I took a Graduate level class my Junior year of University titled Queer Theory. There were only 3 of us Undergrads that got invited to the class as a part of the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Bachelor program along with 7 Grad students. This is what my degree is in and before I moved overseas and became a scuba instructor 8 years ago, I was a campus activist and non-profit worker in the University of Minnesota halls. I worked for Planned Parenthood and a non-profit called WATCH where I sat in on rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence court cases to document the court process and record whether or not I felt the victims were revictimized during the trial, whether it be by questions such as, “what were you wearing the night it happened?” Or “How many drinks did you have?” As if those questions have any bearing over the actual rape itself… and in my free time I volunteered for NARAL MN, Democracy Now, the Women’s Student Activist Collective and Women’s Pro Choice Collective… let’s just say I was involved, on fire, and I thought I could change the world.
Now that the scene is set a little and you understand what my life looked like before I started traveling and teaching diving, let me go back to my Queer Theory class. I remember being incredibly excited and honored to be a part of the class and when I showed up the first day and walked in, all 10 desks were sat in a circle. We all took our seats and introduced each other while we waited for our Professor to show up. Her name was Naomi and this class was famous in our department. I will never forget when she came walking through the door holding a stack of syllabi- she had short, funky grey hair and cat eye glasses and wore linen pants with a kimono draped over her shoulders and was about 70 years old. On top of being a stunning woman, she was wearing shoes that more closely resembled boats than shoes. On the bottom they were rounded like rockers and made it incredibly difficult for her to balance and walk normally. No one said anything but we all exchanged looks as she greeted us with an intense gaze, passing out the syllabi in a circle, while trying to balance on these ridiculous shoes. Finally, an Uppergrad said, “Naomi, I have to ask… what’s up with the shoes?” And here begins, one of the most memorable moments of my life…
“The shoes”, she began, “are a reminder that we must never get too comfortable.” She went on to explain that the problem with society is that we’re incredibly comfortable with the way things are, that we don’t often question the status quo or our role in it, and because we rarely question things it has left us in a position of being unable to adapt to change- when change is in fact, the only constant in our lives. This mentality makes us resistant to growth and creates an environment of intolerance. Quite often we can spend our entire life running the same program we have always been fed. She said, “the key to life is to always remain uncomfortable”. And I will never forget watching her teeter in circles as she explained how the uncomfortable is often our biggest teacher, and how the work we will do to dismantle and understand systems of oppression will be incredibly uncomfortable and that’s where we must sit to understand- we must sit in the uncomfortable, we must ask the questions, and we must learn to listen and learn when faced with the ways in which we might accidentally and unintentionally perpetuate these systems of oppression.
“Being uncomfortable” has become a lifelong quest for me because of Naomi. That class changed my life and those words have always stuck with me. What a powerful statement watching a woman that age, walk around on those shoes, and talk to us about the power in remaining always a “little bit uncomfortable” to continue to grow. This sparked my continuous interest about the world and the things that make me uncomfortable, that challenge me, that scare me. I have built my life around doing these things because of this woman and I have found myself in a constant state of re-assessment of myself, my actions, my privilege, and the messages I’ve gotten from society about what “success” and “equality” look like.
When I think about life changing moments, this is one of the most powerful stories that has helped shape me. The memory is still so vivid and I decided to share that story now because I feel as though I have come full circle in the last decade- from the halls of the University of Minnesota, to overseas for 8 years, and back in MN while I watch the world’s biggest civil rights movement unfold, originating in my home state. It has re-sparked the conversations I’ve had and the things I learned from studying systems of oppression, feminism, racism, and sociology. It has got me reading again and listening again and learning again about all of the things that used to light me up- human rights. I remember explaining to my parents once I changed my major from Marine Biology to Women’s Studies that I want to be a dive instructor but not a biologist and Women’s Studies will always be something I’m passionate about. Equal rights will always be something I’m passionate about. That won’t change. Now I’m back and I’m finding myself coming full circle, asking… “Where can I grow? How can I help? Where is my lens limited due to my life experience? How can we do better?” And I realize that we should never stop asking ourselves these questions. We should never stop striving to be uncomfortable and to ask ourselves what makes us so uncomfortable- where does it come from? Racism isn’t comfortable, homophobia isn’t comfortable, sexism isn’t comfortable. If you want to learn about these experiences you have to be willing to get uncomfortable and I don’t see enough people willing to do that.