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Lessons learned from establishing an antipsychiatry scholarship

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Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jphillips23

Part two of a two-part series. Read part one.

I named the new scholarship "The Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry" and I constructed it as a matching scholarship wherein I would be matching up to $50,000 of contributions by others, and where I would do the fundraising work necessary.

Negotiations quickly ensued. Now this battle I deliberately fought on the grounds of academic freedom -- something that was transparently an issue and something dear to the hearts of all of us academics, and sellable grounds it proved, for everyone at OISE quickly understood the relevance. Nonetheless, on four separate occasions I was asked to remove the inconvenient term antipsychiatry from the name of the award -- something which, of course, I refused. In fact I was even asked to consider endowing instead a scholarship in counselling -- obviously, an attempt to depoliticize. Now at one point for reasons unclear to me, the process stalled for about a year, though I used this time profitably to construct lists of possible donors. Then something utterly unanticipated happened -- the administrator who had been the central contact for both scholarships was let go -- at which point I found, much to my chagrin, that no one at OISE had any record of the previous agreement. Fortunately, I had kept 7 years worth of email and found what I needed. New people stepped up and negotiations continued, and support at OISE grew. With the new dean agreeing, we approached University of Toronto. Where once again, we encountered stalling.

It is here where my having upfronted the issue of academic freedom really paid off. Interceding on my behalf, picking up on my words, the person doing the negotiating for OISE, repeatedly told the relevant official at University of Toronto, "I have two words for you -- academic freedom." And in the fullness of time, the scholarship was approved by University of Toronto.

And was everything okay now? With respect to the University of Toronto part of the struggle, yes. We happily signed on the dotted line, and with helpful staff at OISE lending a hand with the fundraising, the next stage of the work commenced. However, this was also the time where the most unpleasant of the obstacles presented themselves. From where? From the mainstream media.  Not exactly surprising that the media would react highly negatively once they heard tell of the development, as for decades now, they have "tripped over themselves," rushing to support psychiatry's standard line (e.g. psychiatry is progressive; its treatments are life-saving, and anyone who says otherwise is an enemy of progress). Though who would have guessed the extent of it?

Both the scholarship and I personally were forthwith trashed in several major newspapers, including the National Post. We were likewise trashed on one national television program, on approximately a dozen radio programs, and several leading social media blogs. Although I am a recognized scholar in the area, who, among other things, has challenged psychiatry precisely on the basis of science, I was portrayed repeatedly as unscientific, as the enemy of progress, and someone who was unconscionably placing vulnerable people at risk -- this by people most of whom had read virtually nothing that I had written, never mind checked their own bogus claims. Correspondingly, the scholarship itself was depicted as "affront to science." On top of which, I began receiving death threats. I was likewise warned (read: threatened) that several lawsuits were in the process of being drawn up against me. Moreover, I was repeatedly urged by an OISE ally not to talk to the media at all.

Now amidst this onslaught, this utter ignoring of the principles of good journalism, I kept my cool. I decided carefully what to respond to and what not. I ignored the lawsuit threat for it was not credible. Despite being urged to, I never once cancelled a speaking engagement -- and the public turned up to my events in droves. I asked The Varsity as a counter to the sensationalistic article penned by their reporter that they grant me an op ed piece, to which they consented. I gave an interview to a solid reporter -- Kevin Richie -- who worked for a sympathetic lefty newspaper -- Now -- and he wrote a terrific piece. I likewise rallied students and other allies to respond to some of the attacks. More significantly, along with students, I created a video about the scholarship, wherein, among other things, antipsychiatry students shed light on the biases that they face when applying for scholarships -- and how this award counters the inequity. Moreover, we created both fact sheets and letters. Along with allies like Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault, correspondingly, we created fundraisers (with one that was particularly enjoyable and participatory, being an auction facilitated by a joke-cracking auctioneer who donned a thick Yiddish accent for the event). In essence, we created our own good press, while making what we could of the bad press. We created community, and we watched as the contributions rolled in.

What is especially interesting here is that while the bad publicity pieces greatly outnumbered the good, if anything this only encouraged more people to join the cause. The point is that bad publicity is still publicity -- in fact the contributions to the scholarship picked up considerably after the bad press began, for now way more people knew of it. Moreover, many were outraged by the shoddy journalism.

Now, by most standards our fundraising was proceeding well. However, as the campaign began to draw to a close, we still had come nowhere near reaching the $50,000 target -- and please remember we needed to, for this was a matching scholarship with me matching up $50,000 of donations by others. That said, close to the very end came a most unexpected development. An anonymous donor from Texas materialized who pledged enough to bring the amount to be matched to $50,000. How did he know about it? In a word, because of the deluge of negative publicity. 

And were this not a gift enough, the anonymous donor proceeded to create a second stage of matching. That is, he signed a contract with the University of Toronto committing to match every Canadian dollar subsequently contributed over the next period with an American dollar.

In short, we had prevailed beyond our wildest dreams!

As an aside, I would add, I received a call around that time from the executor of my will, who said, "Bonnie, I can't tell you how relieved I am that you did all this! Otherwise they would never have honoured the conditions of your will."

Lessons to be gleaned

While every situation is of course unique, what follows are general take-away lessons that arise from this case -- some guidance for others, whatever their cause, in their efforts to involve a mainstream organization in the struggle to bestow legitimacy on their counterhegemonic area:

  1. Ask for something relevant to your cause, that fits with their standard ways of operating, and which they have the power to grant.
  2. Always keep your eye peeled for what could go wrong imminently or in the long run.
  3. Keep in mind both the instrumental goal and the final goal, as well as various accompanying goals. In this case, the instrumental goal was getting the scholarship approved.  An example of an accompanying goal was assuring that students doing research in this area had access to scholarships. The final goal was raising the credibility and enhancing the profile of antipsychiatry. Now by way of example, had my only concern been the immediate goal and the accompanying goal, I could have simply contributed the whole $100,000 myself and saved us all literally thousands of hours of work. Creating a matching scholarship, however, and involving many in the campaign was a way of mobilizing the community -- which, in the final analysis, are critical to what Foucault (1980) calls "the insurrection of subjugated knowledge."
  4. Know the law or consult an ally who does.
  5. Prepare for a long haul and prepare to do a whole lot of educating.
  6. If you think at any time that you are "home-free," think again.
  7. Be prepared for the fact that parts of the fight that seem to have been won will return in new ways, for such is the nature of hegemonic rule. Do not get frustrated. Just tackle whatever new form emerges.
  8.  Do not accept the concept of impossibility. In this regard, take every obstacle in your path as a practical problem for you to solve.
  9. While working cooperatively with the organizations whose cooperation you are requesting, always be prepared to challenge and to stand your ground. Note they will likely want you to "water down" what you are asking for -- and please note, this is just not the way that revolutions happen.
  10. If there is money that you are giving in the process, know that this gives you leverage and you should use it (if not, do spend time figuring out what your leverage is or might be, for battles of this significance are seldom won without leverage).
  11. Identify principles held in common by you and those whose cooperation you are seeking, then use this as leverage. What is even more significant, use it as a basis of solidarity (note the enormous importance of the principle of academic freedom in the saga above).
  12. Relating to the last point, help people comprehend exactly what they are standing for in aligning themselves with this project. In the case study, they were standing for academic freedom, they were standing for the creation of new knowledge, they were standing for liberatory knowledge, and they were standing up for equity. 
  13.  Realize that the very slowness of the process can work in your favour. The time taken gives folk with whom you are dealing the experience necessary to truly identify with the cause. Then by the time the inevitable challenges arise from higher ups or the public at large, the people that you have spent all this time educating have become so identified with the cause, they are not simply fighting for you. They are fighting for something they have come to believe in, something that they too have invested their care and energy in. 
  14. Be very clear what the organization as a whole gets from taking the measures that you are suggesting and help people internalize this. In the case study just presented, note, they got money, they got the opportunity to both be moral and be seen as moral, they got the opportunity more generally to be leaders in the sense that the University of Toronto would be the first university anywhere to have such a scholarship. 
  15. What relates to the foregoing, help people take in that they have something to lose if they do not get involved. This sense of gain and loss and can enter in in a variety of ways. Sometimes the issue is that someone else might get what you are offering them, in which case it starts to look more attractive. Note how the coordinator of Adult Education became more interested once it looked like SESE as opposed to Adult Education would end up associated with the award. Similarly, how the dean of OISE in 2006 became more committed to the scholarship once the prospect arose of it going elsewhere. Other times, it is simply the reality of losing the chance to be associated with and to be part of a wonderful and ground-breaking venture.
  16. Hold on to evidence of agreements reached for institutional players come and go, and when they leave, institutional memory typically goes with them.
  17. Be aware that most of the press will be lined up against you, and so begin developing a media strategy early on.
  18. Even if you and the venture are being attacked mercilessly, never devote more than 2 per cent of your effort to responding to attacks. Instead, spend the time getting your message out. Note in this regard, I personally responded in writing to only one attack in the op ed piece referenced earlier. Correspondingly, I quickly summarized what was wrong with the article, then devoted the vast majority of the piece to explaining what made this scholarship vital. To put this another way, be active, not reactive.
  19. Rally your allies wherever you can. You at once receive considerable help and what is far more significant, you turn this struggle into what it absolutely has to become -- a community effort and a common cause.
  20. Build in fun events, optimally using art and celebration. In this regard, remember anarchist Emma Goldman's famous remark, "If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution." 
  21.  Upfront the voices of those who will benefit from the measures being taken (in this case, the up-fronting of voices like the Mad Students' Society and the voices of current students who would themselves benefit directly or indirectly from the scholarship).
  22. Figure out what to counter and what to ignore.
  23. Reach out to sympathetic media and create/co-create your own positive coverage.
  24. Never let threats scare you off. The more they threaten you, the more visible/audible you need to become. Such is the nature of revolutions.
  25. Operate on the principle that "bad publicity" is almost invariably better than "no publicity."

Finally, keep in mind that there is a type of dialectic by which issues of this ilk operate. That is, in the very ways that the forces of hegemony go after you lies the seeds of your eventual (and collective) success. You have but to apply the moral jujitsu of principled social activism.

My hope is that these general principles are of service to you in your ongoing work.  Whatever your counterhegemonic battle is, whether it be antipsychiatry, or prison abolition, or gender-bending, feel free to use them, add to them, share them with friends. This said, I, along with many of my readers have a special interest in their use in the war against psychiatry. May they help us slowly but surely turn antipsychiatry/critical psychiatry into an accepted form of knowledge.

This article originally appeared on BizOMadness Blog.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jphillips23

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