- Connecting the Local with the Global:Transnational Feminism and Civic Engagement
“Teaching students how to be engaged feminist citizens could yield the social transformations that women’s studies has always sought to achieve.”—Allison Kimmich, “From Classroom to Community” (par. 9)
Several years ago, the University of Victoria’s1 student newspaper ran an ad recruiting students for international development projects. The ad featured a white, young, smiling female university student holding a sign stating, “I am the Change.” Next to the photo, the text read: “Be yourself. Be bold. Be the change.” The ad also claimed that “BC Youth are making a difference in the world. You too can be a global citizen.”2 That this ad appeared in the student newspaper is unsurprising as it parallels the increasing emphasis on internationalization and the production of global citizens by many North American universities. Contemporary conceptions of global citizenship in the North American academy emphasize fostering student awareness, responsibility, participation, cross-cultural competency/empathy, international mobility, and individual achievement (Schattle 25). In this sense, global citizenship is cosmopolitan in nature since it is associated “with an intellectual and aesthetic sense of openness towards peoples, places, and experiences with different cultures, especially those from different nations,” and stresses “moral and ethical commitments to a global community” (Matthews and Sidhu 53). Through this cosmopolitan lens, universities have prioritized community engagement, service learning, and civic responsibility as a praxis through which students can become “global citizens.”
However, as many feminist and other scholars have noted, these priorities are fraught with complications, especially when the rubric of civic engagement emphasizes idealized concepts of citizenship and democracy (Davis; Jacoby; Musil) and fails to be properly informed by “historical and contemporary analyses of power and inequality” (Musil 240). The ad described above illustrates feminist concerns with the adoption of an idealized and cosmopolitan global citizenship, as it exemplifies how citizenship is marked by gendered, racialized, sexualized, and classed boundaries of inclusion and exclusion (Glenn; Lister). Although some might suggest that the photo depicts a certain kind of gender equality due to the young woman who is featured, Barbara Heron makes a persuasive case that young, white, middle-class Canadian women can only achieve full citizenship (and the full individual self) by leaving Canada to work [End Page 214] in developing countries; in so doing, citizenship is achieved through racial and class privilege rather than gender.
That this type of idealized global citizenship does little to disturb entrenched global inequalities is captured by the slogan “Be the change.” This is a gross misappropriation of the oft-cited Mahatma Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Gandhi sought the end of British imperialism in India in the early twentieth century, and many in the developing world view contemporary international development policies as representing a form of neo-imperialism. The slogan furthermore implies that people in so-called developing countries cannot be agents of change themselves and, as such, they are unable to achieve global citizenship and full subjectivity. Under the guise of internationalization, global citizenship and the ability to affect change then becomes the purview of Western (often white), middle-class educators and students in North America, who are charged with producing and spreading knowledge to “others” in the world (Moallem 332).
Given many feminists’ unease with liberal and cosmopolitan conceptualizations of citizenship and democracy that undergird mainstream notions of civic engagement, it is not surprising that, even though there is a rich pedagogical emphasis on what would be identified as “civic engagement” practices in women and gender studies (WGS), feminists don’t often refer to these practices as such (Orr, “Women’s Studies”). For example, Bojar and Naples note that contributors to their volume seem most comfortable in adopting the term “feminist activism” to describe the activities of their students involved in community based and experiential learning (3). The language of feminist activism can signal two interrelated feminist pedagogical goals: 1. facilitating students’ deeper understanding of feminist issues; and, 2. developing students’ skills needed for “building a powerful feminist movement” (3).3 The authors note that practices such as service learning, which are often part...