Sierra Holmes is a University of Utah student double majoring in ethnic and gender studies. This fall, Holmes and Annie Isabel Fukushima got together to Zoom-interview each other about their experiences as academics in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation (Transform).
This story was originally published in the Transform newsletter, Transformative Perspectives. If you have graduated from a Transform division/program, are a current Transform student or would like to learn more about what Transform is, subscribe to the newsletter here.
Sierra Holmes: I’m Sierra, and I guess I’ll just say what I’m studying as well. I’m a gender studies major and ethnic studies major with a minor in political science.
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima: Wonderful! I’m Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima, and I’m an assistant professor in the Ethnic Studies Division in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation. So I’m here to ask you some questions. Tell me about what drew you to majoring in ethics studies and gender studies — if you can think about a specific experience that you had that sort of drew you to this major.
Sierra Holmes: I don’t know that I can think of a specific experience. I can say that I changed my major five times before I landed on gender studies and then I was like, “well might as well take on ethnic studies too,” because it’s all very interesting to me. I think for me the thing that I felt really drawn to was that everything feels very purposeful; it’s never like I’m just going through the motions. Everything feels like there is a reason for doing it and it’s for change and it’s for, you know, the betterment of our world. So that’s why I think I’ve been really drawn to it, and I stuck with it ever since, and I didn’t stick with my other five.
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima: That’s great, um, and I think that changing your major five times is actually pretty normal. Most undergrads change frequently. Share a most memorable moment while being a major.
Sierra Holmes: I don’t know that it’s necessarily a moment or a specific time, but like most memorable thing I’ve done is Communi-TEA. I started planning the communi-TEAs with Jen, our advisor, and it was just a great way for all of us to come together. I loved seeing everyone — it was once every month, or two times every month — being able to sit down and talk about what we’re studying, talk about like the real world current issues and everything we’re all experiencing, and being able to create some sort of like communal space where we could all lean on each other, because we’re all experiencing the same things at that moment.
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima: That’s great. That’s wonderful, and I think that’s a very ethnic studies thing: to create a sense of collectivity and solidarity. So tell me about a project you’re able to work on or your plans to work on for Transform.
Sierra Holmes: Um, so I mean [Communi-TEA] was one of my projects, and then I’ve done various other things. I was senator last year, so it was really cool to be able to, you know, work on things there and get funding for different things in Transform and, of course, be able to plan the Communi-TEA. That was like one really cool project that I feel like I was able to be a part of, because I could do something that was helpful and meaningful to the college. And then it was helpful and meaningful for me too because I could sit with all of my classmates once a month and just chat.
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima: That’s awesome! Let’s see so the last question is, what are the keywords that define the School for Cultural and Social Transformation?
Sierra Holmes: I feel like when I think of our college, I think of progression. And I say progression very, like, purposefully because, you know, it’s not just progress where it’s like you can measure an amount of progress that has happened; it’s a continuous movement forward. So that’s what I think of when I think of our college is, you know, we’re constantly changing — constantly moving — and we’re always moving in a forward direction.
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima: Awesome! Well, that’s the questions that I have for you.
Sierra Holmes: Okay! So I’ll start with your questions. How did you end up teaching in ethnic studies? What path did you take that led you here?
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima: To University of Utah? Is that the question, or in general?
Sierra Holmes: Just as a professor, like, what were your passions that led you there?
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima: Yeah, so when I was applying for grad school, I think that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I think I’m like many young folks when you’re open, you’re casting the net wide, you’re curious. I remember when I was applying to grad school — I applied to eleven schools — University of California Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Program was the last school I applied to. I did not think I would get in, and I almost didn’t apply. And at the last hour, I submitted my application and then by the spring — I believe it was — I found out that I was accepted into the program. So in that sense, I started this journey towards being an ethnic studies scholar at UC Berkeley, and that path was because I was super interested in thinking through issues of violence immigration and how our communities are impacted by violence and witnessing those communities.
So that’s kind of the earlier part of my journey. What led me to the University of Utah was that I was, you know, applying widely for the market, trying to get code closer to California and to Hawaii. My families are both in California and Hawaii, and I was at Rutgers and Jersey for two years and so my goal really was to get closer to family. And when I visited the University of Utah, I just felt like there was a lot of welcome and a lot of interest in learning more about ethnic studies. At the time we were a program, and by the time the second year was here we became our own school. So it was actually a very exciting time to be a professor in ethnic studies — to be in this literally transformative period of growth, which is actually super rare for ethnic studies programs. In our moment, we were growing with gender studies and disability studies — imagining a kind of future for social justice-oriented programming.
Sierra Holmes: I like that! I feel like you kind of somewhat answered a little bit of what one of my other questions is, so I’ll just move into that one. What is your research on?
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima: Oh yeah, um, so my research is looking at issues of gender-based violence and racial violence. In particular, I recently published a book called “Migrant Crossings: Witnessing Human Trafficking Community in the United States” where I look at Asian and Latinx communities who have been trafficked through the U.S. border or into the U.S. and after their crossing. It’s a socio-legal analysis of their journey and experiences of being immigrant here in the U.S., and how they are bound to being seen as either victims or criminals, illegal or legal, or citizen or non-citizen, many non-citizens and the sort of dualities that they’re bound to.
So that’s one book project that I worked on, but now I am a project lead for the University of Utah’s Gender-Based Violence Consortium. So we work collaboratively across different communities, and one of the projects that I’m leading up is visualizing gender-based violence. So the goal is to create a time spatial interactive platform where communities can learn more about the different ways that violence has occurred across time and space since the 1990s.
Sierra Holmes: Wow! I didn’t know that about you, so that’s really interesting! I did know about your book, but I didn’t know about the Consortium, so that’s really cool. Next question is, was there ever a defining moment in your career that felt like the most impactful to you?
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima: Well that’s a big question! Now I know how the questions felt when you were answering them, because there’s so many. You know, I would like to say that in the world of academia and academic institutions, we often times don’t see change happening very quickly. Change in institutions and in our society is very slow, but one of the places that I have seen radical transformation is in the classroom, and so I would say that any time I teach it is actually where I see the most change happening, which is inspiring and motivating for me.
I don’t do this work for myself. I do this work because of the communities I live in and those communities include my students, colleagues, the university that I work in, and the larger community that a university sits in. So for me the most impactful has been seeing students change in their thinking, or grow in their thinking, and actually discover more of themselves, their interests, and their passions to make our world more just. That for me has been the most inspiring, so every semester feels impactful even in a semester that is COVID-19.
Sierra Holmes: I agree with you as well. I feel like this semester has maybe felt the most impactful because it’s given me time to kind of like really sit and actually work through the things, you know, all currently happening in this current moment—and it always has been—but it’s kind of right in front of our face. I mean, I think that’s one thing that I’ve appreciated about this semester, and I mean on another hand you were talking about, you know, your community being your students. I feel that is a common theme amongst most of the professors in our school, and so that’s something I really appreciate as a student. Thank you. Then my last question is, what is your best advice for students and transform?
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima: Yeah, um, wow, I don’t know if it’s the best advice, but it’s advice that I can offer now. The work of social change and justice-oriented—anti-racist—you know, work and work that is addressing many of the oppressions in our society is slow, difficult, and long. But one of the things that I know about the work that we do is that we don’t do it alone, and so, for me, it is about coalition. And coalition is messy, it’s difficult, and it’s filled with tension, and it’s also beautiful and radically life-altering. The advice would be to work in coalition with each other with your colleagues, your peers, with your professors. See us as also in coalition with you, as well as even those that make institutions run like our staff.
I think that for me the work of coalition is difficult, and that I encourage folks that are entering into fields of transformative fields like gender studies, ethnic studies, and disability studies to not see themselves alone, see coalition as messy and continue to persevere. When I think about colonization and oppression is that it’s traumatic and what trauma does is it breaks our connection to ourselves and to our communities, and so the important work of undoing that trauma and that oppression is to create connection.