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Mentorship as Activism – Remembering Dr. Lee Ann Fujii

September 9, 2018

This is a guest post by Lahoma Thomas, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. She was a doctoral student and research assistant of Dr. Lee Ann Fujii. Lahoma’s research examines the relational dynamics between criminal organizations and the residents subject to their authority. Follow her on Twitter at @LAHOMAthomas.

Dr. Lee Ann Fujii was my doctoral supervisor, mentor and friend. It has taken me one hundred and sixty-eight days to write about her. There are still moments when I instinctively reach for my phone to engage Lee Ann in a discussion about an experience I had or to laugh over a silly video about cats. Speaking about Lee Ann in the past tense is difficult. Moreover, committing her life and passing to text feels definitive.

Lee Ann’s colleagues have written about her prowess as a scholar. They are correct. She possessed a brilliant, sharp and inquisitive mind. Anyone who spoke with her for two minutes could deduce that she was an exceptional thinker. For her students and junior colleagues, what stood out along with her impressive intellect was her generosity, skill and compassion as a mentor.

The word ‘mentor’ refers to an experienced and trusted person who gives a less experienced one guidance and advice. As Lori Patton and Shaun Harper argued, mentoring “is a cornerstone in the success of graduate education and depends highly on student-faculty relationships propelled by trust, integrity, opportunity, and understanding.”

Lee Ann understood this.

She took a nuanced approach to her supervision that went beyond the conventional understanding of the mentoring role of professors. Yes, she performed the administrative tasks that were necessary for ensuring that her student progressed through her academic program, but her commitment was so much more.

To be mentored by Lee Ann was to undergo a holistic experience of personal and professional development: advice on career advancement, directions for accessing networks, diligent word-by-word review of written work, and lively discussions about outfit selection before a conference. It also included very real, very frank discussions about the realities of academia, about the experiences of racialized scholars in the discipline, and in the social sciences, more broadly.

Lee Ann understood, intimately, the formidable hurdles that keep racialized women out of the academy, as well as the barriers limiting their advancement into tenure track faculty positions, especially for Black women. However, Lee Ann possessed the heart and sensibilities of an activist, and Political Science was the site of her political engagement. She was determined to transform the discipline from within. Mentoring was one of her critical strategies for dismantling these barriers.

Not only did Lee Ann use her platform as a professor in Canada’s most prominent university to write about the necessity for diversity in the discipline, she also engaged in transformative and revolutionary work every day by mentoring doctoral students of colour like myself. As Nikoli Alexander-Floyd wrote in PS: Political Science & Politics in 2008, Black female doctoral students in the academy rarely have the opportunity to be mentored by female faculty of colour, especially in Political Science.

As a female political scientist of colour, Lee Ann was honest about the challenges that come with frequently being the only women of colour in academic spaces. However, she also stressed that we can use those same spaces as sites for disrupting hegemonic ontologies. In particular, she encouraged me to celebrate how my subjectivity as a Black woman of Caribbean descent demanded that I ask a different set of questions about how violence, gender, race and ethnicity operate in the world.

The academy can be a competitive and unfriendly territory, especially for racialized sholars whose worldviews do not line up with the conventional thinking in political science. When you are a young scholar and your experiences and understanding of the world are at odds with the epistemological frameworks of the discipline, it can produce self-doubt about whether there is a space for your epistemological contributions to the discipline. Lee Ann cast away my doubts, encouraging me instead to forge ahead.

“Do you doubt me?”, she would ask.

“I believe in you. You belong here”, she would reassure me.

“Do not let others determine your path. Focus on getting it done.”

Lee Ann’s speeches of encouragement were direct and to the point.

Lee Ann was also candidly honest about the emotional and psychological toll the academy exacted on racialized scholars, especially on those who bravely advocated for the racial diversification of the discipline. She was transparent about her race-related and emotionally injurious experiences, because she rightly understood that my success in the academy would not depend on the merit of my scholarship alone, it also necessitated my preparedness for disappointments in the academy.

From Lee Ann I learned this preparedness entails celebrating your scholarly successes despite not receiving institutional recognition, to remain steadfast in one’s identity when colleagues mistake you for a student, to highlight the contradictions in the espousal of inclusivity and the failure to put it into practice, and how to heal following the refusal of progressive colleagues to respond to one’s pleas for allyship.

Lee Ann was a powerful role model.

She also imparted her strong ethical standard when conducting research. “To be a researcher”, she would say, “is to be invited into another’s life and into their intimate thoughts and perceptions. We must, therefore, recognize our access as a privilege, not a right.” Ethics and integrity guided all of Lee Ann’s work.

Lee Ann’s presence and career signified that, in a discipline where I did not see myself reflected, there could be space for someone who looked like me, for someone who questioned the discipline’s epistemological understanding of our social world like me, and for someone who challenged the status quo like me.

The power of Dr. Lee Ann Fujii’s mentorship transcends the finality of death. For she still mentors me.


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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.