A Story of Resignation and Revival

michael falco-felderman

I lose myself when I express ideas in academic modes. I find it easier to tell a story. For me, ideas aren’t theoretical; they are embodied, contextual, and deeply felt expressions of myself. Existence as resistance.1

What follows is an experiment in form, an attempt to not let convention flatten understanding. In this I propose to step away from Incite's day-to-day operations to lead a new Incite initiative called The Collective.


There’s this sensation I have when I am at the edge of steep places.

It starts with a tickle in the feet. My heel scrunches toward my toes, like I’m trying to grab hold of the earth. Perhaps it’s an ancient mechanism for self-preservation?

But then I detect the bitter copper of adrenaline, like kissing a lemon wedge. My heart catches and my breath is unsteady. My thoughts swell and collide. Is it a desire to leap?

I. Prologue | 1981–2010

The ages of ten to thirty were profoundly lonely. I was a people-pleasing, queer Catholic from Kansas: everyone else seemed more important and connected than me. I believed that the harder I worked for people, the more love and mercy they’d show when they found out I was a fag.

I turned all of the anger, sadness, and frustration I felt back onto myself. All the love, kindness, and goodwill I possessed was pushed outward to other people and institutions. The more emptied out I was, the more I thought I needed to serve others. Others were worthy of my love; I wasn’t worthy of anyone or anything.

Meanwhile, the straight, cis world offered almost no examples of queer life during my youth. I struggled to find myself in others or glimpse a future that made sense … any age past thirty always seemed unlikely.

With the well of self-love dry, personal and professional shocks were cataclysmic. Black holes would form, warping my conception of time: past and future collapsing toward the singular intensity of the painful present. Failing made everything seem malignant, broken, and unfixable.

A friend once told me that it’s really hard to close the door on suicide once it’s open. He’s right. I opened it when I was seventeen, and it feels annoyingly ajar. Now, I think about my own mental health journey as a spiraling vortex, like the ones I distractedly scrawled as a high schooler: an ink-dark blot at the center symbolizing where immense pain and loneliness reside, but then radiating and looping circles of possibility that spiral mostly away, though some occasionally curl back toward the center.

II. Rising | 2010–2019 Leap forward to Columbia University. I’ve been here for fourteen years, the last twelve as the person running day-to-day operations for Incite. Incite gave me purpose, value, and something approaching self-worth.

I never worshiped Columbia. In fact, I had little imagination or interest in college—the only two that accepted me did so because I said I wanted to be a priest. After moving to New York City and stints as a journalist and a queer organizer, I came to appreciate and desire Columbia’s elite aura. Worth by proximity, I suspect.

My job lies at the intersection of faculty, student, administrative, and leadership needs, which are often in friction with each other. It’s hard to sit at such fault lines and be liked. And I’d eat shit to be liked.

When I came out as gay to my mom, she said something I had already suspected and internalized: “You’ll have to work twice as hard for people to respect you.” So failure at work never felt like an option—I had no other means of connection, self-worth, or acceptance.

I’ve poured so much of myself into Incite, which benefited in part from my relentless desire to please people. I worked seventy hours per week. The more projects we got, the more people I had to serve.

Until 2019—the first thirty-eight years of my life—I discovered so little of my queer self. I was too busy bending myself toward others’ expectations and perceptions. My mom, whom I love, tells this story: “You always told us what we wanted to hear. If you were to wake your brother and find him dead, we figured you’d tell us he was up and just getting ready.”

It’s important I please people, sometimes too important. I love that I’m friendly; sometimes I’m too friendly. I trust people deeply, sometimes too much. I want to help people, sometimes too eagerly. I hate conflict; sometimes I’m too avoidant. I want people to like me, way too fucking much. And I was still constantly spiraling back toward the ink-black center.

III. Queering | 2020–2023

As executive director, I’m also situated at the center of a complex bureaucracy. I must understand all aspects of university life: HR, finance, accounting, purchasing, grants, governance structures, appointment types, and on and on. Oof. When I wasn’t stressed by a broken process, I felt good helping people build, seeing my thumbprint on their ideas 2, finding enthusiasm in even the haziest of concepts.

Incite grew to include so many with deep commitments to others and to work. And we created an always-sympathetic, unrigid work environment. My ideas expanded as I engaged with everyone else’s work. I was like a mother hen tending to all of these chicks whom I trusted more than myself.

Incite endeavors to do things better. We work hard to bend the system toward the needs of people whom the system is designed to disregard and discard: Black people, queer and trans folx, unhoused people, justice-involved people, artists, activists, abolitionists, anti-capitalists, people without a degree.

But Columbia’s bureaucracy is so fucked up and convoluted, despite so many dedicated and talented staff all across the administrative structures. Ultimately, the systems are uncaring and designed with a particular type of person in mind: picture a resourced, system-adept academic. It means I spend a lot of time absorbing and embodying people’s frustration, while working hard to summon bits of optimism. It can be so hollowing.

As I found new vibrations with myself and others, the boundaries started to feel more and more constructed and artificial. All I could see were hardships enclosed around us, which I was then compelled to impose on others. It became hard to ignore Columbia's callousness, watching the people I care about be treated like one-dimensional entities by the system.

Despite these mounting misgivings, during this period there were moments when I found myself as far from my dark center as I ever imagined. Pushing past a light-polluted sky and away from earth’s gravitational tug, I saw constellations of hope and possibilities—queerer ideas that are more easily seen by those of us who have spent most of our lives in the between-spaces of society.3

IV. Ending | 2024

I am proud of the students at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment. Organizing is about learning and cultivating space. You listen in order to articulate. Articulating shapes your understanding. Your understanding alters the way you hear. Hearing helps you organize others. It’s cyclical. Pedagogical.

I stand with the people of Gaza and Sudan and West Harlem and everywhere else where violence, erasure, and American complicity persist; the vicious act of enclosing darkness upon others shakes my core. This moment weighs on me: I have brought dozens of partners and tens of millions of dollars into a place whose financial and industry entanglements supersede its mission; where business decisions direct its actions.

I have a front-row seat to Columbia’s mass of contradictions. It is expansive and creative—and its expansion, both physical and intellectual, obliterates space for others to exist and think. It is a powerful nonprofit that accelerates bold ideas—and it deeply aligns itself with destructive forms of profit, capital, and industry. It carries the banner of academic freedom—but that depends on who you are and what you say.

Much of my life has been spent pushing anger back into myself, darkening the blotch inside me with frustration and endless sorrow. But now anger pours out of me. I worry that the light that once poured so freely is drying up—and then what do I have left to offer?

I feel more and more cynical. I see how the university reproduces itself, so I felt inured to recent events: Columbia aligning with the NYPD, acquiescing to right-wing assaults, arresting community members, working adamantly toward stasis. It should be no surprise that our mission misalignments in the world have undermined our ability to achieve our mission on campus.

For a long time I thought radical transformation could be achieved within its structure. More and more, I am discovering that this 275-year-old, $6 billion institution bends me as much as I bend it. It’s time for me to try something other than institutional reform from within: this moment demands untethering ourselves from assumed structures and the momentum of history. We need new possibilities and configurations for ourselves. That starts by working from a place of deep obligation to each other.

Epilogue | Past, Present, and Future

I’ve learned a lot from queer raves—spaces of togetherness, deconstruction, and co-creation … and dance, lights, music, sex, drugs … The rave is a place where unfamiliar sounds cut through familiar beats. It pulls me toward the distant past, toward yesterday, toward the future; it creates a present state that vanishes disgust, self-judgment, and shame. In that clarity I see and feel such immense joy.

It’s the reason I’m working queerly, finding more expansive possibilities that push past assumed boundaries to take us somewhere new. I’m trying to make it possible for dozens of others to do the same. I’ve discovered we all need similar things: time, space, money, and connection.

Lately I feel focused on facilitating spaces for deep connection and understanding. It’s hard, good work.

Sometimes the space I create is physical. I spent weeks helping demolish and rebuild a studio at The Clemente with Incite’s artist in residence, Bones Jones. The opening in February was one of the best nights of my life. I remember a friend told me to hold that feeling. I did for a few weeks.

Sometimes I am cultivating space just for a moment. At the end of March I produced Precipice, a party about parties that confronts stigma and un-shames queer expressions. It was another best night of my life—a night of openness, togetherness, and great vibes that impacted hundreds. But the feeling didn’t hold. Within hours I started to fixate on the rough edges. I feared it went too far for Columbia. Time began to collapse as my mind warped the best, most meaningful, most personal thing I ever made.

Making things happen as the executive director of Incite gave me a once-unimaginable feeling of belonging, but now it tears me away from myself. It forces me to reproduce a system at odds with my values. In having to help others navigate its myriad boundaries, it distracts from the vital work of supporting communities, helping make better paths in the world through bold, collective, and sustaining actions.

We’ve built an absurdly amazing team at Incite. We have so many people who know how to bend Columbia’s system to the needs of others. They speak up when they see mission misalignments. They’re energized and know how to short-circuit rigid administrative paths. They are ready to reimagine day-to-day operations to find new and lasting ways to transform Columbia from within.

As for me, through recent dark clouds I’ve still glimpsed the outermost band of the spiraling circle, nearly as close to the stars as I’ve ever felt. Creating that space requires connection: to our work, to each other, to ourselves. Connection requires openness: to ideas, to transformation, and, once again, to ourselves. Through Incite we’ve seen how higher education can conjure transformative configurations for us and unlikely partners. It’s time to release ourselves from calcified institutional logics and see what can be built together.


There’s this sensation I have when I am on the edge of a precipice.

It starts with a tickle in the feet. My heel scrunches toward my toes, as if they were talons ready to push off for flight. Some ancient memory of a now-lost appendage?

I feel this profound warmth, like hugging the sun. My heart soars and my breath steadies. My thoughts feel easy and aligned. I am ready to fly.

1. Filmmaker Amina Ross reminded me of this idea that is so central to Indigenous and Black folks during our event “Queer Ecologies” on April 21, 2024, at UnionDocs, when describing the global shaking off of colonialism.

2. Thinking about the thumbprints we leave is our artist in residence Bones Jones’s idea. (I’ve learned so much from him.)

3. Lunch with creative forces Katie Madison and Debbie Cowell on April 26 of this year put this section into my brain.

michael falco-felderman (they/she/he/whatever) is executive director of Incite.

This piece appears in Logic's upcoming issue 21, "Medicine and the Body." Subscribe today to receive the issue as part of a subscription, or preorder at our store in print or digital formats.