Dr. Jennifer Lisa Vestphilosopher, scholar, former professor, poet and artivist performerwas a guest lecturer this past April at Illinois State University ( ISU ) and Southern Illinois University ( SIU ), where she gave a speech entitled, "Peculiar Requests for Peculiar Bodies: Black Lives Matter, [Trans] Gendered Violence, Disability, and Women in the Post-racial, Post-sexist Present."
A self-described mixed-blood person, Vest is Black, Native American Seminole and white. Raised in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood, Vest moved to North Chicago when her father got custody of her and her sister after their parent's divorce. Following a stint at Chicago Public Schools ( CPS ) during elementary school, Vest got a scholarship, along with her sister, to attend high school at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Illinois. This was a far cry from Vest's experience at CPS since she was one of only a few people of color at North Shore.
Vest got her bachelor's degree in Physics from Hampshire College; master's degree in history from Howard University; and Ph.D. in ethnic studies and philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley. She was awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA at the Center for the Study of Women. For 10 years ( 2002-2012 ), Vest taught cross-cultural philosophy and women's studies at two universitiesSeattle University for two years and University of Central Florida for eight years. Since leaving academia, Vest has been performing and speaking at venues across the country and continuing to publish her work in various academic journals and other publications. She currently resides in Los Angeles.
"I'm gay and genderqueer," said Vest. "I have a non-normative gender presentation and call myself a gender-bender. I dress in an androgynous way. It's just a part of who I am."
"I combine poetry and theory to address issues of social justice. I primarily look at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and disability. I do these philopoetic performances where I combine spoken word storytelling and theory/analysis. Philopoetic work is something I created as a genre. It's similar to some of the earlier work of Gloria Anzaldua where she combined poetry with theory."
Vest's recent talk at ISU and SIU touched on a number of social justice issues including transgender people, genderqueer people, race and feminism. While the ISU talk was open to the public the SIU talk was given to the philosophy department.
"I was invited by two Black philosophy grad students at SIU who are in an all-white department to come speak," said Vest. "Their philosophy department is made up of 10 white men and one white woman from England. They've been dealing with some problems regarding race and the two students were familiar with my other work and that's why they invited me."
ISU philosophy professor Dr. Allison Bailey saw Vest give a keynote address at a conference in Arizona and asked her to speak at the school.
"There were about 200 attendees at the ISU talk," said Vest. "I talked about my own experiences being genderqueer but I also talked about the rates of police violence against transgender people. Part of the performance was a testimony because I told a lot of stories about all the Black people who were being killed but I also focused on the Black women whose stories aren't being told and why their stories are different. Why Black women are specifically brutalized during arrests and detentions including being sexually brutalized.
"I talked about the fact that LGBTQ Black people have a lot more encounters and abuse by the police. I also noted the way Black people are seen as fear inspiring instead of fearful or afraid. I talked about how we have to see these things in through the lens of intersectionality between groups."
"I put trans in brackets so I could talk about transgender people and also genderqueer people," Vest added. "I'm a poet so I like to use my own language and make up words and I decided to name the talk '[Trans] Gendered' for that reason. I also wanted to address the fact that people say we live in a post-racial, post-feminist world when that's not the case."
Vest noted that during her talk she touched on the fact that the #BlackLivesMatter movement was started by three Black women, two of whom are LGBTQ, and the fact that it's not just cisgender heterosexual Black males that are being targeted by the police but also cisgender heterosexual Black women and Black LGBTQ people as well.
"What I'm trying to do with my work is to get people to know enough about what is going on and outraged enough so they will do something about it," said Vest. "To get people to analyze why certain people are being treated this way and why is it being justified because what's problematic about all these cases of Black and brown people being abused by the police is that there is always narrative of justification about these murders by the police, justice system and/or media. We need to figure out why it's so easy for white cops to kill people of color. Why are people able to watch these images and still remain complacent."
Vest explained that following the talk and Q&A session at ISU she had a number of people come up to her and tell her how grateful they were that she was telling these stories.
"Almost every Black student that I talked to at ISU afterwards told me they had been harassed by the campus police at the college. They didn't feel comfortable talking about it publicly and they told me how glad they were that I was talking about it," said Vest.
The talk that she gave at ISU and SIU wasn't the only time Vest has addressed these kinds of issues. Five years ago, Vest was stopped by the University of Central Florida's campus police when she was a professor at the college and she wrote about the experience in "What Doesn't Kill You: Existential Luck, Postracial Racism, and The Subtle and Not So Subtle Ways the Academy Keeps Women of Color Out."
"The article talks about an idea I developed that I call existential luck where I talk about the experiences of people with certain kinds of bodies. The victims of what would appear like random violence and micro-aggressive assaults on people," said Vest. "My appearance has resulted in my being at the repeated hands of some discrimination and my gender was a constant source of conflict for people in many aspects of my daily life. People thought it was problematic that I looked the way I did and that's one of the things I talked about when I was stopped by the police. They didn't know if I was a man or a woman when they stopped me. There was some bad behavior where they were rough with me. They had a woman cop come and feel me up."
Due to her experience with the campus police, Vest explained that she had students come to her who were genderqueer or were in the process of making their transition in their appearance and identity. She ended up mentoring some of them.
"I became more politicized as a result of my own experiences and have included that in my scholarship work and performances," said Vest.
When not writing or performing, Vest works as an archivist for Sovereign Wisdom Consulting Services, for which she helps tribes and organizations with intellectually sovereign archive projects. Most recently, she worked with the Mashpee tribe in Massachusetts to create a plan for its archives. She has also worked with African-American organizations and is a medical intuitive and healer.
As for the future, Vest said she hopes to give more artivist performances on campuses. She is also planning on publishing the talk she gave at ISU and SIU, and is looking at publishing a book that compiles all of her philopoetic lectures/performances.
See www.jenniferlisavest.com for more information .