All Academic Roads Lead to Serving the People

Stefanie Lira, Ph.D. Candidate in History
September 2019

Stefanie Lira is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at UC Irvine. Her dissertation “Mercurial Masculinities: Chinese & Indigenous Laborers in the Early Colonial Philippines,” examines the ways in which the Spanish empire constructed race and gender hierarchies in the Philippines. She argues that the empire’s racial formations—executed through massacres, expulsion edicts, and labor policies--created the bedrock for systemic racism in the Philippines.

Her scholarship shapes and is shaped by her work as a community activist in Long Beach, CA. As an educator, she has lectured for the department of Gender & Sexuality Studies at UCI and she is currently teaching at Santa Ana Community College. She will graduate in the class of 2020. Here, Stefanie shares her perspectives on being an academic and activist, and why serving her community is at the core of her identity as a scholar.

How did you come to your academic research?
I come from a working-class immigrant background. As I came of age in the body I inhabit, in the heart of the world’s most powerful imperialist power, I was reminded everyday of my “Otherness.” I am a brown woman, and because of this people would articulate my “Otherness” through Orientalist sexualization. I was very young when I learned about sex tourism and its relationship to U.S. military bases, global capital, and my place within this oppressive network. I was very young when I found out that birth control was disdained by religious Filipinos. My work first started here.

I wanted to understand the history behind the fear of birth control and the prohibition of divorce in the Philippines. This path took me further than I expected: to the moment of the Spanish invasion of the Philippines and the subsequent centuries of colonization and imperialism by both Spain and the U.S. Much of my work since this moment stemmed from my curiosity about the relationship between gender, race, and imperialism.

How did you become an activist?
I attended my first anti-war rally when I was sixteen-years-old. Unfortunately, I lost touch with many grassroots organizations during my undergrad and Masters tenure because I was a working student. When I finished my Ph.D. coursework at UCI, I found that my life felt unbalanced. I actually Googled “Long Beach Filipino community organizations,” and found that the very next day groups called Anakbayan and GABRIELA were holding an event at California State University, Long Beach educating the public about the plight of indigenous peoples in the Philippines (specifically the Lumad). I attended and was blown away by the direct support that local folks extended to the Lumad. I had never seen something like that before. In academia, I had only seen theory. In my community, I saw praxis.

The work I commit myself to centers on the struggles of migrant and immigrant communities broadly. I conduct direct action work with GABRIELA, which is a U.S.-based organization that has an international presence and also acts as an active party list in the Philippines. As an organization, we are concerned with the socioeconomic and political liberation of Philippine women and families in the Philippines and globally.
I also volunteer for the non-profit organization the Filipino Migrant Center in Long Beach. This institution seeks to support migrant and immigrant communities by providing support for local campaigns, and providing guidance and services to migrant and immigrant workers.

My work across these organizations has intersected over the years, as both advocate for Filipino people’s rights. I have served the people by collectively creating and facilitating educational discussions and community cultural productions; structuring and facilitating meetings; and supporting in the organization and execution of public demonstrations and actions. These experiences have offered me the opportunity to work with migrant and immigrant youth, women, and families.

How does your activism influence your scholarship, and vice versa? Why is working outside of academia important to you?
I have dedicated most of my life to a career of service. Whether or not I ultimately choose a career with a heavy teaching load or a career dedicated to producing more research, I believe all threads of academic work lead to serving the people.

My academic work is, without a doubt, shaped by my community work. I can weed through hundreds of pages of theory on the discursive constructions of indigenous peoples and feel hopeless at the challenge of contributing to this discourse. If I spend 2 hours in a community educational discussion and hear from a filmmaker who has worked with the Lumad community that writing indigenous peoples as a monolith results in their mistreatment today, I am emboldened by a different sense of responsibility. Not only do my conversations with activists enrich my research process, I have also learned so much about pedagogy from community educational discussions. The curriculum-building, facilitation, and community-building practices I have learned from other activists have made a lasting impact on the ways in which I teach in the university classroom.

In building curriculum for community programs like the leadership program with the local Filipino youth of “Kabataan Alliance,” I applied many of the active learning exercises I learned from UCI’s Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI) pedagogy courses. In my facilitation of Philippine History lessons with the community, I use my research as sourcework for discussions on Filipino peoples’ resilience against Spanish imperialism. I am grateful for what I have learned at UCI because I use this education to benefit everyday community members.

However, while I believe scholarly pursuits are noble I need a more direct line of service to my community. Not every community member has the privilege to make it into a university or community college classroom. I have found that the university abides by certain parameters when offering services to community members. University-sanctioned community activism is geared towards education or research-specific agendas, such as diversity in research programs or discipline-based advocacy work. I have not yet seen the university system engage with the community at the level of depth that grassroots organizations do: providing know-your-rights trainings, building with migrant and immigrant workers and families, or hosting cultural productions borne from the creative minds of community members. This is urgent, on-the-ground labor that I cannot do within the confines of the university system. This is work I must do. It is my honor and my duty to serve my community. Alice Walker’s quote rings loudly in my ears when I do this work: “activism is the rent we pay for living on this planet.”