. I definitely see the world through my disciplinary training. You have to figure based on your information, your studies, what feels true to you. I don’t devalue intuition.

One reason that many Grinnell students feel we’ve lost our history of activism is that there are so many issues, and in the past, we’ve had far fewer issues that people could get behind. What I would say, and the other thing is that people have come to believe that change is not possible. I totally disagree with that. I was giving the example of guns — things didn’t used to be that way, they will not be that way in the future. Only we can make change. It’s a myth that we can’t. People would like you to believe that we can’t change things. They’re wrong.


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