Renowned Genderqueer Disabled Activist Eli Clare Keynotes Diverse Learners Week

White, disabled, and genderqueer activist Eli Clare greeted a room of about 80 or so students and faculty this Wednesday evening, many of them primed with notebooks for his lecture “Defective, Deficient, and Burdensome: Thinking About Bad Bodies.” A large section of the crowd was from the Critical Feminist Methodologies class, the others simply attendees.

Photos by Taylor Elwood

He asked the crowd about volume and screen brightness, passed out multi-sized font versions of his speech and encouraged the crowd to sit, stand, or lie down during the presentation—whatever helped individuals absorb information and stay present. This was the opening to his keynote speech at the College’s Diverse Learners Week.

This week marked the second annual Diverse Learners Week at Colorado College coordinated by Accessibility Resources and The Library Partners, a wide-reaching group of other offices on campus such as The Colket Center for Academic Excellence, Collaborative for Community Engagement (CCE), and The Butler Center, among others.

The week underscores what Sara Rotunno, Assistant Director of Accessibility Resources, characterizes as an expansion and enhancement of diverse learners programming happening on campus this fall. According to Rotunno the week, “highlights CC’s commitment to value all persons and to learn from their diverse experiences and perspectives.”

Programming runs the gamut from an English as a Second Language (ESL) training with the CC Refugee Alliance to Adaptive Climbing Workshops at the Ritt Kellog Climbing Gym. The week’s keynote speaker was activist, poet, essayist and self-proclaimed rabble rouser, Eli Clare.

Clare spoke about what leads society to characterize certain body-minds, communities, or groups of people as defective in a presentation that combined academic-style presenting with poetry and emphasized history’s role in creating the narrative of ‘bad bodies’ and the inextricable connection between ableism and racism. 

Clare was quick to define ableism as a key contributor to the shaping of the narrative saying, “ableism means the system of discrimination, bigotry, stigma, and oppression that targets disabled people and people who are perceived as disabled…[it] manifests in dozens and dozens and dozens of ways including, education, employment, healthcare, violence, stereotypes, all kinds of access, and on and on…” becoming emotional as he spoke.

In conversation with Clare outside of Slocum Hall the afternoon of his keynote; he spoke about the importance of activism past college graduation and treating social change work as a means toward liberation that could only be achieved via intersectional activism.

“Part of it is knowing that social change work and the work of finding liberation is long haul work, that’s not measure in weeks or months or even years. It’s measured in decades,” said Clare. He went on to add, “Part of…being involved for the long-haul is not being seduced by the ways we are privileged.”

Clare spends much of his year traveling, speaking to colleges and groups and emphasized the unique climate of political resistance he’s been observing in his travels saying, “We’re in this time of resistance and rebellion, the likes of which, hasn’t been true in the United States since the 1960s and there’s something really powerful about that.”

When asked to gauge the emotions and energy of the groups he interacts with in his travels and work as a lecturer, Clare said, “I would say we’re angry. I would say we’re exhausted. I would say that some of us feel threats on a daily basis. I would say we are ready to resist and rebel and dream about the future.”

At the end of the keynote Clare was met with thunderous applause from the crowd. He broached breaking into small groups to discuss, but as he predicted earlier in the day, the energy of the room was down. The group opted to move directly into Q&A.

When Clare was asked what he hoped students would take away from his talk, he took a long pause before saying deliberately, “I want people to walk away thinking, ‘How does this world create some people as defective or bad and other people as good and normal?’”

And then, “How does white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, ableism, the gender binary…create certain communities as bad and defective? And, how did that creation impact what you learn here at Colorado College?” 

Clare paused for nearly a minute before concluding, “I want people to walk away with questions. I don’t necessarily want people to walk away with my answers. I want people to leave events with questions that help them move through the world in a different way.”

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