This academic year, Margaret Perez Brower joined the University of Washington faculty as Assistant Professor of Political Science and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. As a scholar of activism, advocacy, and social movements, she is also a new Faculty Associate of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.

She has a strong academic background, having earned her degrees and fellowships from the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and Harvard. Her research focuses on understanding the impact of race, ethnicity, and gender on different aspects of American society, such as education, public opinion, and political behavior.

Professor Perez Brower has written several articles on these topics, which have been published in respected academic journals and magazines. Her expertise has been recognized by various media outlets, including NPR, MSNBC live, Washington Post, WGN, and WBEZ Chicago. She also recently wrote a book based on her award-winning dissertation, Intersectional Advocacy: Redrawing Policy Boundaries Around Gender, Race, and Class,”which was published earlier this year.

Margaret generously took the time to answer questions about herself, her scholarship, and the importance of student activism for the Harry Bridges Center.

Tell me about yourself and the path that has led you to this point in your career.

It’s a long path! It often is if you decide to go into academia. It takes a very long time to get here, but my path has been quite beautiful, I have to say. I feel like I really got a lot of exposure and real-world experience before I got into an academic career, and I’ve learned that it’s made my experiences in academia unique. I got my undergraduate degree at Colgate, double majoring in Political Science and Education—which is a funny story because I majored in Political Science thinking it would be useful at the time. I’m a first-generation college student and I had thought to myself “If I’m going to go to a four-year institution and do a work-study… I must get a degree in something useful, and government always has jobs.” Ironically, I had always wanted to be a Women’s Studies major, but it didn’t fall into that practical “get a job” category. It finally came full circle when I came to UW as a professor in both Political Science and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies.

When I finished my degree at Colgate, I joined the Human Rights Campaign, as a canvasser in New York City. I was on the street getting people to donate money — lobbying for the right to marriage. It was grueling. I was the top 10th canvasser in the country for the HRC, and I got really good at it! It gave me some great persuasion skills, being able to talk and translate public policy and laws to the average person walking down the street, and it just taught me that people had a lot of compassion in ways you might not expect. It was such a front-facing, early activist job that really stuck with me, as well as it being my first job out of college, and it made me realize how important politics can be. I still wasn’t completely sold on doing anything in Political Science at that point, but I knew I was interested in public policy. I went to the University of Michigan to complete my master’s degree in public policy as well as higher education. As a first-generation student, I had a lot of appreciation for higher education, and I really wanted to think about public policy in that kind of context.

At the University, I was exposed to a lot of graduate students, as well as grad students working on their Ph.D.’s, and I learned that I loved doing research and being in academia. I worked for the National Forum for the Public Good, conducting community participation action research in Detroit where I was working with local organizations to think about how we can serve some of the most vulnerable populations, and I realized I wanted to be a professor.

I didn’t jump into a Ph.D. program right away. I wanted to have some time to make sure I really did enjoy research, so I joined CIRCLE and then that became the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, IDHE, the institute that I helped Nancy Thomas build. It was all about researching college students and their political participation and engagement in democracy. Part of that job was my task to lead this qualitative research team, where I was traveling all around the country doing interviews and focus groups with faculty, college presidents, and students to try to understand what types of political climates lead them to robust engagement and advocacy among college students, and also which climates had the reverse impact. When I was engaging in that work, I was convinced. I loved it!

I applied to graduate school at the University of Chicago and got my Ph.D. in political science. It was a great experience; I had really great mentors there. I wrote my dissertation, which later became my book project, and then when I finished my program, I went back to Boston to the institute where I was working, and I did my post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard, with the Inequality in America initiative. After two years there, I came to work at the University of Washington, and I just had my book come out in January. I am excited to work for a public institution with a public mission, and it’s been really great working in the Political Science department while also still having that connection to the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies department. I’m in two really interesting worlds, and I’ve felt really welcomed by the Bridges Center and my two departments: I’m really happy to be here!


What are some observations you’ve made while teaching as far as students’ attitudes toward activism and advocacy?

It’s been very interesting to teach. I had a class on intersectionality and social movements in the Fall quarter, and I was really surprised by my students in a variety of ways. On one hand, I was in awe just admiring how thoughtful they are about activism. Hearing their intentionality and reflections, they’re constantly thinking about activism, social movements, advocacy, and diversity, and in interesting ways that I was not thinking about when I was an undergrad. On the other hand, I was worried because I also felt this exhaustion from them; things are never going to change, and things won’t get better. There were moments in my classroom where there was just a collective feeling of despair. That’s why I always like to end my classes with hope. We start in a dark place, but we always end in someplace hopeful, feeling like we have some agency in this world to make it a better place.

So, I ran this social movement simulation where they had to revive the Occupy Wall Street movement. They must come up with an economic and equality movement today. They have roles, tasks, and leadership models, and then they present them. One of my students came up to me after that class and said, “I used to be an activist and do a lot of work, but I just felt so defeated. After the simulation I feel hopeful and that I can get back out there and get back into activism.” It was so encouraging to me and made me realize how important it is to bring agency and hope into the classroom. When we teach these really hard topics to students, it’s difficult, especially for students who have real-life experiences with these issues; it can feel so dampening at times. For me, it was a reminder, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic and what’s going on with the world lately, how important it is to create spaces for students to feel recharged and hopeful and feel they have the tools to effect change.


How does it compare to your own experience as an undergrad with systemic inequality?

As a young, first-generation Latina woman at a predominately white institution, you are just living these types of inequalities firsthand. You feel them within your own lived experiences, and you just connect with these social movements which in some ways feels like breathing. The difference is you might not have the language or framing for it. I didn’t at that time. I didn’t have the words or real conceptual understanding of that kind of inequality and oppression. But it was through organizing at the HRC after college and a class on race and politics that gave me the tools to really understand what was happening. Those tools are important because if you don’t understand oppression, inequality, racism, or sexism, you’re not really equipped to confront them.

It was also a different time when I went to school. I didn’t have as many kinds of movement spaces or classrooms that facilitated this kind of empowered thinking. But even as a young person, when I did have those opportunities, it was really transforming and radicalizing in a way that I’m super grateful for because it’s the reason I stayed in politics and why I continue to do this work.


What are some accomplishments you’re especially proud of, either big or small, at any point in your career?

The biggest accomplishment I’m currently proud of is my book. I remember being in fourth grade when they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said I wanted to be an author because my favorite thing to do was read books; I was such an avid reader. Being able to publish and work on your own book is so rewarding, it feels like there’s a piece of me out there in the world. I put my heart, soul, talents, and efforts into a book that I really believed in, and it felt good that it was the book that got published and I didn’t have to compromise on it; there was no point in time where I didn’t give it my all.


What are some challenges you’ve faced during your research and writing your book?

I think the biggest challenge in doing research is trying to get the story right. When you’re in this line of work, you’re really focusing on vulnerable populations and complex experiences like intersectionality, racism, sexism, and oppression. I think the hardest part about doing my work and research is trying to do it with integrity and humility. I’ve found that it’s been most helpful to me to be super humble; for example, among the organizations that I studied, one of these groups read a chapter that I wrote about them and gave me really good feedback and sometimes I had to change things, like initial survey experiments that I ran. It’s challenging when you’re working with practitioners who don’t know the methods but know the real-world implications for the work. I ended up being much prouder of the efforts I was able to produce in my book because I felt it was authentically true to the people who were doing this incredible advocacy work. In the end, I think it made it all worthwhile.


What’s your favorite book?

Oh, I can’t answer that! Such a tough one for me. When I was in elementary school, they had to take me to the big middle school library because I read everything that I could get my hands on. I can share my favorite academic book though, and that is Boundaries of Blackness by Cathy Cohen. It was the book I read several times before I wrote my own book, and the reason I loved it so much is because I also felt like there was a lot of her in that book. She was so intentional and thoughtful, yet rigorous and deep, and I read that book repeatedly when I was in graduate school thinking: “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a book as good as this one, but if I can channel that same kind of thoughtfulness, intention, fearlessness, and just big thinking, then I’ll write the best book I can”.


What do you think the future has in store for students, in terms of social movements and activism?

I think our future rests on them heavily! I try to remind them they’re so crucial because there are so many threats to democracy right now: there’s democratic backsliding, long-standing systems of oppression, deep polarization, and misinformation. My colleague Nancy Thomas and I often talk about these threats to democracy. They’re imminent, and they’re growing, and it’s really these young generations that are going to have to help us deal with these threats. I find it imperative as an educator to make sure they have what they need: the tools, the resources, and the confidence to take on these threats head-on.

Growing up in a very different generation than the people I teach, it’s nice to see all the things we fight for have this transformative change in their own lives. For example, the way young people are talking about gender, race, and inequality – were not ways we were able to talk about those things when we were younger, but they’re definitely things we’ve been fighting for. It’s been refreshing to see this generation grow up with different ideologies, understandings, and identities. If we, as professors, can create spaces for them to be able to feel empowered, then we’re going to see the kind of progress and change we desperately need in the U.S. democracy.


In your recent article for Inside Higher Ed,“Reimagining Democracy Through Student Activism,” you mentioned ‘bureaucratic tape’ being a barrier to student activism. How can students overcome existing bureaucratic processes at institutions that do not promote activism, equity, and inclusion?

It’s difficult. When bureaucratic tape is held up by lots of positions of power and authority, it’s tough to be able to confront when you’re an undergraduate student; you have some of the least power on campus. That being said, in all the research that I’ve done on college campuses and my personal experience mentoring young people and students – I’ve learned not to underestimate collective action. When young people get together, they can build consensus and a strong voice; they can be persistent and strategic by getting other allyships on campus and work with each other to confront these types of systems; they are so much more powerful than they think. Even though these systems are real and enforced by strong power structures, which they should understand, that doesn’t mean that they are actually powerless. I have found collective action to be such a massive mechanism for social change on all types of campuses, it just requires students to work together and create these networks of allies to have their back, so when it is time to really push some change, there are enough people in the room who can affirm them.


What can students and young adults be doing off campus to create positive systemic change?

Off-campus, they have more access to so many other types of resources and organizations, especially here in Seattle. The ecosystem of nonprofit advocacy groups is huge; there are local government officials and local community organizations, and there is an entire political ecosystem at their fingertips if they go and search for it!

For systemic change off campus, there are tons of people they can work with that have similar ideologies, missions, and goals—they just need to leave campus to find them… or they can go through the Bridges Center because I know you all connect them to those types of groups, and I think that’s really important! It’s part of our jobs, too; we should not be in silo from the community outside, we should be facilitating those connections, and I was happy to hear about the Bridges Centers’ work in doing that.


How can faculty members and administrators actively contribute to fostering an environment that encourages student activism?

I think we play a really important role, for so many reasons. One, we provide actual knowledge; young people don’t have that historical view. Being able to show them the history of activism can be really empowering and raise so much conscious awareness, which is very important if you want to participate in movements today. We provide those tools for them, we have frameworks, concepts, and theories that young people can take with them. It helps them identify movements and identify ways that movements can be successful.

I think two of the most critical roles we play is to advocate for them, when they’re participating in activism, I think it’s our job to support them! If we care about their mission and the changes they’re trying to bring to the university, then it’s our job to help support them, whether that’s getting them exposure to someone on campus so they can have a platform, or giving them inside information on how to do it well. Or maybe it’s just showing up with your own picket sign at their protest. There are many ways we can support young people, and we should! We have a lot of power on campus, and it’s really a waste to not be there for them, and not cultivate those spaces for them because young people can have a tremendous impact on the world that we live in. And we really just need to get out of their way and give them space to do it, because they can do incredible things, if we let them.


What are you looking forward to the most in being a faculty associate with the Harry Bridges Center?

There are many things I’m looking forward to! The Bridges community is extremely thoughtful and communal, everyone really cares about the students and this complex world that we live in and to think about ways in which we can all have a positive change together, I’m most excited to work with the affiliated staff, faculty, and students because I think we all have a very similar collective mission about inequality and social change. It makes me feel like I already have a community at UW and that’s really special to me.