If you found yourself asking the big “WHY” question during the 2020 pandemic, you were/are not alone. I think many people are quietly questioning why they get up every morning. I know I found myself asking whether my teaching and research mattered while realizing that quarantining had an incredibly displacing effect on my identity in this world. Just as fast as the train of life screeched to a halt, it’s moving again, faster and faster, and I haven’t had a chance to regain my balance.
We are looking forward to returning to normalcy this fall semester in academia, but does anyone still feel like you are trying to gain your balance? I think one part of this post-pandemic narrative is about identity. Not only as academics but as people, we are re-exploring who we are, why we do what we do, and maybe more importantly, who we do it with.
This summer, I have the honor of working with a new community partner, the YMCA in Lawrence, MA. Lawrence, MA is a vibrant city just west of Merrimack College. We have been working with the Y on developing a youth civic engagement program for middle schoolers, and we will assess the outcomes of this program.
As a political scientist, I have been trained very well in what it takes to motivate people to vote, protest, and engage in politics. But, it became increasingly clear that before we could start talking about skill-building for civic engagement, we needed to guide the youth on exploring their identities and how they related to their community.
In collaboration with another local partner, the Lawrence Heritage State Park Museum, the youth learned about the history of Lawrence. I watched as the youth became inspired by stories of how men, women, and children struck against factory owners in 1912 during the Bread and Roses protests that forever changed workers' rights across the United States. Their tour guide, Jim, a Merrimack College alum and a Lawrence MA native, helped the students connect how media used “fake news” in the early 1900s to spread disinformation, dividing people across ethnic and racial lines. Back at the Y, I witnessed the youth connect these topics with themes related to racism and discrimination for LGBTQ+ youth while engaging in tough discussions about what it takes for a young person to be an upstander against bullying. They shared their stories, their identities, and they were able to connect their lived experiences with the history and identity of their community.
Youth at Lawrence Heritage State Park Museum. Jim (pictured middle) is the tour guide.
It hit me that identity is so important and is central to everything that we do. This is not a new idea. Many prominent scholars work on identity, but watching the youth grow by exploring their identity through themselves, each other, and their community reminded me that we could ground ourselves in who we are by connecting with our community.
If you are an academic who feels lost or uninspired post-pandemic, perhaps connecting with your local community in and outside your academic institution could help you explore your next few steps. It can start by having a conversation with scholars in other disciplines. Or you could start by visiting local historical societies that are often eager to connect with academics, especially on education initiatives. Or maybe you go on an adventure on foot! I mean it! Just walk around your city and keep your eyes peeled. Talk to people, really taste the food, and digest the environment you are in. Drink in your community. You never know what you might see regarding the people, infrastructure, culture, and environment. Trust your instincts as a scientist. You will find yourself again - but maybe you need to find community first.
My final word is that the train of life is back on track and picking up speed. So eyes up for balance, and don’t be afraid to hold onto each other because that is what community is all about, so explore it, and some collaborative partnerships might just start forming your way.