Imagine Otherwise: Chris Barcelos on Beginning from Educated Hope

by | Jan 27, 2021

Chris Barcelos on Beginning from Educated Hope

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 125

About the episode

It’s the beginning of a new year and normally that would mean a flurry of ambitious new projects, goals, and plans to achieve them both. But ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are hesitant to begin new things right now, given the degree of uncertainty shaping our world and our daily lives.

In episode 125, host Cathy Hannabach interviews sexuality studies and public health scholar Chris Barcelos. Chris uses José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of educated hope to illustrate how we can begin activist, artistic, and academic projects now that feed our long-term vision for a better world—even in the middle of a pandemic.

In the conversation, Chris and Cathy chat about pivoting socially engaged research to fit new circumstances, creative ways to launch a book during a pandemic, the reason it’s so important to foreground reproductive justice in public health campaigns, and why beginning with access intimacy and critical messiness is how Chris imagines otherwise.

Guest: Chris Barcelos

Chris Barcelos is a disciplinarily promiscuous, humanistic social scientist who works at the intersections of sexuality studies, critical race/ethnic studies, and critical public health. 

They are an assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where they are also affiliated faculty with the Critical Ethnic and Community Studies and Latino Studies Programs. 

Their first book, Distributing Condoms and Hope: The Racialized Politics of Youth Sexual Health, is a feminist ethnographic analysis of community-based public health efforts in a particular racially and economically marginalized community.

Chris is currently working on a political education and leadership development project for trans youth that will be made available as an open-source curriculum in 2021. They have also published on transfeminist health pedagogy and the politics of medical crowdfunding.

Episode themes

  • Pivoting socially engaged research when circumstances change
  • Launching a public health book during a pandemic
  • Centering marginalized communities in reproductive justice and public health
  • Building access intimacy into our present world as well as our post-pandemic future
Chris Barcelos with this quote: I’m really interested in messiness and liberation work is messy work. Intellectual work is messy work, and we need to sit with that mess rather than running from it.
Chris Barcelos with this quote: It might seem foolish or impractical to be imagining a new world in this moment when everything is a disaster and everything seems broken. But we can also think of this as a moment when we have space to rebuild. When everything seems broken, what can we build from it?

“The work that we do in the time between now and our liberation—what does that look like? That’s what I mean by the means are just as important as the ends. It’s thinking about the politics of how we get there, whatever the ‘there’ is.

— Chris Barcelos, Imagine Otherwise

Transcript

Click to read the transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds.

Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise.

I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach [00:23]:

Happy 2021 everyone! It’s the beginning of a new year, and normally that would mean a flurry of ambitious new projects, goals, and plans to achieve them both. But ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are hesitant to begin new things right now, especially given the degree of uncertainty that shaping our world and our daily lives.

My guest today is sexuality and public health scholar Chris Barcelos. Chris uses José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of educated hope to illustrate how we can begin activist, artistic, and academic projects now that feed our long-term vision for a better world, even in the middle of a global pandemic.

Cathy Hannabach [01:05]:

In our conversation, Chris and I chat about pivoting socially engaged research to fit new circumstances, creative ways to launch a book during a pandemic, the reason why it’s so important to foreground reproductive justice in public health campaigns, and why beginning with access intimacy and critical messiness is how Chris imagines otherwise.

[To Chris] Thanks so much for being with us today.

Chris Barcelos [01:31]:

Thanks for having me.

Cathy Hannabach [01:33]:

We’re kicking off this year by focusing on beginnings or the process of starting projects, given our current, rather tumultuous world. I’m curious, how are you approaching new beginnings this year in particular?

Chris Barcelos [01:48]:

Well, it’s hard to focus on new beginnings right now because it feels like the 500th day of March 2020. And you know, our sense of time has really been disrupted by the pandemic and then, you know, watching insurrection at the US Capitol while I’m conducting research interviews, right? The whole sense of time is really been upended for me and I think for a lot of people.

Personally, I’ve had a weird time, a new beginning thing, where I moved across the country during the pandemic to start a new job at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. So I’m back in New England, where I’m from, and in a city I’ve been trying to move back to for a really long time. So that is a new beginning that is this great, big triumph.

Chris Barcelos [02:41]:

But at the same time, I’m doing these new beginnings in a new place, mostly over Zoom.

I work in a particular way that’s a little different than a lot of academics, which is that I’m not wedded to a particular topic, community, time period, or something like that.

My research agenda and my projects are really grounded in the communities that I’m a part of or that I’m in solidarity with. So in moving to a new place, normally I would be having a lot of coffee dates and doing a lot of networking and seeing what organizations and groups are doing—the kind of transformative pedagogy and research and stuff that I’m interested in. Then that would lead the new beginnings of what my new research projects would be.

Chris Barcelos [03:25]:

As you can imagine, that’s very challenging to do remotely. So the new beginnings I’ve been trying to foster have been, of course, remote. I’m having a lot of Zoom dates with people, doing volunteer work remotely, and spending a lot of time researching people and projects on social media. I don’t really know where that’s going to take me.

I think that there’s so much we don’t know about what the world is going to look like in a few months or a year. So I’m trying to focus on the fact that, as an ethnographer, that’s both terrifying and also really exciting. There can be some really exciting new beginnings that hopefully can emerge from the ashes of whatever is going to happen in the next however long.

Cathy Hannabach [04:12]:

I’m finding that one of the things that I’m personally trying to do right now—not always successfully, but trying—is keeping that act of beginning separate from planning. My immediate, knee-jerk reaction is planning. I love planning. It’s super fun, but planning is also very challenging right now, especially in a long-term sense.

I’m finding that focusing on those small acts of beginning, those first few steps, even though we’re not quite sure where they may take us, somehow feels a bit more manageable. It mean that we don’t have to unravel this incredibly elaborate, lovely plan that is going to be out of date a week for now anyway. Are you finding yourself doing something similar or keeping beginning versus planning separate in your projects right now?

Chris Barcelos [05:01]:

Yeah. One thing that I think is relevant to that is this project I have been working on for quite a while. It’s called the Trans Youth Justice Project, and it started when a community organization had a need to do a leadership development project for trans youth. Then it ended up at a different nonprofit than had started it.

We began it last February and then we all know what happened. I was pretty bummed, as many of us were at that time, I think, when our projects got upended by the crisis. But I tried to use it as an opportunity to begin again and begin it in a new way.

We obviously had not planned for that. We started it again in the fall of 2020 as a remote program.

Chris Barcelos [05:55]:

At first I was pretty resistant to doing that. It was not what I had planned to do. As an educator, I think there’s a lot of value in being in a space with people. It was actually really transformative in a lot of ways that we had young people from all over the US who were participating. A lot of them had never met other trans people in real life and definitely not trans grownups.

We were able to create this new thing out of this crisis situation. I had planned that like, “Okay, this is going to be the project and we’re going to do the program evaluation and we’re going to make this curriculum and release it online, and that will be that.”

Chris Barcelos [06:36]:

And then just in the last few weeks, we realized that we actually should do this again. Not only because there’s such a need but because there’s a lot of room for us to improve it and to grow. So we are going to begin again in the new year with a new cohort of young people.

That’s exciting and not something I planned for, but it feels really good to be grounded in this particular project and building community with people, of course, over Zoom.

Cathy Hannabach [07:03]:

I know something else, in the terms of beginnings, that you’re doing right now is you’re kicking off a book launch for a really fantastic new book that you have that came out recently called Distributing Condoms and Hope: The Racialized Politics of Youth Sexual Health.

I want to talk about the process of launching that book in this context, but maybe for folks who don’t already have a copy or aren’t already familiar with it, can you give a little bit of an overview of what’s that book all about?

Chris Barcelos [07:35]:

Sure. So the book is about a lot of things—it’s really promiscuous in that sense. I think of myself as very disciplinarily promiscuous and the book is about a lot of things.

At its very core, it’s an ethnographic analysis of youth sexual health promotion efforts in this particular city that’s anonymous in the book and that was really well-known for having high rates of teen pregnancy among economically marginalized Latinas.

So that’s what the ethnography is about, but it’s also about how race and power move through community-based public health work. It’s about including pregnant and parenting youth in a reproductive justice framework, vision, and social movement.

Especially because I think a lot of folks are more familiar with my work in queer and trans studies, I like to point out that the book has a little bit of something for everybody.

Chris Barcelos [08:32]:

So there’s activist critiques of the nonprofit industrial complex. There’s a chapter elaborating what queer of color critique teaches us about teen moms and teaches us about thinking what a coalition-based politics of sexual others really looks like. There’s stuff thinking through how we understand risk in science, which is very timely.

Then methodologically, there’s a lot about thinking about the challenges but also the richness and importance of doing what’s called “insider-outsider ethnography.” And there’s also a Beyoncé reference that I’m really proud of, and pretty much everyone likes Beyoncé.

Cathy Hannabach [09:15]:

Good call. One of the things that I really love about this is that as you close out this book—I mean, it’s throughout, but you really hone in on it at the very end—is you hone in on this concept of educated hope, which I know you draw from José Esteban Muñoz and expand in the context of your ethnographic work.

I’m going to quote you for a minute here (try not to be embarrassed). You write that “educated hope is a mode of critique that works toward a utopic vision without alighting the messiness of the path toward that vision. The means are just as important as the ends.”

I find that really powerful and really important in our world right now. I’m curious how that practice of educated hope shapes the way that you approach public health and pedagogy, both in the context of your work on this book but also more broadly.

Chris Barcelos [10:07]:

Yeah, thank you for pulling out that quote. I think that’s a good example of the kind of promiscuous methodologies that I use. We don’t often see Muñoz quoted in a book about community-based public health or teen moms. The quote really, for me, speaks to this thing that I say to my students a lot, which is that we have to learn to critique the thing while doing the thing. A lot of us who are educators in women, gender, and sexuality studies or critical race and ethnic studies are working with students who are learning all these tools of critique and then also are like, “Wait, now I’m just going to be thrown into the nonprofit world and you’ve spent four years teaching me how this is a tool of racial capitalism and the patriarchy? Now I have to work within it? How am I going to change the world, given what I know about the nonprofit industrial complex?”

Chris Barcelos [10:54]:

What I’m always talking about is that we have to learn to critique the thing while also navigating it. Personally, I would love to see a world in which we abolish capitalism. But in the meantime, I work for a wage at a university because I have to learn to critique the thing while also navigating my way through the limitations that capitalism imposes on us.

I think there’s also a lot to learn here from scholars and activists who write about the prison industrial complex and abolitionism and think about how we keep a long-term vision in place while also working to make lives as livable or survivable as we can in the meanwhile.

Chris Barcelos [11:48]:

So the work that we do in the time between now and our liberation—what does that look like? That’s what I mean by “the means are just as important as the ends.” It’s thinking about the politics of how we get there, whatever the there is.

In public health work, there’s a lot of focus on a particular end goal. So we want to decrease rates of blank. But there isn’t always an analysis around do the means justify the end or vice versa. In the book, for example, the goal is to reduce the teen birth rate but often at the expense of vilifying pregnant and parenting teens. Who are then used as failures and warning signs for other young people to use a condom or get on contraception or whatever?

Chris Barcelos [12:50]:

That’s the opposite of a reproductive justice vision. There’s a similar thing thinking about abolition. You have to kind of get the cop out of your own head so you don’t, for example, go to a Black Lives Matter event and then go home and call the cops on the drunk guy on your corner.

It means not immediately canceling members of our own community when we mess up. It’s keeping that long-term vision and not forgetting the messy path that it takes us to get there, if that makes sense.

Cathy Hannabach [13:28]:

Definitely. It’s harder, right? It’s so much harder than some of the more simplistic versions. But as you point out, if we are committed to truly imagining otherwise, truly creating that kind of reproductive justice, social justice, economic justice, racial justice future, it needs to be created in the present as well.

Chris Barcelos [13:53]:

And it’s messy. As you can tell in the book, I’m really interested in messiness and liberation work is messy work. Intellectual work is messy work, and we need to sit with that mess rather than running from it.

Cathy Hannabach [14:08]:

I mentioned a couple of minutes ago that you’re launching this book possibly in a context that you didn’t anticipate launching it in, which is a global pandemic, of course. This is something that I’ve been talking a lot about on the show with several guests: the challenges of launching a book in this context and doing a virtual book tour.

But I’m also finding that people are coming up with some wildly, fantastically interesting and creative practices to do so. So I’m curious, how are you approaching this virtual book launch or what are some of the priorities that you’re keeping in mind as you’re planning how to get the word out about this book?

Chris Barcelos [14:51]:

Yes. Great question. It is really hard and I would love to know what are the other wild and crazy things that people have thought of.

I was really looking forward to this vision I’d had for years of launching my book in my favorite indie bookstore with a cake that has a screenprint on the icing of the book’s cover. I’m still going to get the cake, but it’s going to happen at home in sweatpants, as everything does these days. But the benefit is that I will get to eat all the cake, I guess.

Cathy Hannabach [15:21]:

That is true.

Chris Barcelos [15:23]:

So I’m planning a virtual book launch. That’s going to be an April and that’s going to be with some of the authors and editors from the University of California Press Reproductive Justice series, which my book is part of. And then hopefully in the fall, I’m imagining a world, hopefully, tentatively, in which I could maybe be gathering in person in Boston with my new colleagues.

Chris Barcelos [15:47]:

I really hope that the virtual book launch is a thing we keep from this crisis, along with a lot of other virtual events. I’ve been able to engage with folks and their work that I would never have been able to go to because they are in other parts of the country or, you know, all of the busy things that we’re doing in our lives. So I hope that the virtual book launch continues to be a thing alongside the being in person in your bookstore and seeing with other people.

Cathy Hannabach [16:19]:

I agree. I want that to stick around. I think that has a lot of potential.

Chris Barcelos [16:23]:

Yeah. I want to come back to this also for some of the other questions you have, but also it’s also about access in a way that I really want us to keep from this crisis.

Chris Barcelos [16:34]:

I’ve been reflecting on how many burlesque and drag shows I’ve been to in the last ten months because they were on Zoom. I attended them not in a bar where there’s all kinds of weird racism and transphobia and all that stuff but in my living room. I think there’s a lot in academia that’s very similar.

Anyway, I’m planning to do some more podcasts and write some blog posts and think pieces, particularly around what the book can teach us about our current moment. One of my priorities, too, is to harness the pedagogical value of the book. Though its focus is on reproductive justice and youth sexuality, I think that the book has a lot to teach us about the recent things that we’re working with in the world.

Chris Barcelos [17:29]:

Over the summer, among all of the uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd, we saw a lot of calls to abolish the police, which is something I wholeheartedly support. But there was also this narrative of let’s abolish the police and replace the police with social workers and public health professionals. There was even articles in mainstream news outlets like the New York Times around this.

The book teaches us that there’s a big danger in that, that these professions are not immune from white supremacy and settler colonialism and were, in many ways, built on them. So abolishing the police and then replacing them with professions where it’s predominantly white, cisgender women in helping relationships with communities they’re not a part of is really dangerous.

Chris Barcelos [18:25]:

At the same time that we’re thinking about how to dismantle the police, I think the book also shows us that we also have to think about how we dismantle racism in the helping professions while centering community control and autonomy.

The other thing I’ll say I’m thinking about regarding the book and its launch in our current moment is what the book has to teach us about the COVID crisis.

There are three things I’ve been thinking a lot about. The first is that shame doesn’t work. In the book, there’s a lot of shaming young people into making particular sexual and reproductive choices. Like, “You don’t want to end up like one of those bad girls who’s pregnant, right?” And we’re seeing a similar thing of like shaming people into social distancing, as if that’s going to work. We know that that doesn’t work. Shame is not a great motivator of people changing their behavior and it’s also problematic.

Chris Barcelos [19:21]:

The other thing that’s parallel is that in the initiative to roll out a vaccine, I’m seeing a lot of “Well, Black and Brown folks just need to get over their histories of racist mistreatment at the hands of medicine and public health. Just get over it. That was in the past.” But that’s just not how that works. It’s putting the onus on marginalized people to get over our injustices at the hands of people in medicine and public health. There is a similar thing that happens in the book of, “We acknowledge that contraceptive coercion has been a thing in the past, but that’s over and now we’re here to help you.”

Chris Barcelos [20:15]:

The other thing I’ve been thinking about in terms of the book and launching it in the COVID crisis is actually the quote that you pulled from the conclusion. It might seem foolish or impractical to be imagining this new world in this moment when everything is a disaster and everything seems broken. But we can also think of that as a moment where we have all this space to rebuild.

I was just talking about access intimacy and having this deep knowledge of the things that people need to fully participate in the world, whether that’s virtual book launches and drag shows on Zoom or even just meetings on Zoom and understanding people’s access needs. I think the book also helps us think about, when everything seems broken, what can we build from it?

Cathy Hannabach [21:12]:

This podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, and my final question that I love talking with folks about really gets at that big why behind all of the projects that you do. So I’ll ask you this giant question that I think is also an important one: What’s the kind of world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

Chris Barcelos [21:34]:

Yeah, that’s a big question. So I’ll say two things and one is related to public health work and the way that public health professionals often frame their work as what they’re trying to prevent and not what they’re trying to promote. So preventing teen pregnancy, but not necessarily promoting reproductive justice.

In the current COVID crisis, we’re trying to prevent transmission of this infectious disease. But are we also promoting racial justice, promoting access intimacy, and so on?

Like I write in the book, I want to imagine a world in which, say, structural racism replaces preventing teen pregnancy as an urgent social problem that service providers “hold close to their heart,” which is a thing people would say.

The other thing I want to think about and to imagine is to work toward this world in which we embody the coalitional politics that Cathy Cohen lays out in her famous essay on “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens.” That’s a vision in which our collective liberation is bound up in each other and nobody is left behind.

Cathy Hannabach [22:45]:

Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Chris Barcelos [22:51]:

Thanks, Cathy.

Cathy Hannabach [22:57]:

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guest and find links to the people in projects we discussed on the show.

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