It’s a Friday night and Alex Tigchelaar is dressed in white wig and period costume as a historic sex-trade worker for her first theatrical performance as the activist-in-residence at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford Campus. The satirical cabaret probes such questions as: who profits from mainstream narratives about sex work? “It takes a lot of energy and effort to get people involved,” says Ms. Tigchelaar, whose audience that night was just 11 people. “Activism is about taking risks and figuring out when and where it is best to engage.”
In her post at Laurier, which started last July and runs until the end of June, Ms. Tigchelaar is hoping her work can help bring together academia and activism, a connection she wishes she had made sooner. “A long time ago when I started doing advocacy, I had an unbridled contempt for academia,” says Ms. Tigchelaar who was, for nearly two decades, a nationally syndicated sex columnist who went by the name Sasha, her alter-ego. Based in Toronto, she has spent the last 15 years producing plays, street performances and short films to promote social justice issues. She is the co-artistic director of a multidisciplinary theatre company called Operation Snatch that performs at venues ranging from embassy lawns to The Toronto International Film Festival and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Ms. Tigchelaar will be hosting several more seminars and workshops on campus over the course of the academic year with the goal of encouraging students to think more critically about those who have been marginalized, criminalized, or institutionalized in Canadian society. Meanwhile, she is pursuing a masters in comparative literatures at Brock University. She says, “I saw myself as someone who would never have the capacity to do it.” Now the 47-year-old is embracing the academia in her activism. “The combination of the two is extremely important. You can’t do these things without academics,” says Ms. Tigchelaar. “Professors have a real mind for social justice.”
According to Brian Rosborough, senior executive officer at Laurier’s Brantford campus, the university aims to encourage more dialogue on contemporary social issues. “We hope the activist-in-residence’s work will act as a catalyst to some important conversations,” he says.
The school’s strong emphasis on social justice and equity makes it a good fit for Ms. Tigchelaar, says Heidi Northwood, dean of the faculty of liberal arts. “Students will have one more voice, one more example of someone doing what they’re doing in real life. Alex can show how you can take very complex and academic topics and make them accessible to a larger audience to get public awareness up.”
how to become the second activist in residence?
I was delighted to read of the establishment of a position – Activist-in-Residence and wish Alex Tigchelaar the best.
The column reminded me of an article I had published in 2002 in Let it be known (#3) – The Activist Scholar: Contradictions and Challenges.
I first suggested that social work was an excellent foundation for feminist activism, given that feminism and social work shared values of respect for the individual, recognition of each person’s uniqueness, and a commitment to justice for all, regardless of any background characteristic such as sexual orientation, age or ethnicity. Further social work has a history of pursuing individual and social change.
I indicated that the university was more democratically structured than many other work organizations, although sometimes the democratic orientation was a façade for a traditionally oriented, hierarchically organized institution that embraces new ideas slowly and where women’s voices are often silenced. I wondered how much change is needed before the university becomes a really inclusive setting, truly committed to collaboration.
The challenges for the activist scholar that I identified included time demands to engage in activism and still achieve other career goals; being able to say “no” to numerous requests for action without discouraging those making the request; being silenced or penalized in one’s career pursuits; adopting an “expert” role with its attendant risks, especially with the media; becoming the generic woman and attempting to speak for “all women;” coming to terms with one’s own power; caring for oneself; and recognizing that successful attainment of change goals may not occur or only very slowly.
I concluded that frustration was inevitable, but that patience and persistence characterize the successful activist scholar who is prepared for the long haul.