Imagine Otherwise: Gwen D’Arcangelis on Inspiration for Scholar-Activists

by | Mar 3, 2021

Gwen D’Arcangelis on Inspiration for Scholar-Activists

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 128

About the episode

For those of us in the social justice-oriented interdisciplines like gender studies, ethnic studies, and disability studies, our desire to make real people’s lives better is often the reason we became scholars to begin with.

But it can be difficult to sustain that inspiration over the long term, especially as the daily grind of academic life, activist burnout, and current events threaten to extinguish the motivating spark that brought us to this vital work in the first place.

So how can we cultivate the inspiration we need to nourish ourselves and our communities as we collectively build the worlds we want?

To help us figure this out, in episode 128 of Imagine Otherwise host Cathy Hannabach interviews scholar-activist Gwen D’Arcangelis, whose work focuses on the transnational feminist politics of science, environmental justice, and anti-racist praxis.

In the conversation, Gwen and Cathy chat about actively cultivating inspiration in our daily lives and staying motivated when writing about challenging topics like war and violence.

They also discuss why an intersectional feminist perspective on the current COVID-19 pandemic is so crucial and why making sure scholarship is accountable to activist communities is a key way that Gwen imagines otherwise.

Guest: Gwen D’Arcangelis

Gwen D’Arcangelis is an activist scholar whose work focuses on the transnational feminist politics of science and medicine, environmental justice, and anti-racist praxis, and an associate professor in gender studies at Skidmore College.

Gwen’s recent book Bio-Imperialism: Disease, Terror, and the Construction of National Fragility argues that racially gendered and Orientalist narratives during the war on terror helped rationalize American research expansion into dangerous germs and bioweapons and bolstered the US rationale for increased interference in the Global South.

Gwen’s other publications have focused on white scientific masculinity, gendered and Orientalist disease tropes, and nurse activism during the war on terror. Her work has appeared in the International Feminist Journal of Politics, the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship, Critical Public Health, the Biopolitical Times, and the Tang Museum’s Accelerate.

Episode themes

  • Building social justice activism into academic scholarship
  • Feminist approaches to war, imperialism, and public health
  • Imperialist histories shaping the COVID-19 pandemic response
  • Staying motivated when researching difficult topics
Gwen D'Arcangelis wearing a yellow scarf. Text reads: Am I making work that can help forward social change? That’s both my mission and my commitment. Having that mission helps keep me inspired because I feel like I have a collective goal or collective vision that I’m part of.
Gwen D'Arcangelis wearing a yellow scarf. Text reads: "Being connected to movement work makes me question, at every moment, how is my work relevant to what’s happening? How is it relevant to social change.

I’ve always viewed myself as an activist-scholar. What that means is that part of my life is dedicated to forwarding social movements around gender justice, racial justice, and anti-imperialism.”

— Gwen D’Arcangelis, 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]:

For those of us in the social justice oriented interdisciplines like gender studies, ethnic studies and disability studies, our desire to make real people’s lives better is often the reason we became scholars to begin with.

But it can be difficult to sustain that inspiration over the long term, especially as the daily grind of academic or postacademic life, activist burnout, and current events threaten to extinguish the motivating spark that brought us to this vital work in the first place.

Cathy Hannabach [00:51]:

So how can we cultivate the inspiration we need to nourish ourselves and our communities as we collectively build the worlds that we want?

To help us figure this out, in this episode I interview scholar activist Gwen D’Arcangelis, whose work focuses on the transnational feminist politics of science, environmental justice, and antiracist praxis.

In our conversation, Gwen and I chat about actively cultivating inspiration in our daily lives and staying motivated when writing about challenging topics like war and violence.

We also discuss why an intersectional feminist perspective on the current COVID-19 pandemic is so crucial and why making sure scholarship is accountable to activist communities is a key way that Gwen imagines otherwise.

[to Gwen] Thank you so much for being with us today.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [01:40]: 

Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Cathy Hannabach [01:42]:

This month at Ideas On Fire we’re focusing on inspiration, which is something that I know a lot of people have struggled with during the pandemic and all of the changes that the pandemic has brought. What’s inspiring you these days?

Gwen D’Arcangelis [01:56]:

You know what? I’ve really been inspired by the fights that have been happening. The fight for justice is what I’m talking about. I’m thinking about this past summer, the fight against police brutality, against white supremacy—and as a gender studies person, seeing the centering of fighting against misogyny and transphobia. Seeing those intersections really being elevated and focused on as well has been really important to me.

I was involved in different ways in a lot of this movements this summer, so Defund the Police, and seeing how that really was the culmination of years of abolition work. Just seeing that day-to-day, long-term work that helped, in some ways, perhaps, take advantage of the terrible pandemic situation we’re in with [inaudible 00:03:01], George Floyd, and other videos going around, and social media really being one of the main tools we had to connect and keep on top of the news in a different way than we would prepandemic.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [03:15]:

So just seeing, within such a dire situation, including what’s going on in electoral politics and/or federal government type of things, just seeing how people have kept up these long-term fights for justice in these really dire moments that we’ve had with the pandemic, and politically as well.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [03:41]:

The other thing, thinking about not just on-the-ground movements, but even The Squad I find very inspiring. Having folks within our government, our official government, really speaking out and being willing to be direct and push for really big change, versus incremental small changes, really having a bold vision and pushing for that. And then even seeing how there wasn’t a backlash in the sense that the original members of The Squad all got reelected, and now there’s new members: Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman. So there’s an expanding Squad as well.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [04:24]:

The other piece that really is related to the pandemic and on-the-ground movements is nurses. Nurses are a community that I’ve looked at in my research, and then also, because of that, been really attuned to their practices on the ground.

National Nurses United was a formation of several groups in 2009, and they’ve been at the forefront for a while now. They’ve ramped up during the pandemic in terms of fighting for the safety of healthcare workers, which we now know is so important, especially frontline healthcare workers.

Thinking within the health field, there is hierarchy within that. It’s gendered, it’s raced, with doctors and hospital administrators on the one end and people that are more directly working with patients like nurses. Then you have frontline workers, like emergency personnel, who are putting themselves at risk because they are interacting with patients who may have a range of symptoms, especially if we’re talking about something like COVID right now.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [05:42]:

So there’s been this one side of this where there’s a rhetorical…maybe rhetorical is not the right word, but there’s been sort of just a craze, right? There have been a lot of actions to say thank you or to verbally praise or do small actions that show that the nation understands the sacrifice that health workers are making right now under the pandemic.

But alongside that, we’re not seeing that health workers are getting the equipment they need, the personal protective equipment, the PPE. They’re underresourced, they don’t have enough staff. That’s about their personal safety and their ability to do their job and help patients, protect patients. We’re seeing this disparity in the verbal praising and this sort of martyrdom, praising nurses and other health workers but not giving them actual resources to do their job.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [06:45]:

My point in describing that is that National Nurses United has really pushed back against that dualism and that contradiction. They’ve been fighting this whole time, while doing their jobs in a pandemic. They’ve been fighting this whole time to get laws enacted, to get better conditions, to call out this fake martyrdom type of rhetoric that’s not actually helping them do their jobs or keep them safe.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [07:15]:

I’m really amazed and inspired, to go back to our theme, that folks who are so directly impacted are able to keep up, speaking of inspiration, keep up that fight and keep pushing for these positive changes that we need, especially during the pandemic—I would say the twin pandemic. So the pandemic of COVID and the pandemic of white supremacy racism. We’re seeing a lot of pushback against that right now.

Cathy Hannabach [07:50]:

Pandemics are something that your work has focused on quite a lot across different historical periods and in different contexts, and it’s one of the reasons why I was excited to talk with you today. I know you have a new book out called Bio-Imperialism that tackles some of these questions of the politics of pandemics and the way that public health rhetoric and public health practice don’t always align in some complicated ways.

I’d love to maybe turn to that book and see how that book helps us think through our current moment. So to get us started, what is Bio-Imperialism all about? 

Gwen D’Arcangelis [08:31]:

Sure. Bio-Imperialism comes out of my research focusing on the war on terror. It was started in 2001. One aspect of that war was a focus on so-called bioterrorism. This is the idea that terrorists would use germs as weapons.

I look at this 2001–2008 period, and what I end up seeing is two things. One is that this focus on bioterrorism ends up, first of all, being a political tool. In 2003, to remind everyone, the US invaded Iraq, and there were a couple of lies and exaggerations that the US used to rationalize that invasion. One of them was this idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, including bioweapons. So, first of all, bioterrorism becomes this political tool to rationalize this US invasion. 

Gwen D’Arcangelis [09:37]:

That’s maybe the more well-known aspect—the wars, the actual wars, engaged in during the war on terror.

But the second piece, and what I really focus on, is the domestic side, which is the more hidden side of biodefense. This is a domestic scientific research industry that is researching biological weapons. This is not something a lot of people know about or even think about. The fact is that this kind of research, which entails, ideally, developing vaccines and other treatments against potential germ weapons like anthrax, smallpox, and even the plague, can be weaponized as a bioweapon. To do that kind of research, to produce these treatments, scientists are producing the actual germs. They’re producing them, sometimes they’re weaponizing them, they’re making them more enhanced. So all of that is part of the process of developing treatments and tests against these germs.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [10:41]:

One problem with this is that there’s a really fine line between research on bioweapons, when you’re producing them, and just possessing bioweapons. This is part of why I call this whole phase bio-imperialism.

During this period, the US put a lot more money into bioweapons research and scientists were diverted into that enterprise. This was a way for the US to increase its bioweapons arsenal and therefore increase its US empire and ability to maintain its military power.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [11:19]:

Then the second part of the biodefense industry is that it’s actually a very dangerous industry in an uncontrollable sense. Biodefense research has some unintentional hazards as well, unintentional consequences. This means mistakes in the lab, this can mean a leakage out of the lab, it can mean that scientists or lab workers get infected, and of course they can infect others. These are things that have happened quite frequently.

Think about the anthrax [inaudible 00:11:57], which was in 2001 where a US biodefense scientist had intentionally disseminated one of the germs that he was researching. So an anthrax strain that he was researching, he ended up intentionally disseminating. So there’s unintentional and intentional spread as well from biodefense.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [12:19]:

A lot of this could be in the realm of political science, but I take a gender and ethnic studies lens. What that means is I’m focusing on the way that discourses of threat and vulnerability—the way that the US governments and the news media are discussing threat and vulnerability—have gender and race dimensions. I’ll give you one example, just so you can see what that means.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [12:48]:

When the US invaded Iraq, it detained two high level scientists, Dr. Huda Ammash and Dr. Rihab Taha. These were both female scientists who were very high level, and they were accused of being part of Saddam Hussein’s bioweapons programs. There is a longer history, but essentially the bioweapons program that Iraq had was destroyed in the mid 1990s.

These two scientists are detained for two and a half years: 2003 to 2005. The way that government rhetoric and news media rhetoric ended up portraying them was as these femme fatale scientists who were these sort of backward, Arab, Other type of figures, who also have this very scary scientific know-how. This starts invoking Islamophobic, anti-Arab discourse that helps fuel the idea that the US is under threat, that the US needs to take defensive action, like invade Iraq. This is part of the feminist ethnic studies lens that I bring to this topic.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [14:01]:

The way that this ends up definitively playing out and connecting to today, in the last chapter of my book, I look at the shift from bioterrorism preparedness to pandemic preparedness. This is a shift in 2005, and this is under [George W.] Bush. The version of pandemic preparedness that is devised at that time, which we have some dwindling legacy of today, is really a war on terror version of pandemic preparedness.

First of all, this was about the H5N1 flu, which never turned into a pandemic. This was commonly known as bird flu. But even though it didn’t become a pandemic, there was a lot of concern that it would become one. So there was a lot of preparedness, as I said, attached to it.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [14:51]:

The way that the US approached pandemic preparedness was really to see pandemics as something that would come from a foreign Other—this idea that it’s going to be from China or a country that the US has very negative assumptions about. Negative assumptions meaning seeing China as a place of disease, the “Orient,” as a place that will not take adequate health measures. That was kind of the ideology that was fueling 2005 pandemic preparedness.

What the practical implication of that was was at the time, the US was not actually affected by H5N1. But other countries were, Indonesia for example.

Today we see this inequity between nations with COVID. We see that now that vaccines, and maybe other treatments, will be developed for COVID, not all countries have equal access to the international supply of pharmaceuticals. Wealthy countries like the US are able to buy up the vaccine supply.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [16:08]:

At that time [in 2005], the same dynamic was happening. The US and other Global North wealthy countries were able to get contracted access with pharmaceutical [companies] to get vaccines and treatments for aiding influenza, for H5N1. But a country like Indonesia that actually had a huge epidemic of H5N1 could not get access to it.

That dynamic has played out today, but in the war on terror period, Indonesia ended up fighting back against that dynamic. There are more details involved in that piece, but Indonesia ended up making a couple of demands to the WHO, the World Health Organization, to ensure that they get vaccines and other treatments they needed for H5N1.

As they’re doing this, what you see from the US and some of its allies is they start portraying Indonesia as a global health security threat. So this idea of a security threat ends up being used in the health realm when countries like Indonesia are challenging the global health system and trying to get vaccine supplies for themselves.

Cathy Hannabach [17:23]:

This is a really fascinating project. I think showing how our current moment in many ways comes directly out of this war on terror context is really powerful, both in terms of the science coming out of it, the politics coming out of it, but also, as you point out, the gender and the racial dynamics coming out of it. And of course, those build on even longer histories in the context of imperialism in particular, as you’re talking about.

The book itself covers a pretty wide swath of time, particularly when you’re hearkening back to these longer histories, but writing the book itself I know took quite a while, as most books tend to do. I’m curious about that process and sustaining inspiration or motivation over those kinds of long-term projects. 

I know anyone who’s ever written a book or worked on a long-term project like that has experienced those kinds of ups and downs in our motivation and our inspiration. Sometimes we don’t want to look at the thing at all and can’t fathom when it will ever be finished. And then other times we’re really inspired and we want to go and we’ve got a lot of energy.

Cathy Hannabach [18:35]:

I’m curious, what are some of the techniques that you use to stay inspired by and motivated to work on these kinds of long-term research projects over long periods of time? 

Gwen D’Arcangelis [18:48]:

Yeah. So it really connects to what I was saying earlier around what inspires me even these days. I’ve always viewed myself as an activist-scholar. This could be activist and scholar or activist-scholar. What that means is that part of my life is dedicated to forwarding social movements around gender justice, racial justice, and anti-imperialism.

So being connected to the on-the-ground movement building, some of the topics that I’m looking at my scholarship are informed by that directly—some of the things around science justice, for example.

But a lot of it, the topics I’m writing about, are not always directly connected to the community work I’m doing. How I end up connecting those things is by keeping myself connected to community work, community organizing. A lot of the approaches and theories in movement building are tied to what’s going to forward social change, what’s relevant, what can be useful. This is versus a lot of academic work, which can be talking to itself. So scholars can be writing to each other, writing about very esoteric topics, and leave it at that.

Being connected to movement work makes me question, at every moment, how is my work relevant to what’s happening? How is it relevant to social change? What kind of work could I do to dismantle Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism? How can I look intersectionally at gender and race?

Gwen D’Arcangelis [20:47]:

So I think about, for example, how in the war on terror the way that feminism was co-opted. Feminism, but as a white feminism, it was a white Western feminism that was co-opted to say that invading Afghanistan, for example, would help liberate Afghan women. As if bombing a country is going to help women of that country or anyone in that country.

So there are a lot of ways that me being very attuned to the political landscape and how activists are fighting back against that makes me really try to hold my work accountable to social change.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [21:31]:

Am I making work that can help forward social change? That’s both my mission and commitment. Having that mission or way that I see my academic work and my scholarship also helps keep me inspired, because I feel like I have a collective goal or collective vision that I’m part of. If I didn’t have that, I’d feel primarily as an academic and I would get sucked into some of the elitism or the backbiting or the competition or the echo chambers that academia can pull you into. 

Gwen D’Arcangelis [22:05]:

Also, I want to say, it’s not like they’re totally separate worlds. There are plenty of scholar-activists, activist-scholars. They’re not the majority, but being in community with those folks, whether I’m indirectly friends with folks or I’m reading their work, are ways that I keep myself on track and inspired. I actually get very uninspired when I think that my work is just going to talk to a bunch of other academics and not have any use for social change.

Cathy Hannabach [22:41]:

This podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, and I think your work both in the classroom and your research and in the various kinds of activist projects you’re involved in is a really good example of just that: imagining something different, imagining something better.

So I will ask you the giant question that I like to close out every interview with that really gets at the heart of that motivation, as you were talking about, that inspiration behind all of the work that you do in the world. That’s the version of a better world that you’re working towards when you do all these projects. So what is that world for you? What kind of world do you want?

Gwen D’Arcangelis [23:17]:

I love this question because it’s so easy to get mired in the things right in front of us and the challenges right in front of us. It is something I’ve thought about before, but it’s really good to revisit this because I think having an idea of what you want to create, the world you want to create, versus just what’s wrong with the world, it’s much better to also have a vision of where you want to go. That’s part of what keeps me sustained and inspired. Even if I make a small step, if it’s towards this end vision, then I can feel good about that.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [23:54]:

I’ve been thinking about this as everyone having access to safety, community, being well fed, and having housing security. So thinking really about, especially during the pandemic, really just material needs, life needs, needs that people have just to sustain their life and livelihood. So that’s one thing.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [24:20]:

I’m also thinking about it more on an interpersonal level. People being able to love freely, which speaks to sexuality.

Also, because of this summer, my own thinking has been pushed in certain ways by the uprisings against police brutality. I’ve really been thinking more about this idea of a world with no police. Right now we have defunding, and the question is how far would defunding go? Defund police into nonexistence, which would be abolition. I’ve been kind of thinking about what that would look like, and I think it could work. I think if we could abolish police and have conflict managers, harm reduction managers, those kinds of folks for violence, interpersonal violence, I think that would be a good world. I think that could work.

Gwen D’Arcangelis [25:31]:

Then also I’ve been thinking, especially with what’s been happening on the border, there’s this idea of a world without borders being floated around. Again, it’s almost hard to conceive of, but yeah, I think a world without national borders or at least without this colonial relationship between nations that is so hierarchical, those global hierarchies at least, we could dismantle that. That would be great. 

Gwen D’Arcangelis [26:06]: 

Then lastly, especially with the work I do as an academic, I’m thinking about innovation and how we produce knowledge. I’ve mentioned this before, but I really would like to see…so I was thinking about tech innovation, for example, it be more tied to public good. Right now, looking at tech innovation, it’s very much tied to corporate priorities. Sometimes it’s just tied into researching something or producing something just to innovate, just to be able to do it, just to go further. It’s not tied to, okay go further in what?

I think about CRISPR and gene editing. Just because we can edit genes, is it a good idea to do it? I mean, should we be putting more resources into gene editing or should we be putting resources into basic stuff like getting PPE to our healthcare workers? That’s the other piece that I really think about: the role of innovation and how it should really have a focus on social good.

Cathy Hannabach [27:10]:

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

Gwen D’Arcangelis [27:16]:

Thank you. It’s been great to be here.

Cathy Hannabach [27:22]:

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions.

You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guests and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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