19. The Neutrality Trap

Dr. Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán, the inaugural executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Eastern Mennonite University, is the featured guest.

Font-Guzmán, a native of Puerto Rico, talks about her journey into conflict resolution and to the position at EMU from the fields of law and healthcare. She also shares about her new book, co-written with Bernie Mayer, The Neutrality Trap: Disrupting and connecting for social change (Wiley, 2021)The message at the heart of  The Neutrality Trap is that, when it comes  to the important social issues that face us  today, avoiding conflict is a mistake. We  need conflict, engagement, and disruption in order to make it to the other side  and progress toward the worthy goal of  social justice. 

The two authors, former colleagues at Creighton University, will co-teach a course on disrupting and connecting for social change at CJP’s 2022 Summer Peacebuilding Institute

“The idea is that a lot of our value neutrality stems from a position of privilege that it’s easy to be neutral,’ such as the professional codes of ethics for lawyers and medical personnel,” Font-Guzmán explains. “But if you look at it, they’re all through the lens of really preserving a status quo and a system that was not built with people that come from a minoritized group like mine…Every time you’re thinking about being neutral or professional, what does that really mean?”

Font-Guzmán is a practitioner in the conflict transformation field and is also a professor at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. She has a master’s degree in healthcare administration from St. Louis University, a law degree from InterAmericana University of Puerto Rico and a PhD in conflict analysis and resolution from Nova Southeastern Florida. Font-Guzmán’s first book “Experiencing Puerto Rican Citizenship and Cultural Nationalism” (Palgrave Macmillan) was the winner of the Puerto Rico Bar Association 2015 Juridical Book of the Year.

She characterizes EMU as at “an exciting crossroad where there’s a group of people really authentically going through thinking how they can make a better world, how they can really lead together, how we can teach our students to be out there, be truly agents of social change and be leaders in affecting that social change.” 

Read about her philosophy and her leadership with new DEI initiatives on campus.


Guest

Profile image

Jackie Font-Guzmán


Dr. Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán (Jackie) serves as the inaugural executive director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), at EMU. She is also a tenured professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Jackie is a Fulbright scholar who has actively participated in the fields of conflict, peacebuilding studies, and DEI through national and international conferences and workshops. Her research focuses on how marginalized individuals create alternate stories and counter-narratives to transform (or dismantle) institutional/structural injustices. Her book, Experiencing Puerto Rican Citizenship and Cultural Nationalism, was selected as the Puerto Rico Bar Association 2015 Juridical Book of the Year. Jackie received her BA from Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, her Masters in Health Care Administration from Saint Louis University, Missouri, her Law degree summa cum laude from the Interamericana University of Puerto Rico School of Law, and her PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from Nova Southeastern University, Florida.


Transcript

Jackie:
But I think for me, I guess my theory of change is that relationships need to be at the core of change. I think relationships have the capacity and the opportunity to alter power dynamics.

Theme music:
[Theme music begins and fades into background]

Patience:
Hello and happy Wednesday to you! Welcome back to Peacebuilder, a Conflict Transformation Podcast by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. My name is Patience Kamau, and this season we are focusing on our Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) by featuring guests who will teach a course this summer, beginning May 16 through June 17. After two years of online courses only, we are returning to an in-person experience; we hope you can join us. Find more details at emu.edu/spi. Our guest, this episode is:

Jackie:
Jackie Font-Guzmán, Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Eastern Mennonite University, and co-author of the book, “The Neutrality Trap.”

Patience:
Dr. Jacqueline Font-Guzmán (Jackie) serves as the inaugural executive director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), here at EMU. She is also a tenured professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Jackie is a Fulbright scholar who has actively participated in the fields of conflict, peacebuilding studies, and DEI through national and international conferences and workshops. Her research focuses on how marginalized individuals create alternate stories and counter-narratives to transform (or dismantle) institutional and structural injustices. Her book, “Experiencing Puerto Rican Citizenship and Cultural Nationalism,” was selected as the Puerto Rico Bar Association 2015 Juridical Book of the Year. Jackie received her BA from Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, her Masters in Health Care Administration from Saint Louis University, Missouri, her law degree summa cum laude from the Interamericana University of Puerto Rico School of Law, and her Ph.D. In Conflict Analysis and Resolution from Nova Southeastern University, Florida.

Theme music:
[Theme music resumes and plays till end]

Patience:
Hi Jackie.

Jackie:
Hi Patience.

Patience:
It’s wonderful to have you here! Um, so tell us what has been your journey… what was your journey to EMU to Eastern Mennonite university?

Jackie:
So it’s been a journey actually that I’ve been following really based on my passion for advancing social justice and advancing and working in favor of people that have been historically marginalized. And so most of my life in one way or another has been based on that, my thoughts and my… my strong belief that we’re put here to use our skills to the best of our ability and that we should do that benefiting those that maybe have been less privileged than us. And so all of my history in terms of work, my education has really followed that belief.

Patience:
Is this your first role as, uh, in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion?

Jackie:
With the official title, yes, but before coming to EMU, I was the… I served several roles at Creighton University and among those roles was director of a program that is similar to our Center for Justice and Peacebuilding here at EMU and also director of an institute, which served similar goals of engaging people, conflict-engagement/peacebuilding. And as it turned out, we ended up doing a lot of work, precisely building community and inviting people to connect through their differences. So a lot of the work that I ended up doing was DEI work without really having the title, and we didn’t have –at that time– a director or a VP for DEI, and so I ended up doing a lot of that work and I was passionate about it.

Patience:
Well, we are very lucky to have you here at EMU. So what is your personal background and professional… personal and professional background in this work that you are doing?

Jackie:
Personally, I am, I’m originally from Puerto Rico and that’s home for me and where my family is and many of my friends are. I was raised there and then went to school, went to the Midwest for my undergraduate and for my graduate degrees. And then I went back home, got my law degree, did my Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution at Nova Southeastern University, that’s in terms of my academic background. And I have been privileged to have a really diverse background –so I worked in healthcare for many, many years as a healthcare administrator. And then, I worked many years, litigating as an attorney, back home, and then I entered into academia and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 17, 16, 17 years.

Patience:
And part of that is you’ve done some Alternative Dispute Resolution and Conflict Resolution. Can you talk about what those two are and what the differences or similarities are?

Jackie:
Sure. So part of my journey into conflict was as a lawyer, I, the law is a very individualistic kind of discipline, right? You, you are, you’re for the most part advocating for individual rights. And yes, there are, there are occasions where you’re doing class action lawsuits, where you’re bringing many people and you’re advocating for many of them, but it’s usually about getting rights for an individual or a group of individuals. And it is really hard to change structures and systems that way, because you’re basically solving one. The problem that one person has or one group has, and you’re giving them a remedy, which usually is either money or maybe reinstatement even in a job, but the reasons for filing those lawsuits, what gets people there because their right has been violated are not really solved through litigation, very rarely right. The movements to change things like our civil rights in the United States and, and the shifting to, advocating for more rights for African Americans and Blacks, that really doesn’t start in the legal system. It’s almost like it ends there when people at the ground-level have been doing activism and saying enough is enough and we need to change. And so, as I was litigating, I realized that I really wanted to do more, that I, that it was really satisfying to be able to have people’s rights, vindicated, right, so get their rights back and, and make them whole again to the extent that we could, but that it was a lot more satisfying, instead of me advocating for people, create the spaces for people to advocate for themselves. And that there was more change that could happen in that way. So both areas are needed, but obviously I started gravitating towards it. I want to  make more structural changes or plant the seeds for those structural changes to happen. And that led me to, as a lawyer, to ADR, which is known as Alternative Dispute Resolution and, and the foundation of that, and the origins is an alternative to litigation. So still very much within that framework of litigation and advocating for rights. And, I started working in terms of processes with mediation, for the most part, as a mediator, bringing people together in healthcare areas, malpractice and employment cases, to try to bring them together with their employer, employee and see how they could basically cut a deal, right. An assisted negotiation process. And that was really gratifying, and I learned a lot, but then I realized, well, there has to be even more to this, and I found that the way I see it in my mind visually is if you’re looking at conflict, engagement and peacebuilding as a kind of a continuum where at the very, at one extreme, you have ADR and, mediation and negotiation and this individually based process, and then on the other extreme, or, towards, the other end, you have peacebuilding, which starts dealing more with structures and, changing the structures themselves and empowering people to do work at the ground level. Then somewhere along that continuum, I started gravitating more towards the structural component of it. And so I think that’s a big difference. One of the things that attracted me to CJP was that I see immensely the potential to be a place where those two things can be bridged because you obviously need both of them.

Patience:
Right.

Jackie:
And, and so having those individual skill sets, but at the same time, being aware of having a way of thinking in a systematic way, systematic looking at the systems themselves is a way to really impact change grounded in an Anabaptist, Mennonite tradition.

Patience:
Mm-hmm.

Jackie:
Where you you’re. One of the pillars is community building and relationships and social justice, for me was almost like a no-brainer. So, it was a, that, that was a big draw in terms of being in that position to be able to, to hold those two areas or spaces where conflict engagement happens.

Patience:
How has that prepared you? So you are the inaugural Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at EMU. The school is going to its 102nd year. So you would’ve joined at around over a hundred years later –how does that, how does that feel to you? How have you processed that if you have, and what, what thoughts do you have to share on that?

Jackie:
I think the way, the way I have, and I’ve been now, I think it’s nine months at EMU. I feel EMU is at an exciting crossroad where there’s a group of people really authentically going through thinking how they can make a better world, how they can really lead together how the, how we can teach our students to be out there and be truly agents of social change and be leaders in affecting that social change.

Patience:
Mm-hmm.

Jackie:
And, EMU has a lot, a long way to go, like many other institutions do. But what I find at EMU and what has prepared me to do this, is that my experiences of being able to have gone through all that continuum that I just described, like not only the individual, but also the, the systems and the system thinking part of it and the relationship building part of it has really prepared me. I think, to come into an institution that truly values community, we may not agree on everything. And we don’t, it’s not that everything works perfectly, but what keeps us all together is that, that concept and that value, that community is important, that we really truly cannot do things by ourselves, that you need to be not only collaborating, but standing in solidarity with. And so being able to have had those experiences at the individual, and then in terms of process, and then thinking at the system level has been really helpful I think for me, and I think also my experience individually. So I mentioned initially I came from Puerto Rico and in Puerto Rico, I was, you know, I was a woman and women are never fully privileged in any place in our society, but I was from there. I was a part, I belonged, right. I had a family that, you know, I didn’t have to go through marginalization or a lot of oppression in the sense of looking for a job was easy and, and doing certain things was really easy. And then I moved to the states and all of a sudden I was from a minoritized group, you know, a woman with an accent, not really belonging, not being white enough to be white, nor black enough to be black, which is a situation that many Puerto Ricans face. And so that taught me a whole series of experiences that I think have helped me to really truly remind myself of, you know, the importance of empathy and the importance of how high the stakes are. And so for me I think those, the personal experiences, and then the professional experiences and background and training have helped me coming to EMU and collaborating with a group of people that at the end of the day, they really want, they really want things to be better. They really want things, we all want to just live into our vision and mission. And I think that this in a way, has prepared me to be at this place. I feel, as I reflect, that there is no other place right now that I’d rather be, or work, or other group of people that I would rather be working with than with the people I’m working with rightworking right now. And so usually,, I think internally that’s, that’s kind of a, a good sign of, you know, are you where you’re supposed to be?

Patience:
I would be curious, um, the combination of, that you feel that you are in the right place, and also what you mentioned, uh, just a couple of minutes ago that EMU is working towards something, obviously, it has a growth mindset. How do you navigate that gap that can exist between where we hope to be and where we are and bringing people along who may not see the vision of where we can be?

Jackie:
Yes, that’s a really good and profound question and, and not an easy answer, but I think for me, what, what I guess my theory of change is that relationships need to be at the core of change. Think, relationships have the capacity and the opportunity to alter power dynamics. It’s a lot easier to be oppressive towards someone, if you don’t really know them or you don’t understand them. And so starting to build those relationships are really important. I think what marginalization and oppression does, and misogynism, and lack of diversity, and lack of equity and inclusion and belongingness does, what is, what structures do in a way…in way is they push you toward spaces where you cannot share your common humanity. They push you to spaces where solidarity is impossible to accomplish. It’s like you’re no longer human. And so I think a way to bridge that is by extending and reaching out to those individuals that may feel that things are okay as they are, and we don’t need to change them. And so reaching out and connecting and creating spaces for people to have the opportunity to engage with each other and simultaneously, also increasing conflict, disrupting, you can’t have changed , without disruption, but you have to have healthy disruption. So that disruption doesn’t overwhelm the system so much or the institution that then people freeze, get paralyzed, get too defensive and then change doesn’t happen. And it anchors you even more in the status quo. So I think it’s that balance of trying to hold that tension between reaching out, having conversations, trying to get to know the other person, not even necessarily understanding them. I am very much aware when I am talking to different groups that, have been oppressed at EMU, that I will never be able to truly understand their experience. And that’s okay. I don’t need to understand it to be able to stand in solidarity with and make the necessary disruption to make change. So I think holding those two tensions is extremely important,, because the alternative for me is really not an alternative. The alternative is to completely avoid conflict and not do anything or continue to disrupt for the sake of disruption…but we’re like a hamster on a wheel, we’re not really going anywhere.

Patience:
Right.

Jackie:
We’re calling attention and we’re disrupting a lot, but the institution and the structure stayed the same.

Transition music:
[Transition music plays]

Patience:
So that makes me think of the book we mentioned at the beginning of the episode, “The Neutrality Trap,” that you are co-author with, who is your co-author?

Jackie:
Bernie Mayer is the first, main author of the book. And he invited me, oh my God, almostGod. , almost a year and a half ago or so,, to join him in this journey of writing this book. And,, we wanted to write a book about everything that has been going on. I mean, the murder of Floyd in our nation,, so many other murders of white, I mean, of black, African Americans or Bblacks or Bbrown people in the hands of white, mostly male police enforcement agents, although not exclusively. And it seemed like our society was going through some change. And yet both of us come from the conflict field. And we started to question something that other colleagues have been questioning, which is, are the tools and the skills and the processes that we’re using really helpful to, to make change, social change happen?. When most of them, at least in the US,  have really been developed by white male from privilege. And so we started questioning that and obviously, Bernie at the time, said I want to have some diversity, I want to na have someonehave some, someone to think through things differently. And we have been colleagues for over aover, over a decade at, at Creighton University. And so we embarked in this journey together. Andand, and it’s really is about questioning many of the beliefs that our field in peace building and conflict engagement have had for, for decades or since its inception. And are they really working , what do we need to do? And dialogue is great, and conversation is good. But when you talk to people–, I know, I personally, as a member of a minoritized group here in the U.S.– when people say “let’s have a dialogue,” what first comes to my mind is like, “really again, another one?” I mean like how many times are we going to talk about it? Yeah. And so, part of the book is struggling with all of that and, sharing some of our personal stories and how we have, come to terms with what are some of the things that need to change. And, that this disruption is a good thing. And that, and not only conflict is a good thing, which most of us intuitively at least in our field, we very much, we know that, but also to disrupt, to be able to change the systems and to be able to have a dialogue with an end game, not just for the sake of feeling like we’re good, we have a good conversation and good things came out of it. So trying to take that to the next level. And so that’s kind of what led us  to writing to, to the book, which is coming out now in January, 26th of 2022.

Patience:
That’s right. So by the time people are listening to this podcast, the book will have been out for about a week. Uh, what’s the full title of the book?

Jackie:
It’s “The Neutrality Trap: Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change.”

Patience:
All right. So how do we avoid that trap of neutrality? This is the question!

Jackie:
[Chuckles]

Patience:
So can you tell us how it is that we can, you keep using the word disruption? So can you help us understand how we avoid that trap of neutrality and what that actually means?

Jackie:
Yes. So we wrote a whole book on it, so I’ll try to summarizesumarize it , but thetthe idea is that a lot of our value on neutrality stems from a position of privilege, that it’s easy to be neutral. I’ll pick up an example, all most of our professional, for example, guidelines like lawyers have professional codes of ethics, medical, personnelpersonal have professional codes of ethics,  but it’s if, if you look at it, they’re all through the lens of really preserving a status quo and a system that was not built with people that come from minoritized group in mind, academic institutions were not built or created with minoritizedwithminoritized groups in mind.

Patience:
Right.

Jackie:
We have an entire system where people get insanely in debt, and so they never really can snap out of a middle class or it’s hard, it’s a cycle, right?

Patience:
Right!

Jackie:
And so one of the many ways we argue you adopt that, you change that by looking at places in the systems where we’re disrupting or changing something can have the most impact and looking at ways that if you’re in a position of leadership, you can create the necessary psychological safety for people to feel that it’s okay to do that, that you’ll have their back covered. Right?

Patience:
Mm-hmm.

Jackie:
And so we cannot continue for example, journalism, you know, or we want an objective, you know, journalist that is reporting something in a very neutral way. Well, racism is racism. There’s nothing neutral about that. And it needs to be called out and named when it happens and sitting across a colleague that is making a blatant racist comment, whether it be intentional or unintentional, or with implicit bias, that is something that we need to call attention to. And the new, the, the idea that we need to be neutral all the time stops us from doing that. And I think people in conflict know that obviously, but there’s an entire world out there, a population of people, people that I don’t think are intentionally thinking about that. So every time you’re thinking about being neutral or professional, what does that really mean? Right. In a society that was built for a few, not now, but like, I like to say all the way from the constitution, right? Like the US Constitution, “we the people” never really meant everyone. It was the white male who knew how to read and had money. And so, what we’re really facing here, is something that is wrapped around not only identity, but things that have been taken for granted. And we need to snap out of that trap, but with love, with kindness, with yes, assertiveness, but in ways that actually lead us to change, not in ways that destroy us. But even when you look at the language, whenever there are protests and manifestations, how it, the way that sometimes it’s reported is, “oh, they’re vandalizing,” but you know, the protestors, but no are like, are they really, like, we need to take a step back and, and challenge our definitions, of being angry, is okay. Right?

Patience:
Mm-hmm.

Jackie:
Like a lot of the time, I know , especially now in a Mennonite institution, how we’re always talking about , community and trying to not be angry. I think that that anger is a good thing, if it’s channeled wisely. It, It nurtures our sense of being offended by things that we should be offended by andny and then being able to take that and do something constructive with it.

Patience:
Yeah.

Jackie:
And so our entire system is designed to keep us in that neutrality trap, mediation sets let’s set ground rules, right? Um, let’s say all the, where does this come from? Why is it that we have to start that way? Um, who is that benefiting and who is notis it not benefiting? And, and so those are the things that we feel that, um, neutrality has really done a harm in many ways in advancing social change. And so we, we wrap, we grapple with the question of, have we unintentionally those who are in the field of peace building and conflict engagement and, and agents of social change, unintentionally supported, oppressive systems, um, unwilling, unwanting and unknowingly. And, and so then we provide some examples as to how we have reflected upon that based on our experiences and the work that we have done.

Patience:
Yeah. As you said that, and you mentioned, uh, journalism, I am aware that Christiane Amanpour, that this is a thing that she’s been talk she’s talked about for many, many years where she has clearly said that journalists can’t have, can’t be caught in this neutrality trap. That sort, like you said, racism is racism. Genocide is genocide.

Jackie:
Right.

Patience:
And yeah, you can’t just go and say, we’re going to present both sides. Yeah. When clearly one side is more, um…

Jackie:
…and where clearly one side maybe is wrong on the moral ethical stand. And so, but it takes a lot of courage. And like I said, I think that doing that in a way that sends the message, but also being loving and caring and not, turning the system around where now you become the oppressor right. Or, you become the person that is marginalizing someone else. And so it’s a balance. And obviously we don’t have the full answer if we had, that would be great. but we basically struggle with and share our struggle with that, and then provide some tips of things that we feel have worked in the past.

Patience:
That’s right. Um, so later in the year, during the summer, the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding has a program called the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, and you and Bernie will be co-teaching a class, will you not?

Jackie:
Yes. We’re really excited about that. It’s happening between June 6th and June 10th. And what we’re going to  be discussing is a lot of those things that’s based on the book and really challenging and questioning a lot of the beliefs and techniques that we’ve been using historically to make change happen. And so we’re really looking forward to having colleagues and people from all walks of life come in  with us on this journey. We are envisioning it as a very applied connection of theory to practice where people can leave with some tangible ways of coming back and making change, whether it be in their institutions, their communities, or their personal lives. So I think one of the things about social change is that we see it as this big thing that is overwhelming, that we don’t even know where to start. So we’re hoping with this course to talk about what does it mean, really mean to have a dialogue that can lead to change? what can you do specifically when you go back to your community or institution, um, to start working on, on change.

Patience:
And what are the dates of that course again?

Jackie:
It’s June 6th through June 10th, because it’s the Summer Peacebuilding Institute program. So it’ll be Monday through Friday, full day.

Patience:
Ok, so it is a 5-day course?

Jackie:
Yes

Patience:
And what’s the name of the course?

Jackie:
So the name of the course is “Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change.” It will be from June 6th through the 10th, and it’s a five day, Monday to Friday, two credit course. And our goal is to offer principles for how to understand the conflicts we face, but also how to change them and how to practice it, in terms of what John Lewis used to say, you know, how to get into good trouble.

Patience:
If people want to sign up for that course, they can go to emu.edu/spi.

Transition music:
[Transition music plays]

Patience:
So just to switch gears here a little bit and return to the place where you were born and raised, Puerto Rico, you did some research there. Do you mind talking about the research that you have done there about a past book that you wrote experiencing Puerto Rican, citizenship and cultural nationalism? Can you talk a bit about that?

Jackie:
Yes, so that was a, a research I did, it was a phenomenological study, which means me meeting with people, having one-on-one interviews and trying to understand how they experienced, citizenship and cultural nationalism within a colonial context, a place where you don’t really have a full say in the rules and laws that are governing your day to day life. And so Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. And it has been one since 1898. And, and so it’s an entire group of people that have been colonized and marginalized and oppressed. I mean, we’ve been oppressed in so many different layers and levels, right? And so the book was me trying to explore, what, how did that actually feel? How do you take legal terms, like citizenship or sociological terms and things like national identity and, and what does that mean for people? And so it ended up being a fascinating journey where people started sharing some of the stories and in the stories, a lot of the history of Puerto Rico would surface. And so it ended up being very heavily based on the history of Puerto Rico in many ways. And, and it also started, what really triggered me for this subject was, there was a very well known, famous political leader in Puerto Rico who died many years ago, Juan Mari Bras. And at the time I was doing my work, he was living and he decided to do a, what he called a legal experiment, which was to go and follow the legal process that needs to happen to renounce U.S. citizenship. And so Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship because it was imposed upon them by legislation in 1917. And so what he did was, he was a lawyer, I will go and renounce my US citizenship because he found the  statute that imposed US citizenship in 1917 had left a clause from a previous law that said that Puerto Ricans were Puerto Rican citizens. And they were Puerto Rican citizens because the Congress, U.S. Congress at the time did not want to have people from the island who were not “civil enough” to benefit from democracy, to actually have a United States citizenship. And so what he did was, he went and renounced, went outside, went to Venezuela, because to renounce, you have to leave the U.S.And he renounced. And then the question was, would he be able to come back because he had legally renounced? And so he did and immigration didn’t quite know what to do with him. And I actually managed to get documents from the department of state of Puerto Rico, that as part of my research where they’re saying, we don’t know what to do, basically he’s putting us in ridicule, right? Because they let him in as a result of that, when he came in, he flew into Puerto Rico, which they were not supposed to because he wasn’t a citizen. But they let him come back into the country, to Puerto Rico. And when immigration started threatening him to deport him, he said a famous quote, which he said, well, I am from the Barrio Salud from Mayaguez, which is a town in Puerto Rico. So your immigration’s law states that you need to deport me to my country of origin. And my country of origin is Puerto Rico. So what it did was it put in evidence that the, the irony and, and the absurdity of colonialism and power. And so, that was the trigger for me to do this research. And what I did,it’s a long story that is shared in the book, but Puerto Rico ended up putting out a certificate of Puerto Rican  citizenship. And so what I did was I interviewed people who had requested that certificate of Puerto Rican citizenship.

Patience:
So what does that actually mean– “certificate of…”?

Jackie:
So it was more of a local thing. It wasn’t a citizenship in terms of a nation because we’re not a sovereign nation. Right.  But What they, what he was doing was, again, disrupting and challenging the system and the status quo by saying, we have this law that is still in the books and it ended up going all the way to the Puerto Rico Supreme court. he Puerto Rico Supreme court case ended up saying that there was such a thing as a Puerto Rico citizenship. Although obviously it wasn’t one from a sovereign nation, but certifying that they were from there,  One of the unintended consequences was, for example, people from in Puerto Rico, if you want to have the Spanish citizenship, people from the colonies have kind of a, if you can prove that you are, you were once a colony and you come from a country that used to be a colony, then you have a fast track to citizenship in Spain. And so that document, for example, could help fast track a process. If someone from Puerto Rico wanted to go in, they could use that certificate instead of their US citizenship to actually do that type of legal work. So, it became more of a, I mean, symbolic thing; when you’re challenging the system  they are important. , and it became a way of putting in evidence that we’re still a colony, but we also have a national identity and a culture that is very distinct from the U.S., and there’s some colleagues and group of attorneys back home that also continue to file cases at the international courts to, to advance, the cause of that there needs to be a self-determination process. So from that extent, it was a,it has had repercussions that continue.

Patience:
I’m fascinated by the, the interesting difference between what you said that this was an imposition of citizenship on Puerto Ricans versus the very serious battle…

Jackie:
Yes.

Patience:
…by Black Americans in the United States before the 14th, was it the 14th or 15?

Jackie:
Yes, 14th amendment, yes!

Patience:
That, that gave citizenship to Black people, that on one end it was being held back and the other it’s being imposed upon; and in both cases, it’s about power and not really centering the people.

Jackie:
And that an interesting and important distinction that you just made, Patience, because the U.S. because they’re an empire that doesn’t consider themselves an empire, right? Like if you ask people in the US, how many colonies do you own? Very few people will be able to name them. And there are many, as you know, it’s Puerto Rico, it’s the Mariana islands, it’s the US Virgin islands. It’s, I mean, it’s Samoa is, I mean, there is a long list and people don’t know that. And so one of the challenges that people, and actually indigenous nations fall into that as well. The same process that was used to impose citizenship upon Puerto Ricans and the legal cases that were used to justify that are the same cases used for indigenous nations in the United States. And so people think in terms of civil rights and not self-determination. So what Puerto Ricans and indigenous tribes, contrary to what African Americans are asking here in the United States, which is they want equal rights. They are citizens, and they want equal rights as everyone else. The discourse and the difference between those that are colonies is we’re not asking to have a seat at the bus, we’re asking to drive the bus. We’re asking to have a process where this colonized group of people can decide whether they want to join the nation or not. And so that has never happened in Puerto Rico. We’ve had three or four referendums to decide the status quo for Puerto Rico in terms of their political future. None of them have been supported by Congress. And what that means is Congress just says, go ahead and do whatever you want, but we’re not going to honor whatever your decision is. We’re not committing to anything. And so, Puerto Rico is placed in a situation where the Supreme court has defined it as “they belong to, but they’re not part of the U.S.” And that’s the Supreme Court decision on Puerto Rico, which is still valid right now. So we’re not part of, we belong to. And so that’s a very different way of framing. So I actually wrote an OpEd. that was picked up by the Washington post, a few years ago, after hurricane Maria, where there were a lot of journalists talking about Puerto Rico in the US saying, there’s, you know, 3.5 million fellow citizens in Puerto, citizens, U.S. Citizens, in Puerto Rico, and that was bothering me and I couldn’t figure out why. And then finally, I just said, oh, I know why, because we’re not really citizens because empires have subjects, they don’t have citizens.

Patience:
Yeah.

Jackie:
And so it was the lack of understanding of one thing is to advocate for civil rights, and advocate for same rights. Another thing is the U.S. as a nation holds colonies that have not yet had the opportunity to decide, you know, do we want to  be part and join, or do we want to  be separate? Or do we want to  be a free association, which are the three categories that the United nations allows for when people own colonies. So it’s a complicated story, but Puerto Rico is certainly not the only one in that place. So the book, what it does is it captures that history throughout the narratives that I collect from the people I’m interviewing.

Patience:
Yeah. And what’s the book again?

Jackie:
Is titled “Experiencing Puerto Rican  Citizenship and Cultural Nationalism.”

Patience:
So how come, what’s the difference? Cause it sounds to me like there were similarities between, I mean, Hawaii is a state.

Jackie:
Yes.

Patience:
How did that come to be a state and places like Puerto Rico have not?

Jackie:
I think, I mean, part of what has kept this colony, \, the short summary of it is because it has some legal components to it. When in 1898, the US purchased its first colonies, they really became an empire that owned colonies outside of the US. that was with the Treaty of Paris in 1898. And it was the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. And so, because there were just foreign people and that’s how they identified them, as savages. I mean, that, if you look at the, if you read through the congressional  record and debates what happened in the 1900s and late 1800s and early 1900s, that’s the way they’re referring to, to these new subjects that they have, like now they own. And so they didn’t know what to do, and how these new three islands were going to play out in the current structure of the constitution of the United States. And so what they did was they came up with a, with, with a doctrine, which was these islands that are being acquired, and the ones that were eventually acquired will be known as “unincorporated territories.” If you look at the constitution of the United States, you’re not going to  find that anywhere, the term “unincorporated territories.” What you have is the term “territories,” which was the way that this nation became the nation that it is today, right? Territories would form, and when they met certain requirements, then they could be “incorporated” into the state and be and join the nation.

Patience:
Oh.

Jackie:
And so that, that, those ordinances that came during that time, that’s how the U.S. nation forms, and those are the territories that the constitution talks about. So what does Supreme Court did was it created a terminology based on that saying, well, this would be unincorporated territories and there are territories that will be, that will belong to the United States, but will not be a part of, and there will never be the intention of asking them to join the nation, like other territories.

Patience:
Right.

Jackie:
Thus, the qualifier “unincorporated territories.”

Patience:
Okay.

Jackie:
And so that was a legal decision. And so that’s the difference between if you’re in an unincorporated territory, the idea is that you will be in a perpetual state of colonialism.

Patience:
Oof!

Jackie:
And the logic behind it is “these people are different,” “these people are savages,” “these people don’t know what democracy really is,” “and they don’t have the capacity to live into our democracy.” At the same time, they make a lot of money out of these colonies. There’s a lot of exploitation financially that comes with that, and so for example, in the case of Puerto Rico, whenever…way back in the days, there was a lot of pharmaceuticals in Puerto Rico, way back in the days. And all of the birth control pills were actually developed and manufactured in Puerto Rico because none of the states wanted it. Because there, at the time there was a lot of discussion about contamination of the environment and possible side effects. So because Puerto Rico is a colony, doesn’t have representation Congress, we don’t have a say in a lot of things. So then itallows Puerto Rico to be in this space where they can really get away with doing a lot of things because the law doesn’t apply the same way. And to bring the point home, most of you in the audience have probably heard of Guantanamo base and that place in Cuba where, to this day, they have prisoners and people there because they have been accused of, allegations of being terrorists, the reason, for that space, that Guantanamo base in Cuba is considered an “unincorporated territory.”

Patience:
Oh.

Jackie:
And so that’s why they can take these people and put them there and not guarantee them the same rights that constitutionally they would have if they would be in the United States. So it creates a space for empires to really, in this case, the United States, to really do whatever they want to do in those spaces. Because you won’t have the same level of accountability. And so there’s been a lot of, in the past, experimentation that has been happening in Puerto Rico. Similar to the genocide of indigenous tribes, there was a, a time where there was a lot of sterilization of women in Puerto Rico prior to the 1950s, and, because again, we  did not deserve to be procreated.

Patience:
Mm-hmm.

Jackie:
And so a lot of the things in the history of the United States are not really taught and it’s similar to indigenous populations and, and other marginalized groups.

Patience:
So having grown up there and being from Puerto Rico, how has, and that in all of this history, how has that informed your sense of being, especially with the person that you are today, the jobs that you do, in the place where you’re living?

Jackie:
I think that’s where it all connects with the work I’m doing now and why I’m so passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion here at EMU. Because it allows me the opportunity, together with colleagues in the institution, and students, and alums and, community people in the area to find ways of creating spaces, where those things don’t happen to find spaces where people can show up to work and not feel like they’re being oppressed to find places where students can come and really thrive. And not feel like they have to get through this to get a degree, even though they maybe, they don’t feel at home. And I’ve seen this in other institutions as well, students that have come to me and said, you know, I really think I made a mistake coming here, but I’m halfway through it. So just gonna suck it up and finish it up and leave with my degree. And I’ve heard that in, in many other places. So this gives me an opportunity for something that is manageable. One of the things that when we’re doing change is you can’t take on the entire system. Like what, what does that even look like?  Tatum, who is a scholar who wrote a book that is called, well, I think it’s “Why are all the Black kids sitting together at the cafeteria?” And she talks extensively about, you have to find what your sphere of influence is. What is the thing that you can actually do? Where can you move the needle? And there are many places to do this, obviously, but I have chosen to do this in academic institutions because I want to be able to create those spaces for our students. I want to be able to create spaces for students to learn how to do that. And  if there’s one place that really should be welcoming, and people should feel like they belong, and curiosity should be off the charts, and people should invite new ideas, and embrace differences, it is really academic institutions. And so those experiences have led me to say, this is a place where I can have a sphere of influence. This is the case at EMU. It is an institution where  I see upper level management, I see a board of trustees, I see people authentically wanting to make some change. How much? How quick? Those are other conversations. But I do see that things are happening in a good way. And so that’s in many parts, what led me to do the DEI work. It is a way of creating those engaging spaces, where instead of having spaces of marginalization, we can start connecting with each other and, and creating new rituals, new ways of engaging, and making change and changing policies, and then living into those policies. And so it is almost like I’ve come full circle in the sense of this. This is, that’s why I think I said at one point in time, I can’t think of a better place where I want to do this work because there’s an authentic desire to grow. And the other thing I like about EMU is that they have named many things like, yes, we are a white institution and we need to change that we need to embrace and add more diversity, not just for the sake of diversity, but because of the richness it brings. And then not only we bring people, but what do we do to make sure that when they come here, they actually want to stay here.

Patience:
Right.

Jackie:
And so that’s part of what, what all of those experiences I’ve had in the past and my work of colonialism and marginalization and, and healthcare have in a way, let me to want to do this work to, to have an impact.

Patience:
They’ve equipped you well for this moment in time! Um, yeah. We’re getting toward the end. Is there anything else that you would like to talk about that we haven’t covered?

Jackie:
Not really. I don’t think so. I think we’re good. Well, thank you so much Patience. It was a pleasure talking with you.

Patience:
Yeah, you as well. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

Patience:
Jackie is a co-author of “The Neutrality Trap: Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change” with Bernie Mayer, published just a week ago on January 26th. She is also the author of “Experiencing Puerto Rican Citizenship and Cultural Nationalism,” published in 2015.

We’d love for you to join us during our iconic Summer Peacebuilding Institute experience, May 16 through June 17; for details about courses, scholarships, and changes related to COVID, please go to emu.edu/spi.

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Patience:
All the music you hear on this podcast has been composed by the one and only Luke Litwiller.
Our audio mixing engineer extraordinaire is Stephen Angello.
Transcription support was generously provided by Navy Widyani.
And I am the podcast executive producer, audio recording engineer, editor, and host, Patience Kamau.
As you are able, please remember to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast so that other Peacebuilders may find it. We’ll be back with a new episode in two weeks. Thank you so much for listening, and join us again next time!

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1 comment on “19. The Neutrality Trap”

  1. Elena Huegel says:

    Having had the privilege of traveling over much Borikén, or Puerto Rico, as it was called by the original Taíno people, while doing environmental education, conflict transformation and trauma healing workshops, it was a joy to listen to Dr. Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán. The resilience and wonderful sence of humor, even in the midst of devastation and so many challenges, never cease to amaze me.

    By the way, I love the musical variety of the Puerto Rican accent in Spanish; and the Puerto Rican accent in English is beautiful and unique. I loved listening to Dr. Jacqueline's accent – it transported me to places of spectacular beaches, mysterious lagoons, lush mountains and laughing people. Of course the topic of conversation was of deep interest to me, too , even though I have heard and studied the history of Puerto Rico, I keep searching for new ways to tell the story in the US so that people can hear and remember it.

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