Alumni Profile

Joy Elizabeth: Activist and Bike Enthusiast

Three people stand in the middle of the street, facing the camera. They're wearing light jackets, and in the background it looks like rain.

Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Each month we’ll catch up with a HECUA alumni, and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, and their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email This month we’ve got a special treat: a letter from 2017 Inequality in America student Joy Elizabeth Martin. Joy is a student at the University of Minnesota, graduating this spring, getting ready to embark on a major adventure. She was kind enough to share her reflections with us as she prepares to travel by bike across the United States.

Here’s Joy:

I moved to Minneapolis in 2015; thinking, at first, that I was only here to spend a summer with my dear sibling. It became quickly apparent, though, that I had much to learn from the people here. So, I decided to stay, seeking to put down roots and build relationships based on authenticity and accountability.

I lived in several community houses that cooked together, took retreats, had regular meetings, grew food together, and hosted gatherings. My housemates introduced me to new foods, alternative financial structures, feminist authors, new art forms, queer theories, and so many styles of communication. These housemates have been some of my dearest teachers.

I started riding my bike everywhere. My five-mile commute was daunting at first, and watching my body adapt was powerful. I kept riding all through my first Minnesota winter and haven’t stopped since.

I sought out spaces where I could deepen my inner work and healing. I took courses in meditation, attended workshops, and went to group and individual therapy.

After living here about six months, I went back to school at the University of Minnesota to finish my undergraduate degree. As an older student working my way through college, I was acutely aware that I had a lot at stake. I knew I would finish my degree only if it was personally fulfilling for me.

By navigating the university system as an adult I’ve gained so much insight and understanding about my relationship with academia. I’ve learned that I’m an oral processor and an experiential learner. I learned the fallacy of objectivity – that historians and story-tellers always have a positionality to the story they are telling, and in order to tell stories that seek justice, one must discuss their own positionality.

From this place of exploring my values, I enrolled in a HECUA program – a semester-long study experience that uses experiential learning and praxis to teach about the inequality in the United States, largely as it pertains to an urban context. We studied the origins of wealth disparities, tax policy that benefits the wealthy, the affordable housing crisis and causes of homelessness, processes of urbanization and segregation, the welfare system, the non-profit industrial complex, the education gap and education models, and our own upbringings. It was my learning in HECUA that showed me I do have a lot to gain from academic spaces – that is, if they are working to excavate truth, as opposed to reinforcing the colonial mindset that our world is saturated in.

It is a beautiful, sunny day, and a cluster of people stand in a tight group together, outlined against the brilliant blue sky.

The Inequality in America of Spring 2017 class gathered for a group photo.

Through my semester with HECUA, I interned with the powerful community organizing group Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (Renters United for Justice). We bring tenants together from the city’s worst housing conditions to share their experiences with each other in order to break down isolation, build power, and demand change – from landlords and local government.

Inquilinxs’ work is necessary because the slumlords here (as well as most other U.S. cities) are often not held accountable for their actions, and abuse their power in order to segregate their buildings, drastically raise rents that displace families, refuse to fix buildings that are infested with mice or cockroaches, and at times even threaten tenants with eviction when they demand repairs. All of these behaviors disproportionately affect those already on the margins of our society. They are using these abusive tactics when our vacancy rate of rental units is at less than 2% (a healthy city is at 5-10%), meaning that renters are often in a tight spot and have no other housing options. I continue to be involved in their work by supporting direct actions that are lead by the leaders/renters of the group and attending ally meetings. Through my involvement in Inquilinxs, I have learned so much about how to build collective power and what I personally have to contribute to that work.

Holding a large, painted banner that reads RENT CONTROL, a group of people stand in front of a grey stone wall.

An action at the State Capitol with Inquilinxs.

Returning to the University of Minnesota after HECUA, I was in search of a department that would teach me from a justice-minded perspective. I was directed to the Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies Department, the one and only in the Midwest. I cannot give the leaders and professors of this department enough praise. The teaching of this department is based on decoloniality, anti-capitalist thought, futurism, and intersectional feminism. My courses in this department have rattled me and challenged me and called me in in ways I don’t yet have words for.

This last semester has been about integration for me. I am working to synthesize some of the themes and frameworks from my degree into a zine as my senior project. I am processing what I’ve learned through performance art, for the first time in years. I am studying the theories behind social movements. I am doing worker organizing to get the minimum wage raised to $15 in St Paul. I am learning that I’m an artist! I am seeking out spaces that invite my whole self into the space, recognizing the personal as political, and working to do inner healing work together; because, as Gloria Anzaldua said, “we change ourselves, we change the world.”

A woman stands in the middle of a circle of protestors on a city street, speaking into a megaphone.

My graduation feels like a marker, a moment to reflect on the work I have done and am doing. To me, this transition feels like a chance to go deeper in the work I’m already doing – not a drastic shift to something different. It’s an opportunity to have more spaciousness in my life, energy that had been spent meeting deadlines, that will now be used on alternative ways of learning. I’ll have more time for the many workshops and author talks and performance art that Minneapolis offers.

What’s next:

To celebrate this transition, and all the work I’ve been doing, I am going to ride my bike across the whole freaking country this summer, from New Hampshire to Washington, with Bike and Build. I will be building homes to combat our current housing crisis, and learning from people and organizations that are coming together to create solutions in many different contexts. I couldn’t be more stoked to sweat, and be in my body, and integrate much of what I’ve been learning about housing, inequality, and my place in the movement. It’ll take 2 ½ months, 4,160 miles, countless liters of water, lots of sweat, and so many snacks; and when I am done I will run into the Pacific Ocean, with my bike above my head.

Bike and Build is prioritizing building affordable housing because housing is a human right. The organization recognizes that affordable housing is the base for a family’s well-being and inadequate housing conditions make every other aspect of a family’s life incredibly more difficult. Bike and Build also recognizes that we are in a critical moment as housing costs are increasing rapidly, and wages largely are not. Focusing on affordable housing, and investing in organizations working to combat the housing crisis across the country is a choice that demonstrates Bike and Build’s awareness of just how urgent this issue is; and I know that true justice requires both services and organizing for change. I am glad that Bike and Build is putting money into the hands of local people and local leaders (as opposed to national organizations) that live in and know the communities. This guarantees that the money will more directly benefit those that need it. I think Bike and Build is also tapping into a lot of power – by seeing the great potential for how much work can get done when many young, eager hands are contributing to the building work. (You can learn more about the work of Bike and Build here).

I would love for my HECUA network to celebrate this transition and my graduation with me!

I need your help to make this trip possible. Here are some ways you can support:

  • Donate to my fundraising page from now ‘til my departure on June 5th!
  • Share my fundraising link with your networks.
  • Let me know if you are interested in sending me mail or packages along the way. I can send you details when the trip gets closer.

I will miss Minneapolis when I’m away, and when I come back at the end of the summer I am planning to go back to work with the young people at the school I had been working at. I am so eager to continue to invest more of myself in those relationships and provide the students with spaces in which they can voice and explore their truths.

So many thanks to the countless individuals and organizations that have been teaching me and encouraging my growth lately. To name a few: thank you so much to my sibling July, to Grease Rag, SURJ, the Chicano/Latino Studies Department, People’s Movement Center, Inquilinxs Unidxs, CTUL and HECUA!

With so much love and gratitude,

Joy Elizabeth

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