This spring, Union Ph.D. student Jorge Juan Rodríguez V was awarded a Doctoral Fellowship from the Forum for Theological Exploration for the 2018-2019 academic year. “We’re proud to support them on their journey as they continue to redefine what it means to thrive in the academy,” says Patrick B. Reyes, FTE director of strategic partnerships for doctoral initiatives. We sat down with Jorge, to discuss his plans for the fellowship, and his exciting scholarship in modern religious history.
Tell us about your fellowship. What is the Forum for Theological Exploration?
Jorge: This doctoral fellowship is particularly positioned for doctoral students of color. They have two streams of applicant pools: one is for students of African descent, African diasporic descent; and the other one is for students of Latinx, Asian American, First Nations descent, which is the one I applied for and received. In November, I’ll go to a one week workshop with the other doctoral students in my cohort. We’ll talk beyond simply, “This is how you do your scholarship”- ‘cause we already know how to do that. We dig into professional development—things like budgeting, or how you argue a contract. The idea is not just to propel students through the program, but after the program.
Why is it important for you to be tied to a broader network of scholars?
Jorge: The elders of our communities are in these networks, some of the people who blazed the trail for people of color to be able to be in the academy and to be in theological education and higher education, generally, went through this program or helped found this program, are now mentors in this program, or lead the workshops in this program. You’re grafted into this community that extends multiple generations, and is far more than merely a place for people to think together. It’s a place for people to grow together as scholars who understand their work to have implications beyond the academy.
As a scholar of color, how do the relationships you develop with people, who have blazed the way or have worked in the academy for a long time, help you in navigating issues of race within the academy?
Jorge: You learn from the successes and mistakes of your elders. A few weeks ago, as an example, I went to Yale, and I was hanging out with a well known Professor. One thing they said that I found interesting was that my generation was beginning to understand that there are certain things that just might not be worth it. The Professor shared the example of one of their colleagues, a person of color, who opened doors and became a very valued and loved Professor, became a Dean, worked hours and hours in order to make spaces for students of color, but then ended up dying at an early age because of over work and a lack of self-care. Some kind of bodily realities just can’t be sustained. So this Yale Professor was just kind of, in a sober way saying, “What does it mean to blaze a trail, when your body can’t sustain it?” I think for me, as a younger person of color that is entering the academy, or hopes to in some capacity, that to me is a real lesson. We are thankful for our elders, and for the sacrifices they made, but at what cost was that to themselves personally, emotionally, spiritually, physically? Also on the flip side to that is learning from those lessons, you know, we can’t do that. That’s one of the most important things about being tapped into intergenerational networks. We can truly build community and learn from one another; and not just like, “how can you write the coolest paper?”—because it’s not about that. At some level, it’s about, “How do you do work that breathes life, without having to give up your own life?” That’s a different question, fundamentally.
How are you finding ways to breathe life through your work?
Jorge: My academic work, put broadly, tries to ask “How does history help illuminate the present, but also, how does the present help to illuminate the past?” I’m not so much interested in, you know, writing or speaking in ways that just kind of want to give a new interpretation of something that happened “back then.” Recently, I’ve been writing about the Young Lords which were a radical group of Puerto Ricans in the ‘60s and ‘70s, starting in Chicago, expanded, here, in New York City, and then expanded throughout the East Coast, and even into Puerto Rico. You know, for me, part of the reason I’m drawn to their stories, is because they force us to reckon with how we do our scholarship, but also how our communities—my community in this case—don’t know our own stories. So, whenever I talk about the Young Lords at churches or community events or just family gatherings, I’m always surprised by how many people in the Puerto Rican community, who grew up in Puerto Rico, or who grew up here, or in the diaspora generally, just don’t know about this organization.
The reason I’m drawn to that story in terms of my scholarship, is because when I share that story, it’s not just like “This is an interesting group that did stuff”, but rather, “What does it mean to be forcefully displaced from your home, experience the realities of oppression, after having had to leave, and still rising up and declaring “No! This is not right.” And I think that in a context like the one we’re currently living in, this is a reality that so many Puerto Ricans are facing after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and even before then, with the debt crisis that still continues. This is a story that isn’t just from the past, it’s from now. There are resonances that speak to the present, and that the present speaks to the past.
That’s also why I want to connect to places like F.T.E. and the Hispanic Theological Initiative, which I’m also connected to, because I find that there are scholars there who, in those spaces, aren’t just interested in developing a new way of studying a thing that just stays there. They are actually, deeply committed to asking how the questions of the past, or the questions of theory, or the questions of theology or ethics actually have immediate implications for how we understand our present, and how do we, kind of, de-link from academic modes of knowledge to ask “Well, what are the lessons that our families actually have, and our communities actually have?” I think that the lack of that sensibility makes a lot of scholars of color feel displaced in the academy, because this is something we come into the academy with, but that the academy doesn’t always acknowledge as a rightful source of knowledge. Places like F.T.E. and H.T.I. say, “No. Let’s get together and create a supportive environment, where we can explore those questions, and connect to something beyond our institutions”.
How do you see Union as a space that sort of lifts up subversive modes of thinking, and goes against that dominant academic thinking?
Jorge: I think that here, at the very least in my classes, and with my faculty, and with my colleagues, there is a potential to learn differently. That, particularly, when I speak to colleagues at other institutions, they don’t have the support or mechanisms to take an exam on eugenics, or even take a class on eugenics, to study the Prosperity Gospel, or to take an intro course that is all about learning history from below as history. At Union there is potential for creativity and really challenging dominant streams of knowledge and ways of knowing.