Activist Scholar of the Month
Karma Chávez is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, where she is set to become the department chair. She has spent years researching marginalized groups and activating collegiate spaces for her students to sharpen their activism tools. Read on to find out more about Karma’s research and curious love for terrible comedies.
Congratulations, you published your first book in 2013, Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities. What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am working on a book that focuses on AIDS within immigrant communities and how some immigrants became AIDS activists. There is an untold story of how, in the 80s and 90s, HIV/AIDS activated certain immigrant communities.
What does scholar activism mean to you?
As a working-class kid I didn’t have access to spaces like UT, now I am very interested in making the university more accessible to serve the community around it. I will find the community organization that aligns with my ethos and help them connect and collaborate with UT. As a scholar-activist, I need to identify my usefulness to the community. The privilege I have as a scholar is what makes me an activist. I am working on demystifying the university.
“I am working on
demystifying the university.”
As a professor, you spend countless hours a day working with students who are incredibly passionate about activism and ready to go. What advice would you give to students who are interested in engaging in activism?
First thing would be to find something that is VERY IMPORTANT to you. There are a lot of causes that students want to support but you cannot overextend yourself. Focus your energy. Secondly, remember that you are a student first; never let the activism overtake your studies. Also, do not be afraid to experiment politically. Lastly, students must always think about their safety. Currently, there is a lack of understanding among students who are putting their safety at risk. When organizing a rally, you must have a plan for everything that can happen: police, counter-protesters, violence. You and everyone in your group must have a plan for every variable so that you can stay safe. Individually, everyone in the group must know where their personal line is for every event they are a part of.
Now that we know about Karma the activist let’s find out about Karma the woman who grew up in rural Nebraska. What are some of your favorite movies and books?
I cannot think of a favorite movie, but I love really corny comedies. “Wayne’s World” is definitely up there and anything with Will Ferrell is okay with me. As for books, since I am an academic most of my “favorite” books are from me conducting research; Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde is a must read. For non-academic books, I highly recommend everyone to read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
You are fairly new to Austin, is there anything in the city that you love to do?
Spend time at the Butterfly Bar.
You came to Austin from Madison, Wisconsin and spent some time in Leeds conducting research. Are there any things you miss from those places?
In Madison, I was deeply integrated into the community. I was on the board of the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, helped get books to prisoners and was a radio host on 89.9 FM WORT. If I wasn’t a professor now I probably would have ended up in media, probably radio. I also really miss the Madison community. There was easy biking and I was close to a lot of lakes.
As for Leeds, I miss the dark rainy British weather and friends.
What’s next for Karma Chavez?
Actually, soon I will be the Chair of the Mexican American and Latino/a Studies Department. The department is fairly new and so still needs to forge connections with Austin’s Latinx communities, which I hope to work on. The department has to connect with the community and begin building community relationships outside of the 40 acres.
What is Sanctuary: Race, Refuge, and Resistance
April 7 | 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Gordon White Building | Multi-Purpose Room (2.206)
Go to diversity.utexas.edu/abreindobrecha for more information.
The Social Justice Institute brings together faculty, students, staff and community partners in collaboration around specific social-justice oriented projects and dialogues. Such projects are carried out through several modes: community education, advocacy, community-based activist research, and scholar-activist gatherings.
Activist-Scholar of the Month
A feature in which we interview a member of the Social Justice Directory each month. Read on for more about Kevin Thomas — expert on identity & communication, fan of In-N-Out Burger. See last month’s Activist-Scholar here.
What do you do at UT?
I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Advertising & Public Relations. I am also an affiliate of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, and the African and African Diaspora Studies Department.
My research focuses on deconstructing how identity markers (i.e. race, gender, class, and sexuality) are represented in marketing communication and experienced in the marketplace.
I teach courses, such as Advertising as Social Communication and Making Sense of the World through Advertising, that examine the social, cultural, and political implications of marketing communication, particularly as they pertain to marginalized/oppressed populations.
Describe any current research projects.
I’m currently developing a project with local community organizations to critically examine how young black men in the U.S. (re)create themselves through participation in consumer culture. This study will be conducted in conjunction with three young consumers who share the historical stigmatization of being black males.
Essentially, this study will examine how young black men create identities while living beyond the borders of dominant ideations of black manhood.
Are you involved in any community organizations in Austin?
I am the co-founder of two community-based organizations — Black Media Council (BMC) and Food for Black Thought (FFBT). BMC began in 2008 as a student-led organization focused on supporting black students at UT-Austin with an interest in media studies. BMC has since grown beyond the borders of UT-Austin and now seeks to cultivate and promote media literacy through educational workshops and youth mentorship. FFBT began as a 2-day community + action symposium in fall 2012, broadly focused on black experiences with food in Austin and nationwide. Today FFBT is a thriving community-based organization with the mission to sustain and maintain black access to food resources, knowledge, and policy making in Austin and beyond.
Favorite news source:
The Melissa Harris-Perry Show (#nerdland).
What is the last book you’ve read?
I just learned all about myself by reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
Favorite restaurant in Austin:
I have two, Zocalo and Royal India. However, as a Southern California native now that In-N-Out Burger has made its way to Austin, I may be amending my list soon.
One activist you look up to:
I’m very much inspired by M. Jacqui Alexander. Her book, Pedagogies of Crossing transformed they way I think about activism and scholarship. I particularly appreciate the way in which she is able to honor the sacred as an activist-scholar.
M. Jacqui Alexander’s scholarship has addressed the centrality of (hetero)sexuality to the project of nation building; the pedagogical importance of teaching for justice; the need for a critical interdisciplinarity; and the sacred dimensions of women’s experience. She is currently on faculty at the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.
What is the most pressing issue our social justice movements face right now?
I strongly believe that those within the movement need to make space for self care/healing. I’ve seen so many folks in the movement burn themselves out by neglecting to take care of their physical, emotional, and spiritual self. It’s exciting to see support networks for social justice workers pop up in Austin, such as the Winter Mini-Wellness Fair, currently being developed by Toi Scott and other local area healers.