Looking back on 2021: A reflection on work, family, coming out, and graduate school

What’s up everybody, it’s dǰ pišpiš. Last year I posted a tier list of 20 durable moments of 2020 which reviewed a number of noteworthy personal, local, and regional events throughout the year. The months following that tier list were filled with uncertainty, ranging from the wild goose chase of in-person AmeriCorps service (at least from the standpoint of my site supervisors) and the onslaught of COVID 19, to contours of grad school admissions vis decreased enrollment and departmental/college cash flow issues. Yet, 2021 was a time for me to step away from the arrogance characteristic of my high school and undergraduate educations. By arrogance, I mean my propensity to relentlessly pursue merit and recognition in my intellectual endeavor without regard to the costs on my body and self concept.

This is not to say, however, that I should not continue to make transformative interventions within the communities and institutions I am part of. Indeed, these continue to be recurring themes in the content of my transitions throughout 2021. More pertinently, I argue 2021 represents a major shift in the terms and conditions of my personal and community transformations. To this end, I do not intend merely to recapture personally significant moments in the past year (which admittedly are far and fewer than prior years) because they by themselves do not speak to the growth that I made and the hardships I experienced. Rather, I reflect on a few personal turns of 2021 with attention to my body, my sense of self, and the meaning of my relationships among friends, colleagues, and communities.

I begin with my work as an AmeriCorps tutor for a Seattle area high school because it represents what I think to be a too-common double-edge sword in K-12 education that I resonate with: a love for the work and school community coupled with burnout and a lack of mentor support amid the fluid conditions of online learning. Up until April, most of my work took place online which meant I had the bandwidth to pursue other activities immediately after work hours. On March 15, Governor Inslee signed an executive order mandating a least a portion of weekly K-12 instructional time to be devoted to in-person learning. This immediately made me worry because that meant I’d lose personal off-hours to devote to self care.

Although my school asked me to stay remote (much to my relief), the need to re-learn how to tutor within the dynamics of the hybrid classroom meant I had to throw away much of the strategies I developed for working with students and dealing with personal emotional setbacks. It didn’t help that a larger proportion of students across the country faced mental health issues, which was what got us the March 15 executive order. While Governor Inslee was well intentioned in considering the mental health needs of children during the pandemic, he failed to account for two things: 1) the mental health needs of educators, also amplified during the pandemic, and 2) the precarious conditions created by COVID 19 at a time when vaccine eligibility was much narrower than it is today. Unlike being a college student, being an underpaid servant of the state meant I had little say over how much stress my body is subjected to—or put quite frankly, the terms and modalities in which I perform (or do not perform) work that furthers the interest of the state at cost to my personal wellbeing.

By the time 2021 hit, I had already applied to PhD programs in hope of eventually reclaiming some semblance of structure and intellectual fulfillment. Meanwhile, I learned Research Family at University of Washington had started up again, and I wanted to spend time weekly with my Pacific Islander friends and colleagues from school. I looked forward to Research Family after long days in AmeriCorps because I truly did see the community as a family. As the weeks went by in early 2021, the community subtly shifted towards becoming an online study group where I played study music (read: Harry Potter) and saw familiar faces.

Right away, I was keen on protecting this sacred space for myself and equally for other Pacific Islander students. While the space was academic and community-focused by mission, its community focus became all too important for members who too wanted to escape from the brutal demands of Zoom University. I particularly admire the leadership Ronalei Gasetoto who co-facilitated Research Family. Like myself, Rona was also in hot pursuit of a transformative academic career, going so far as to apply for PhD programs in the same year I did. Her empathetic attention to the social and emotional needs of her communities and protégés made Research Family as strong and resilient during the pandemic. This was a point I emphasized in my endorsement of Rona for the Husky 100 award. While higher education as a whole arguably diminishes the importance of socio-emotional learning in its classrooms, Rona’s ethic of caring is something I aspire to mirror in the spaces I participate in—and eventually in classes I teach.

In addition to caring for my chosen family, and despite the setbacks I experienced in AmeriCorps, I found ways to connect with and reclaim my own body. This was also true spiritually, though I did not explore that possibility until after I began my PhD program later this past year. For a number of years leading up to 2021 I experienced gender dysphoria, not wanting to live up to the masculine terms attached to my assigned gender. I began to see myself as non-binary (e.g. by using they/them pronouns), but even then I often found myself subsumed by gendered assumptions and expectations of labor I am expected to contribute to my communities. I began researching feminizing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in 2020. Because of COVID, I did not actually begin HRT until this past May. If you are friends with me and have not noticed the new terms in which I identify with, consider this my formal ‘coming out’ statement! In all seriousness, living as a woman has opened new avenues for me to explore my newfound congruency with my body and my emotional state. Most importantly, it radically shifted the terms of my relationships with chosen family and the communities I am part of.

My success in graduate school at the University of Minnesota Department of Anthropology today presupposes the terms and conditions of learning and transformation that I set up in the preceding events. While I take as a starting point—and owe my gratitude to countless friends, colleagues, mentors, and ‘aiga for supporting me with—the work I have done leading up to my admission and transition into a PhD program, these merely represent part of the ebb and flow of the excitement I have for moving forward in my career, and the necessity to shield myself from some of the more ugly academic and political realities within the university. In other words, I needed to approach graduate school differently from my undergraduate education because the terms of my participation and intervention in academia has shifted from a focus on my personal, community and intellectual growth toward a focus on professional development and investments in disciplinarity.

Unlike AmeriCorps, I eventually found a way to begin changing the terms of my investments (or divestments) in disciplinary anthropology. It was not easy. For the first time in my educational journey, I truly felt intimidated by the expectations of coursework and felt I did not have a lot to say in seminar discussions. This was true especially in the department’s classical anthropology theory course. The interlocutors we engaged with were mostly so-called ‘dead white men’ that I took no liking to because of their participation in the discipline’s colonial projects. Yet, even though I accepted that I had to—and wanted to—engage with the texts of American classical anthropology, I found little to no affective appeal to the content of our interlocutors. What is weird is that even though some students are clearly invested in engaging with the arguments and contributions of our interlocutors (an issue I plan to unpack later), I could not explain this with the fact the department is a predominantly white space.

On the other hand, I found my place in spaces of disciplinary rupture—those that skirt and often subvert the boundaries of established academic disciplines. The praxis component of the Ways of Knowing course is one example, of course, but I am thinking also about the syllabus that I and my colleagues collectively developed as the final project for the Critical Seminar in Anthropology of Race and Racism course. Although our proposed course critically interrogates and departs from the classical presuppositions of American anthropology, the course is accountable to a reimagining and tranformation of subdisciplinary boundaries and presupposes a decolonial interrogation of and divestment from the discipline’s investments in racism and settler colonialism. Together, the praxis and syllabus projects have inspired me to ask the big questions: Can I as an anthropological scholar divest from a positivist research paradigm indicative of most traditional social science research? Is a decolonial anthropology—that which takes as its foundation theories and methodologies from, and is accountable to BIPOC knowledge paradigms—possible?

I want to close this section by sharing a personal dedication grounded in witchcraft ontology. Despite beginning a formal personal practice relatively late in the year, my spirituality has become an important part of how I see my place in relation to people, to the built and natural environments, to the cosmos, to my ancestors and deities in the spirit world, and to the otherwise unknowable. If my gender identity represents my path towards a congruent physical and symbolic embodiment, being a witch represents my path towards understanding the ethereal and relational aspects of myself and all beings in the universe. This is the line of thinking I will continue to pursue in 2022 with an eye towards continuing to create conditions and possibilities for an anti racist decolonial praxis.

Dedication: Meaning of life and death

My name is Fa’aumu Kaimana. I shall henceforth be known as Raven to my fellow witches, God and Goddess, and the spirits.

I am a Dark Witch bound to the temporalities of light and dark, of life and death, of the seasons, of the lunar cycles, of living and breathing, and of magick.

I am an ancient yet eternal being ever connected to the natural world, to all beings living and nonliving, to the underworld and the cosmos, and ultimately to the corporeal, spiritual, and magickal planes.

My magick has always been a part of me. From the very beginning, magick is the life force that ties my body, my soul and my ethereal being together.

My wand, fashioned from Gabon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora), shall symbolise my magickal power and bodily sovereignty as a witch.

The cornerstones of my practice are empathy, spirit bending, dark magick, techno magick, resonance magick, healing, wayfinding, and handcrafting.

My powers are part of a beautifully choreographed whole, the Old Ways.

I am forever connected to my ancestors of many generations through magick. I am part of a sacred continuity, a divine source of spiritual energy for which I am one incarnation among thousands of others before me.

This source of spiritual energy is my home. When I draw magick from my own body, a deep part of me reminds me what home feels like.

Home is a warm, electrical, and energetic feeling, often emerging from my gut. My magick reminds me how deeply I miss home, both in the corporeal and spiritual sense.

I yearn to return home to my ancestors and to the people I love, including mum. When I die, I know where to go and how to return home.

Yet, I have a strong life ahead of me in the corporeal plane. Despite being an orphaned adult child at 19 years in my current incarnation, I have chosen family in both the corporeal and spiritual planes.

Living a fulfilling life means I carry my life forward in a personally meaningful way.

In the mundane world, this means being a decolonial activist and standing up for communities who often hold intersecting positions of precarity as I do.

In the spiritual sense, this means remaining loyal to my ancestors and chosen family.

Though not infallible, I shall not lose sight of who I am. I have found and will always find meaning in my joy, euphoria, love, emotions, sadness, trauma, and darkness.

This is the path I have chosen. It is a highly personal and solitary path. In this corporeal society, I trust that the greatest power I have is the power I have over my own self. My magick empowers me well beyond the confines of witchcraft and my mantle as a Dark Witch.

This shall be my will. Blessed be.

Dedicated on the Day of Solstice, 21 December 2021

That’s it. See you.

Olivia Foa’i, “Hau La” (2019)

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