The Work We've Been Trained to Do
Each year in May, the Women’s Center gathers its graduating students to thank them for the impact they’ve had on the UVA community. As they look back on their experiences working with the center, they offer some terrific insights that we at Iris want to share with you. The following remarks were offered by Apiding Osika to her fellow Women's Center interns, YWLP Big Sisters and MLP Big Brothers in the Class of 2019.
When I was in 1st grade, I wanted to become an artist. My Disney coloring books highlighted my impressive technique of shading within the lines, and I was convinced that my 96-pack Crayola crayons set (with the built-in sharpener) solidified my status as the next van Gogh. By 4th grade, my obsession with Japanese anime sparked my vision of becoming a professional polyglot and impressing people around the world with my ability to nonchalantly say, “Put it on my tab,” in 20+ languages. In middle school, I wanted to become a dentist – oh, how I yearned for that sweet, sweet stability.
Now as a 21-year-old, I have become none of those things. Rather than trying to become someone who I looked up to as a kid, I’ve embraced the impossibility of never becoming someone else. We have all grown up in different circumstances, with different goals and different fears, different strengths and weaknesses. Rather than becoming someone else, I’ve found joy in becoming myself – the greatest version of me who truly understands her power because she accomplishes extraordinary work. I’ve realized that before I decide on my ideal life, I have to get to know who I wish to become and how I will shape the world that I want to live in. While this uncertain future is quite impending…I mostly take comfort and feel excitement in how much of the world (and myself) I don’t know about yet.
I think it’s safe to claim that as students at the Women’s Center, we have become activists. But I couldn’t honor myself with the title of “activist” if I didn’t acknowledge privilege. Throughout our time with the Women’s Center, we have had the privilege of time, ability, and resources to study how to tackle social issues. Our inequitable social systems have no simple solutions, but we have had the opportunity to at least try to make them better. We have had the privilege of working among staff that gave us the agency to lead projects we care about and to foster relationships amongst other organizers at UVA and in the greater Charlottesville area. They offered us a platform to circulate our ideas with other knowledgeable, resourceful, and capable minds. Tomorrow, we have the privilege of graduating from a highly esteemed university that will continue to empower us and our missions with influential networks and the social position of being educated.
These are not universal privileges. Each brilliant young mind deserves the same opportunities to be guided and educated in the ways we have been. The only difference between us and those who are less privileged is luck… and intentional, systemic disenfranchisement of people of color, women, queer folk, the disabled, the poor, the mentally ill, the non-Christian, the immigrant, and all else who are deemed non-normative in hegemonic American culture. Seeing the privileges we have sends many of us into a stage of petrifying guilt. But we don't get to stop there. That is the whole idea behind luck and social hierarchies. It isn’t fair. But guilt, contrary to popular belief, isn’t as productive of a feeling if it doesn’t come with work.
Now that we will graduate from our internship at the Women’s Center and from the University, we have taken on the responsibility to do the work we have been trained to do. The work I’m referencing takes many forms. Work can be mobilizing ideas into collective action, through organizing marches and protests, participating in teach-ins and call-ins, and showing leaders what we the people demand for our society. Work can be having the patience to resist calling out someone whose views disregard the rights of others, but instead using our education to call them in to the dialogue and share knowledge that they might not have considered in order to guide them to understanding realities which are not their own. Work can be the decision to no longer remain ignorant about injustices which scare and intimidate you, because looking away does not mean people aren’t being hurt. Work can be listening to those who have faced the human capacity for ugliness and who only wish for someone to stand next to them and say “I hear you. How can I help?”
There is a time to work and a time to appreciate the work that’s been done. To the women present today, we have been socialized to celebrate others before ourselves. And to the young adults, we have grown very familiar with living in constant fear of someone noticing that our impeccably sophisticated vocabulary might just be a security blanket for the fact that we don’t actually know what we’re doing. Thankfully, this skill is well practiced in the real world too, so maybe the thousands of dollars we invested into college was to learn to just fake it ‘til you make it!
We will become our ideal selves, not through our occupations, wealth, or status, but through the ways we create a more fair, compassionate, and safe world for everyone to be able to experience the joys we have.
All jokes aside, the growth we have dedicated ourselves to as students, activists, and individuals in the past 4 years is worth having confidence in. Our successes have propelled us into frighteningly exciting situations that continuously challenge what we think we know about the world. And rather than see our failures as mistakes, I like to frame them as lessons we needed to learn the hard way. UVA has been a great place for that, since it has consistently found uniquely painful ways remind us to stay humble.
With the combination of our privileges, dedication to this work, and humble confidence, we have the tools we need to become who we needed as young kids but who we never had the joy of seeing exemplified. We will become our ideal selves, not through our occupations, wealth, or status, but through the ways we create a more fair, compassionate, and safe world for everyone to be able to experience the joys we have. The process of “becoming” is not linear, or isolated, or even Insta-worthy. It requires resilience after rejection, devotion to selfless work, and faith that progress is being made towards a bigger picture.
So for this weekend, I ask that we give the imposter syndrome a break. As Ellen continually reminded us during our first semester of Front Lines of Social Change: we are smart, capable, and exactly where we are supposed to be. We did it. We earned what we are celebrating today. Have faith in the uncertainty. And after we leave UVA, know that we must continue to manifest greatness not only for ourselves, but for us all.