Isabelle: How do you trace the trajectory of your interests in social change work at Brown?
Anastasiya: In high school, I was on the charities committee, and I cared about All The Things, as many high schoolers do who think they’re socially conscious. I was like: “Yes! I’m on the environment committee!” and “Women should be able to work AND have babies AND cook!” and “Youth education!” and “Guns!” and “Racism is awful.”
I didn’t have any real understanding of what any of these issues meant. [I didn’t understand that] though they are interlinked, to be intentionally working on one issue means really devoting a lot of time and research in considering the intersections at play with this issue, rather than caring about everything separately.
At Brown, my Freshman spring, I was assaulted. That really forced me to look for alternative communities: communities of care, communities of support. Both, in a way to make sense of what happened, and also, in a way to grow from what happened and understand the larger conversation [about sexual assault and gender-based violence.] I acted in Vagina Monologues and I signed up for then FemSex, now GPS. That’s really where I started learning the vocabulary that is crucial for these conversations. I really started broadening my understanding of what social justice means and what social change means–and that is something I’m still working on.
I think I definitely came to Brown teetering on white feminism. Through the patience of peers, friends, mentors, people at bluestockings, my GPS facilitators, I really started understanding my role in larger power structures and how our society is created by systems of oppression and power structures. [I started understanding] what it means for me to be engaging in this work: both in terms of the space I’m taking up, and what I can contribute.
As Co-Editor-In-Chief at bluestockings, what do you think the role these publications can play in the discourse surrounding these social issues? What is their power?
I think having these [gender-aware, anti-oppressive] ideas and thoughts proliferated is crucial. This work has been done, and nobody’s been listening to it. People of color [didn’t just start] mobilizing to defend their humanity. These fights have been going on for a long time, and people have been mobilizing a long time: they just haven’t been listened to. More than that, [they] have been actively ignored. I’ve seen a lot of “clickbait” stuff being like: “This is the year for queer people of color.” Although, more attention is finally being paid to these communities, branding it like that is really misrepresentative. A lot of people have been doing this work for a long time. Everything that is being done: everything that bluestockings does now, everything that GPS does now, is building on a history of a lot of peoples’ hard work and labor that is largely ignored. I think that a lot of the times, [with] the foundations that we’re standing on, it can be easy to forget that they came from a lot of hard work.
Most of our opinions are formed by socialization, and a lot of folks’ traits and beliefs are formed by socialization. I’m still unlearning a lot of what I was socialized to believe in and a lot of the ways I was socialized to act, being raised in a Western capitalist system, but also: by first-generation Western-world parents from Soviet Russia, and being a woman, and being white. That brings with it a certain amount of biases and a certain amount of barriers and privileges, in terms of my gender and in terms of my queerness and my whiteness. I think that [bluestockings’ power lies in] providing alternative narratives to the oversaturation of misinformed, ignorant content that dictates our education from day one.
Have you found support for students working on these issues from the University itself?
No, it has been mainly student communities, and I can say that confidently. There are some individual faculty members who are exceptional. The faculty that have taken the time and space to acknowledge what’s going on with our campus right now in class, and even making allowances or extensions for assignments. The few faculty members who are acknowledging that we bring what’s happening in our lives with us: to class, to GPS section, to a bluestockings meeting. In all the organizations I’m a part of, we always start with check-ins, because nobody is coming to the space out of a cloud. Everyone’s coming with something that happened that day, that week: whether it be good or bad.
I find myself overly cynical a lot of the time. But, there are some people on campus that I’m just so excited about. I can see some first-years in my GPS section, or in bluestockings, or in some of my classes, and I’m just really excited for them. Really excited for what I’m sure they’re going to bring to the university. However I know that this university will be reliant on these people to hold it accountable, and that is unacceptable in my opinion. Students of color in particular carry a disproportionate burden of organizing, educating, and activism at Brown. The student body is doing a ridiculous amount of unpaid labor, and unrecognized labor, to keep the university accountable. And then they [Brown] profit off of that by selling that as their ethos: in info sessions and tours, on the website, when admissions officers go and travel. We sell this image of Brown that is entirely created by the student body, not the administration. I think that’s somewhat disingenuous, to be honest.
So, no: in terms of community, it’s been student support. But, from a structural standpoint: it’s not sustainable, and it’s really unfair. I think that’s a big weakness in this university, but also a big strength in terms of the fact that our student communities are very strong.
So, in the face of all of these overwhelmingly complex issues, issues that deal with systems and actors that are so much larger than just one person, how do you stay motivated to keep going?
Honestly, I ask myself that very question every day, pretty much.
I find myself drowning a lot. I think that’s not spoken about a lot. I think that there’s just a lot of fatigue that comes with working on issues of sexual violence. That being said, I’m white woman working on these issues, so any fatigue and any frustration, anger, and compassion I feel is just incomparable to folks that are living these experiences of structural oppression. I think that honestly, it comes in waves. Sometimes, I just take an evening where I have to turn off my phone and I have to retreat. Or where I take 12 hours to disappear to the world.
Remembering how much work has already been done and situating myself, and my peers, and my communities, in this bigger process is really important for me. I think I’ve moved from being excited and starry-eyed about this work from freshman year. Especially sophomore year, I was angry when I started working on sexual violence prevention, and that was what was fueling me. I was angry, but I was incredibly hopeful. That’s really changed a lot over the past two years. At this point, I’m doing this work because I think it’s necessary. I have the privilege to have been afforded certain educational opportunities that mean that I can do this.
How do you feel to be leaving communities like bluestockings and GPS with your graduation on the horizon? What have they meant to you?
The next few years are a really terrifying question for me, largely because of my immigration status and my visa status. So, I find it very hard to make plans for community building, looking ahead, when I don’t know if I’m going to get deported or not. It’s statistically more likely that I will, not that I’ve ever really been one for statistics. But, you know, but I intone that to myself to terrify myself at a few times a day, at least.
I think the communities that students build here are much stronger than the physical spaces that encompass them. I think that a lot of the organizations and communities I’m a part of are strong and vibrant, despite Brown, as an institutional structure, rather than because of it. With that in mind, I think it will extend when we leave. In terms of new community building: I know that once I graduate, I want to be working on gender-based violence work. I don’t know what the communities look like, because I don’t know whether that will be in America, London, or back to Rwanda.
I’m really excited about where some of these communities are going, and the intentionality with which we’re making decisions about our direction. That creates really uncomfortable conversations sometimes. That means making mistakes, and then stepping back and holding ourselves accountable to the groups that we’re in or the communities we’re in. But, I think at the end of the day, that creates a much stronger foundation. The spaces they [student communities] create are so crucial to a lot of people on campus.