“Sitting with the Grief of Survivors”: embracing collegiality in human rights scholarship

Human rights scholars are situated at a crossroad, where the urgency to amplify the claims of rights violations meets the academic imperative of critique. Our trained impulse is to engage in our own forms of intellectual violence, whether through overt disparagement of opposing ideas or through more implicit exclusion in the name of rigor, politics, or credentials. A fetishization of intellectual conflict pits us against each other, against the authors we study, against solutions offered. It allows us to think that critique is sufficient as action. And it typically results in the marginalization of the voices of those we originally sought to serve with our work. Amidst these antagonisms endemic to intellectual debate, I sometimes ask myself what it would take to be truly collegial. 

Because my research focuses on slave narratives, I often find myself re-reading them when questions of ethics trouble me. A passage from survivor-scholar-activist Minh Dang strikes me as particularly relevant to the question of collegiality. She asks: “How do we sit with the grief of survivors? Or do we even sit at all? Are we too eager to ‘take action’ that we forget that sitting and listening are actions?” She reminds us that “grieving is not just for survivors. Grieving is for all of us. We all live in a world where violence pervades our everyday ways of relating with each other.”  

What if our critical practices were less focused on intellectual grievances and more attuned to this “grieving together”? What if we avoided reiterating everyday violence in the intellectual sphere and instead based our work in commiseration, conversation, collaboration… collegiality?

Grieving is not just for survivors. Grieving is for all of us.

This practice of collegiality would necessitate that we step out of the echo chamber of academia to “sit with and listen to” survivors of the rights violations we study. Among university researchers of forced labor, there are few scholars who openly identify as survivors. To be collegial, then, would require that we avoid the traps of voyeurism and engage with them not just for the evidentiary value of their oppression, but for their intellectual contributions to the field, even if they do not hold the credentials we hold dear. We would thereby transfer the privileges of our platforms to survivors and amplify their intellectual innovations. As survivor-author Brook Parker-Bello reminds us: “[Survivors] are able to communicate from our neck-down experience—and the neck-up as well, for that matter. Anyone can be taught a neck-up theory, but the neck-down exposure and experience cannot be taught. Thus, we must be at the leaders’ table.” Whether it is at the leaders’ table or the seminar table, survivors are our colleagues and intellectual peers in the theorization of violence, rights, and, indeed expertise itself. 

Survivors do not always agree with one another, and it is not necessary for us to agree with all of their ideas or claims. But we must be attentive to the fact that survivors of contemporary slavery formulate the very questions of our field differently, and thus the solutions are often quite different as well. Survivors rarely dedicate their formidable energy to the pursuit of prevalence estimates—they do not need numbers to prove that rights are being violated. They do not typically frame forced labor as an issue of national securitization or make recommendations for military interventions—enough of them were made vulnerable to slavery precisely as a result of these exertions of hegemonic power. They don’t fetishize trauma or wax poetic about pain—they have no interest in voyeurism, even of the academic sort. 

When we listen to the ways survivors grieve, as Dang instructs us, we realize that they regularly recount the factors of their own vulnerability as evidence of the structural inequities that undergird a predatory global economy. Survivors of slavery critique the vulnerabilities that result from the lack of economic opportunities or a living wage for impoverished people everywhere. They analyze the criminalization of female victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and forced sex work. They interrogate the inability of human rights regimes to effectively safeguard immigrants, manual and domestic laborers, and girls.  

As I sit with and listen to survivors, I hear them making pleas for seismic systemic shifts. Our responsibility as privileged academics is to amplify their calls to provide everyone with the substantive freedoms that they often lack even after liberation from enslavement. To draw attention to their recommendations on dismantling gender inequities, from the cultural objectification of young women to the sexual abuse of women on battlefields, as well as the subsequent devaluation and stigmatization of women who fall prey to these abuses. We must amplify their critiques of the racial and ethnic dimensions of inequality and their calls for unity across borders to fight it.

Collegiality requires that survivors are no longer relegated to being the subjects of knowledge we produce; their contributions demand that they be understood as the producers of that knowledge. 

We need people in the academy and in every profession acting as megaphones for these systemic changes. We don’t need to change professions to do this work; we need to change the norms of the profession we are in. As Mikki Kendall explains: “the most realistic approach to solidarity is one that assumes that sometimes it simply isn't your turn to be the focus of the conversation.” For people who are accustomed to being at the front of the classroom or behind the lectern, this can present a challenge. 

Collegiality requires that survivors are no longer relegated to being the subjects of knowledge we produce; their contributions demand that they be understood as the producers of that knowledge. We do this by integrating survivor theory into our syllabi and lectures, by employing survivor narratives as evidence on the same footing as those published by scholars, by engaging them as respected interlocutors, by giving them the stage, by sitting and listening. We can also deliberately mentor more survivors in the methods we use in academia and empower them to engage in our sphere of discourse. Along the way, we may need to eschew some of those antagonistic strategies we’ve long held dear, read with the grain instead of against it, embrace belief rather than skepticism, and speak and grieve with—instead of for—others.


This article is a part of a series on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) produced in partnership with the University of Binghamton, based on a conference held in April 2020.