Akosua Adasi recently sat down with Rise Up Collective member Julia Aguiar to reflect on her time working as an Archival Assistant with us in summer/fall 2021 and summer 2022. Read Akosua’s interview below.
How did you come to your feminism?
Growing up, feminism wasn’t a word in my household. But there wasn’t a sense of there being traditional gender roles. My mom is a pretty ambitious person and worked a lot. My dad did a lot of the stuff that I think gets associated with women. He got us ready for school, made us lunches, drove us, and it wasn’t ever a thing. That was just the way our life worked. That was foundational because when I started learning things around feminism in middle school, it made sense.
During middle school, my family moved from Southwest Virginia to Trinidad for my mom’s work. That was a really hard transition for me because it was the first time that I felt that, at such a crucial time in my life, I was leaving behind so much I knew. At the time, my older sister was using Tumblr a lot, so I started using Tumblr. I followed Tavi Gevinson who was on her own journey with feminism. A lot of the community I was engaging with was really interested in riot grrrl culture and zines. If there’s one thing I’ve always been drawn to it’s writing and zines.
I think where it started formatively, and this came later in high school, was where it went beyond this question of gender — how my race, background, and class can play into the question of feminism. Reading Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools” essay was a crucial moment. I had never read anything that, one, felt so accessible, and two, made really clear the goals of a movement and the goals of feminism. I’ve always enjoyed her emphasis on the personal. I’ve always appreciated the idea that who we are is not separate from the political goals we are trying to achieve.
When I was younger, feminism was very much, this is my badge, my t-shirt, my tote bag kind of situation. Over time, it’s become more about seeing how I can move in a way that is, to me, feminist. Also, in my writing, I think I always come from a feminist perspective. I try to think analytically about the things that I engage with and what they’re depicting, not just about women, but queer people and people of colour.
What did a typical day look like for you as an Archival Assistant at Rise Up? Can you tell us about some of the projects you took on?
This summer we decided to streamline our social media. Developing the social media strategy involved getting an understanding of what was working so far, what wasn’t, and where there were holes in both content and approach. I looked at other similar organizations to see how they were using their social media. We took that information and applied it to creating content. We started branding more of the archival content so that people could make the connection between the content and the Archive.
In a typical seven-hour day, I would do about an hour or so of work before our daily morning meeting at 9:30 am, which is where we would catch up on work and life. I would do OCRing (optical character recognition) for most of the day, and I would do social media in smaller bits. I switched between social media and OCRing because I found it takes a lot of brain power to do social media. You want to say so much and give a rich history of the things that you’re sharing, but social media is more quick bites.
What was your favourite archival material to work with and why?
I think I most enjoyed doing publications and newsletters for organizations because you start to get a sense of the spirit of the community that was behind a lot of these organizations. Last summer, I was doing a lot of issues of ACTION: Manitoba Action Committee on the Status of Women Newsletter.
That was inspiring for me in thinking about how you could build community through regular newsletters. I thought about how in my own writing I could generate that kind of community. I also worked with the publication Fireweed. I like that it’s art focused. I really enjoyed doing the Fireweeds even though they’re quite long!
What were some of the more difficult ideas you navigated in your work with Rise Up?
One of the tricky things is determining what is feminist activist material. The example of feminist music is interesting. Someone could be using a song to spread a specific message and I think if that song has a feminist perspective, it is interesting to interrogate that as feminist activism and see what that says and how it can be used. At Rise Up, we have a lot of cultural material, but we don’t have a lot of music.
We’ve talked before about diversity and inclusion when it comes to people and women of different ethnic backgrounds, but I think sexualities and other identities are missing. I did one publication called Diva and I think that was the only publication I worked on that was actually created by non-white women and wasn’t a special edition of a white feminist publication. When I read through the publications, the experiences of those who were not white or cis-gendered or heterosexual, they’re included but marginalized at the same time.
We also had discussions this summer about creating a disclaimer [for problematic language in archival material] recognizing that just because it’s valuable material doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at it critically. Disclaimers are a way of showing that we recognize the evolution the movement has made in terms of language, in terms of interrogating its own shortcomings when it comes to thinking beyond a singular experience. [The movement has] evolved but it’s also important to know the ways that it hasn’t evolved.
What’s next for you?
In September, I started my PhD in English and American literature at NYU (New York University), which is really exciting. My proposed thesis is thinking about wandering figures in American fiction and the question of the right to mobility in the U.S. Constitution, and what it means if you’re denied that right and yet continue to assert it. So, thinking a lot about American liberalism, going back to the founding of the country, and thinking about how women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, etc., are depicted in different texts as wandering figures and what that means at both a subjective level and at the level of national identity.
I’m also pursuing an Advanced Certificate in Public Humanities. Having Rise Up on my C.V. really helped me get into school and I’m going to take a lot of my work from Rise Up into my program. I’m really excited and grateful to have had this opportunity working with Rise Up over the past two summers.
How did working at Rise Up shape your understanding of the history of feminist activism in Canada?
Before I started working at Rise Up my understanding of the history of Canadian feminist activism felt very rooted in the past and largely in connection with feminist activism in the U.S. I was really focused on big landmark events and never thought about daily actions. Working with the historical materials at Rise Up gave me insight into the rich and varied nature of feminist activism in Canada. My experience introduced me to figures in the movement and provided essential context that has strengthened my understanding of what feminist activism means.