Challenging the status quo: Inequities in a pandemic

A better world has at its foundation the return to values learned in childhood, says academic-activist Manjeet Birk, PhD.

“These values are interconnected to larger issues of social justice, like the ongoing effects of colonization, the environment and racial justice,” says Birk.

As an instructor of a newly developed critical race studies minor program in women’s and gender studies at Carleton University, Birk focuses her research on the lived experiences of racialized and indigenous women in Canada.

Discrimination shoots up COVID fatalities

Birk’s latest research project examined systemic racism, education, and Māori ways of knowing in Aotearoa, New Zealand. With only 26,000 COVID cases and 26 deaths to date, New Zealand has been considered one of the world’s safest places during the pandemic.

New Zealand has kept cases down by rigorous government strategies, a compliant population, and swift action during lockdowns. White settler descendants, known as Pa-keha-, comprised the majority of cases during the initial lockdown in April 2020 as they returned from trips abroad.

Manjeet Birk, brings scholar-activism philosophy to the classroom | Photo courtesy of Carleton

Ever since, community outbreaks have disproportionately plagued Māori and Pasifika communities. For example, 74 per cent of cases during Auckland’s August 2020 outbreak occurred among the Pasifika population, which comprises only 16 per cent of the total population.

According to Birk, this imbalance can be explained by socioeconomic factors, such as crowded homes and mandatory in-person employment. In fact, pre-existing health conditions and discrimination in health care make Pasifika and Māori communities twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than their Pa-keha- counterparts.

In response, New Zealand has established a four-stage vaccine rollout plan, but people who live in high-risk places must be invited by their doctor to make a vaccine appointment. Most marginalized people do not have the money needed to book a doctor’s appointment, and so are not invited to get immunized.

Spread storytelling, not social injustice

Birk, who earned her doctorate in philosophy at the University of British Columbia (UBC), advocates for storytelling as a tool to share experiences in an intimate way.

“Being an academic-activist is not a job, but rather who I am, so it informs me at Carleton University, but also when I am at the grocery store, in my home or navigating society day to day,” says Birk.

Along with life experiences, Birk believes re-connecting to childhood values – including being kind, empathetic, and engaged, by sharing, helping others, and asking questions – are more relevant than ever.

“Now as a parent, I am reminded by how as adults we lose sight of these values,” she says.

Some of her richest memories are of hearing her parents and grandparents recount their lives.

“This powerful telling helped me build a connection to the generations before me, and helped me connect to India,” she says. “My experiences of feeling like an outsider when I was growing up inextricably connected me to this country I knew nothing about.”

Early childhood experiences informed the scholar, activist, parent, and person that Birk is today. She grew up as a racialized person in a predominantly white community on the traditional and unceded territories of the WSÁNEĆ people on Vancouver Island.

“I could see injustice from a young age because I was experiencing it,” she says. “As I grew older, I really began to understand how my experiences were part of a larger system of injustice. At the time, I didn’t have the language to explain what it was that I was feeling, but from the fresh eyes of a young person I could see that something was wrong.”

For Birk, academia and activism go hand in hand. She connects critical perspectives on critical race and social justice to actions, including supporting community organizations through workshops and educational initiatives, or writing public scholarship so information is accessible to more people.

“I am not interested in producing research that will just sit up on a shelf somewhere,” asserts Birk. “My research always has direct and real action attached to it.”

She also tries to interweave her scholar-activism philosophy into her teaching, from syllabus creation to lecture prep, assignment design, and grading.

“I take the principles of anti-racism and anti-oppression into the classroom and I try to make that clear with students,” says Birk. “As a result, I hope students are able to learn by example and carry these ideas (or what they find useful from these ideas) into their lives as well.”

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