Academia is often spoken of as an “Ivory Tower,” a place where liberal ideas are floated around in a dream world. Unlike the majority of my friends, I never thought I would be an academic. I did not dream of teaching courses, churning out articles, conducting overseas research. I dreamed of completing my undergraduate studies and moving to the Middle East, doing community-organizing work around issues of peace and justice. I envisioned myself a staunch advocate, gaining a great deal of experience on the ground before perhaps entering the policy realm. I saw myself as the action girl. My friends entering academia were going to think about it. I was going to do it.
Then, a hidden itch surfaced. And demanded to be scratched.
In the beginning of my junior year at Michigan State University, I began work on my honors thesis. At first, its topic was incredibly broad: food and water issues in the Middle East and North Africa. My mentor and I expected to find a plethora of possible foci to explore, necessitating a decision about where my research would center. But as we conducted an extensive literature review, we found something incredibly unsettling: There was not too much to consider. There was too little. There was a good deal of scholarship on irrigation technologies coming from Egypt and Israel, research seeking to maximize large-scale commercial productivity. But we found almost nothing on issues of food access and distribution. The phrase "environmental justice" was virtually nonexistent. We emailed colleagues and authors around the world, asking for resources on food issues in the Middle East and North Africa. Always the same reply: "Huh. You're right. I haven't really seen anything."
I was shocked. Having spent summers in Egypt and Israel exploring issues of peace and justice, I knew that hunger was a widespread problem. Having worked on a research project exploring the history of hunger relief and food justice in sub-Saharan Africa, I knew how much attention was given – academically and politically, internationally and locally - to issues of hunger and famine in that region. How was it that equally-starved populations in the Middle East and North Africa region garnered almost no attention from international and scholastic communities?
A false dichotomy has emerged in discourses surrounding the Middle East and North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa regions. In media, global aid funding, and academia, the same separation is seen: Politics happens in the Middle East; hunger happens in Africa. This false dichotomy was clearly seen during the "Arab Spring" that took place in Spring 2011. When the events began, major news outlets mentioned "unrest in Tunisia over food prices," mentioning one street vendor who had committed self-immolation over economic woes. Within a week, those headlines were gone. And suddenly a "democratic movement" was sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. When the same political movement entered sub-Saharan Africa, though, and unions went on strike, oppositional presidential candidates were arrested, and people formed their own "Tahrir Protests," headlines read along the line of "Food riots in Uganda."
Recently, political scientists and international relations scholars have begun fighting against this dichotomy. Theses, books, and courses on African democracy and political systems are emerging. They have yet to achieve equal status with the attention given to political theory in the West and in Asia, but the scholarship exists. And now it is time for the dichotomy to be further dissected. Attention must be given to issues of food distribution, hunger, and environmental justice in the Middle East and North Africa. I believe the international academic community missed a great window of opportunity when they allowed the "Arab Spring" to come and go without challenging the dichotomized reaction that quickly emerged in media and political discourse. We cannot let it happen again.
My anger over the world's reaction to the Middle East and North Africa region's "Arab Spring" versus sub-Saharan Africa's "food riots" confirmed for me what had been a growing dread: I am called to be an academic. I need to help break down this dichotomy, and my experiences at Michigan State University have convinced me that working in academia is the best way to do this. My professors and mentors at State have lived in anything but an Ivory Tower. Speaking with instructors out of class hours, I have heard just how greatly academics can influence domestic and international policy decisions. Interning at the Center for Gender in Global Context, I see firsthand how high-ranking professors can utilize grant funding to put seemingly lofty plans into practice. Sitting on numerous boards and councils has stressed the incredible impact academic institutions have on the world, from local community advocacy to research results that are truly changing lives.
The more involved I became in my university's administrative and academic affairs, the more I saw academia’s true power. And that hidden itch strengthened. With each new article a professor-friend published, each policy proposal an instructor was asked to write for President Obama, each NGO success story told by a grant-writing team, I felt the need to scratch. My teachers, friends, and family started hearing "I'm having this terrible feeling I'm going to wake up one day and find myself an academic. And I won't do it! I won't!"
I fought it for years. But resistance was futile. The problem with a call is that it does not go away. I am called to be an academic. I have seen the incredible power of academia in shaping international opinion, affecting funding patterns, and changing policy decisions. I believe that a career as an academic will enable me to be the activist-advocate I have always wanted to be, in an informed and influential manner. And so I am going to climb the Ivory Tower. And then I am going to let down my hair.