Culture Maker: Artist, Activist, Teacher Alex Hollett
That ⬆️. Is Alex.
Alex is extraordinary. You gotta know about Alex.
Alex and I go back to the picket lines of the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike. We were both set to start our first year at an Albany Park elementary school when the labor dispute got serious. Despite being a newbie, Alex was voted to be our union representative, which meant that, when the walkout began (on what was supposed to be the first day of school), she was responsible for on-site logistics and communications with our school administration. But it became clear from the get-go that she wasn’t stopping there. See ‘cause... Alex is a force. She’s smart, scrappy, and vocal about what’s important. On the picket line, she fired us up with hourly speeches, poems, and chants. When we got tired and frustrated, she made sure we knew why it all mattered and rallied us to keep going. She even organized an event to bring families in on the conversation and out on the street with us. It was a huge success. So, it was no surprise when, a few day into the strike, Alex was asked to represent Chicago teachers in a national news story about it, thus becoming a spokesperson for the cause almost overnight. She’s that good.
Well, 6 years later, Alex is still getting my attention. We aren’t colleagues anymore (she lives in Bloomington, Indiana and I’m doing the SAHM thing), but she’s still teaching me about what’s right, why I should care, and how to get active about it.
Wanna get schooled, mom? This is Alex ⬇️.
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a doctoral candidate in the Departments of Curriculum & Instruction & Gender Studies at Indiana University. I eat pizza as often as I can and am picking up DJing as my newest hobby.
2. Describe your work.
Boy howdy, this is a difficult question. I guess it depends how one defines “work” – like, I earn my living through my position as a doctoral candidate at IU, but I’m also a drag performer, spoken word artist, nascent DJ, and community organizer. Each of these different “categories” informs the others, so when I’m teaching, I’m always doing so from an anti-oppressive framework and I try to bring my students into deep conversations about justice and oppression through music, visual art, poetry, resistance narratives, and empirical research.
My performances, whether I’m doing drag or spoken word, are my attempts to help educate, agitate, and empower the audience to come to moments of critical consciousness about the pressing issues of our time. Even when I do something as seemingly apolitical as constructing a DJ set for the local queer bar on a Thursday night, I am constantly interrogating my position as a white, queer woman in the club – I am committed to helping elevate the voices of queer artists of color, but similarly aware of how doing so can ultimately be self-serving and potentially exploitative, which is a tense (and necessary) internal conversation to continuously have. As a general rule, I don’t play music that objectifies women, glorifies violence against us, and/or promotes rape culture. I also try to avoid featuring white artists who have profited off of the labor of musicians of color without giving them credit, which means that I have to be vigilant not only about specific tracks, but aware, too, of the legacies of musicians beyond just the content of their songs and albums. I use tons of skills I have learned as a teacher and researcher to create my own art and organize my communities around various issues. It’s actually difficult to make art sometimes because I’m always picking apart my own argument – I see the holes within the holes and before I know it I’m in wonderland and I don’t always have a clear vision of how to get back.
In case you’re looking for something more concrete, though: As a doctoral candidate, I am in the dissertation phase of my program – I will be researching how pre-service teachers theorize justice in schools (I’m asking them to make “Perfect School” zines and I’ll also conduct focus group interviews and analyze reader response journals). I’m especially interested to see how dimensions of pleasure, harm, and activism inform future teachers’ conceptions of justice in education, and my research is heavily influenced by prison abolitionists, feminists of color, and queer theorists. In addition to my own research, I also teach courses to undergraduate students in the education program at IU. This semester, I’m teaching a course on pluralism and anti-oppressive education, as well as supervising the field experience for students who are finishing their social studies cluster prior to student teaching.
As a drag performer, sometimes I wear a mustache and cowboy boots and other times I’m a hyperqueen, fake lashes, huge hair, beautiful dress, the works. My poetry is almost always explicitly political (I can’t write a love poem to save my life, but I can talk about injustice until I’m blue in the face), and I’ve worked on organizing campaigns for a number of issues, from the Chicago Teacher’s Strike to immigration to anti-sexual assault initiatives to one of my biggest projects, Inaugurate the Revolution, which was a day of community-wide activism, art, and solidarity that a small group of activists in Bloomington, Indiana, organized to coincide with the inauguration of the current president.
3. What do you do most days? Do you have a routine?
I’m embarrassed to say what I do most days! I have terrible habits. I stay up far too late and I sleep as much as possible. The earliest class I teach is at 1 PM (hallelu) so I usually wake up around 11:30 after going to bed around 3. I listen to a lot of music, kiss my girlfriend about a thousand times a day, basically live on my computer when I’m not teaching, and binge TV shows. I just rewatched the first season of True Detective and have become weirdly obsessed with Matthew Mcconaughey (a Trump supporter, I think? I haven’t confirmed that because I don’t want to know) and we’re working our way through Random Acts of Flyness (also HBO) which – whoa – everyone should watch because it’s one of the most provocative, creative, rich, and sophisticated shows I’ve ever seen. Graduate students are notorious procrastinators, plus I’m a Pisces, so I spend A LOT of time day-dreaming about what my life *could* be or finding other non-essential tasks to occupy my time when I’m scared to get back to my chapter revisions. I should also confess that I drink Coca-Cola every day, which is terrible from both a health AND justice perspective, I’m so ashamed. But also addicted, so.
4. Describe something you’ve created that makes you proud.
This is a sweet little question. Last year I conducted original research on the experiences of queer im/migrant graduate students at the university. I asked participants, many of whom were my friends or became my friends as a result of the project, to respond to a prompt about how they experienced the university by creating an original piece of art in a medium of their choosing, and the results were just. so. fab. One of them wrote a slam poem, another took these amazing self-portraits, another participant made a vision board using a bunch of different materials...and then we met to talk about their work and I wrote a play based on the interviews and then we collaborated to make their ideas even bigger and we put on this beautiful art show called Queer ALIENation that a bunch of people in the community came to and, ugh, it was just lovely. I was proud of the work that we all did for a number of reasons, but most especially because it helped start a dialogue between the local queer community and the queer community that exists in the university. That can be a really hard thing – to bridge the gap between academia, with its hierarchies and specific language and exclusions, and the broader community that an institution is adjacent to. A lot of people feel uncomfortable interacting with research because it’s usually hard to understand – the art helped to make typically inaccessible ideas and ways of communicating knowledge quite accessible to, well, anyone.
5. Who/What is inspiring you these days?
I’m greatly inspired by all of the rad organizing that’s happening around the country right now. The fact that incarcerated people were recently on strike for better conditions in prisons is hugely inspiring, and we’ve had some political victories with justice-oriented candidates winning important preliminary elections. Closer to home, I’m inspired by the people within my community who are working tirelessly to build a liberated future for everyone. I just wrote an article for the Limestone Post about some of the problems that we face in Bloomington, a city that is referred to as a blue dot in a sea of red. People here often don’t want to contend with the fact that liberal cities can also be home to injustice, and we have our fair share of issues to deal with, from a lack of affordable housing to a manufactured opioid epidemic in our backyard to racist curricula in our school system. Bloomington is a small community, and I think that it takes a special type of strength to be willing to stand up to 1) people who think they’re infallible because they’re Democrats & 2) people you may be protesting one day and then shopping next to at the grocery store on Sunday. Local activists and trouble-makers right here are home are my biggest inspirations.
6. What books are you reading?
When I’m reading for pleasure, I love young adult fiction and my favorite series is The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stieffvater (it’s witchy, dark, sexy, compelling, and so. well. written). I also recently read Meddling Kids, which is perfect for anyone in the mood for a beachy, fast-paced, and irreverent take on the Scooby Doo motif. I think that Ann Patchett is a gem of a writer, but now that it’s HALLOWEEN SEASON I’ll be revisiting my Stephen King collection.
When I’m reading more scholarly texts, I think there are some required readings that everyone should know enough about to refer to. Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis is a must. Savage Inequalities by Jonathon Kozol remains relevant, and Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent helped push my thinking about how we respond to the complexities of gender-based violence/exploitation...like, I’m not convinced that “consent” as we traditionally talk about it is as helpful as we like to believe, especially when ages of consent are pretty arbitrary and vary from state to state. But that’s waaaay too heavy to get into here! Oh, Terrorist Assemblages by Jasbir Puar is really good if people want to better understand how queer communities in the U.S. perpetuate xenophobic and anti-Muslim narratives/policies.
7. What music are you listening to?
I am obsessed with “Midnight City” by M83. I love Florence + The Machine, “Mi Cuerpo Es Mi Mio” by Krudas Cubensi, Marina & the Diamonds, “Catgroove” by Parov Stelar, “Open” by Rhye (don’t watch the video though), “To Conquer Pain with Love” by Mariam the Believer, “Buzzard” by SISTERS, the album “Lavender Country” by Lavender Country, and, of course, ANYTHING Bruce Springsteen. Except for “Fire”, that song is weird and rapey (not to be confused with “I’m on Fire,” which is hot and sexy). I think Rumours is one of the best albums ever created and in the fall I listen to a lot of CHVRCHES and Greetings from Michigan by Sufjan Stevens. A friend of mine used to be in a band in Chicago called Celine Neon and they had a real dope sound – you can look them up on Spotify.
8. You have incredible style. Can you briefly describe how you approach getting dressed?
“Incredible” may be pushing it, especially because in my daily life I typically wear the same four outfits over and over again. Since it’s about to be fall, I’m transitioning to wearing as much black as possible, with boots (like, combat boots so I can run from the cops), a scarf, and a bold lip. I don’t do jewelry much anymore, but I do like to have a unique pair of sunglasses and a statement jacket. I’m currently growing out my undercuts on a whim and it’s a troubling process. If I need to be beautiful for some reason, I wear a dress in a bold print or color (especially when I anticipate that everyone else will be wearing something muted) or I do a little Janelle Monae thing with black pants, a velvet jacket, a skinny tie, and a pompadour. Oh, and it’s all about chrome nails. I’ve been dreaming of getting a neck tattoo but my partner keeps telling me that it’ll break my mom’s heart if I do, so I don’t. Yet.
9. What artists/activists should we know about?
I think, by and large, that our best activists ARE artists right now. So I recommend checking out: Andrea Gibson, Denice Frohman, Dominique Christina, Mykki Blanco, Donte Collins, Ross Gay, and Julio Salgado. My friends, Kelvin Burzon and Brick Daniel Kyle, aren’t overtly activisty but they’re making beautiful pieces and you should follow them on Instagram: @kburzon and @heybrickkyle
10. How can we support you and your work?
Oh gosh, well – you can follow me on social media, I suppose (Instagram: @alleholle, Spotify Alexandria Hollett) but apart from coming to Bloomington to catch a lecture or see me perform, I would prefer for people to get to know the local arts/activism scene in their area and focus on how to get involved on that scale. Activism becomes much less scary when we slow down and focus on what’s happening right around us, while still being able to assess the big picture. So, if you’d like to support me, all I ask is that you choose an issue you care about a lot and try to build in concrete times throughout your week for you to connect with other people who are trying to solve the same issue you are. Start there and see what happens!
Thanks so much Alex! Keep fighting the good fight!
Let Alex teach you a thing or two by following her...
Or read her most recent piece for Limestone Post, “Organizing the Left Through Strategy and Solidarity”
Cover photo by Brick Daniel Kyle