Life in the Undercommons: Sustaining Justice-work Post Disillusionment


  • Chelda Smith University of Minnesota
  • Erin Dyke University of Minnesota
  • Mary Hermes University of Minnesota--Twin Cities


This paper explores the tensions, challenges, and possibilities for engaging in justice work from within and beyond the university. Through personal and shared narratives, Mary Hermes, associate professor, and her students Chelda Smith and Erin Dyke discuss their motivations for becoming academics while also justice workers, and some of the ways these two roles scrape up against each other in the university and our communities and struggles within and beyond it. We frame our narratives, the products of a series of group discussions, around a few salient and overlapping themes: legitimizing modes of knowledge production, the dichotomization of the ‘university’ and ‘community,’ and the tensions involved in moving between and merging scholarship and activism. We conclude by considering our places in the undercommons of the university, and its potential for helping us collectively grapple with these tensions.

Author Biographies

Chelda Smith, University of Minnesota

Chelda Smith is a PhD candidate in the department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on critical teacher education, culturally relevant pedagogy, and social justice in educational contexts.

Erin Dyke, University of Minnesota

Erin Dyke is a PhD student in the Culture and Teaching track within the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests intersect pedagogy, the relationship between education and social movements of resistance, and the role of modern schooling in neocolonial and capitalist social reproduction.

Mary Hermes, University of Minnesota--Twin Cities

Mary Hermes is an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. She is involved in Ojibwe language revitalization on many levels, and also engaged in Indigenous language revitalization and research.  She enjoys balancing the research university's demands with the humbling work of being involved in grassroots change.