“Still Living Undocumented”: Immigrant stories, and what lies beyond

Last night I watched “Still Living Undocumented,” a film by Tatyana Kleyn about the continuing story of three undocumented people working, praying, and fighting for the permanent, lawful ability to live in the United States, with my students at City College in Harlem. The story picks up from the last film from 2012, “Living Undocumented: High School, College, and Beyond,” which features several Dreamers and students at City College pursuing their degrees and looking ahead to a variety of futures. The young people in both films are energetic, bright, clear-eyed, and inspiring. They have struggled to build a life that walks the knife-sharp edge of liminality, meaning “existing in a state of being in between, of non-belonging,” a way of being which has certain implications in legal, social, educational, and political terms. DACA allays the stresses of living this way, but because it both requires renewal and faces attacks from the current administration, it cannot be a permanent solution.

This second film expressed both more seriousness and less certainty, as well as more clarity in terms of what next steps stand before those of us who support actions by our government to ensure that undocumented youth can join the country that they have known since they were small as citizens. The post-screening panel discussion (below) opened up a conversation with the young people featured in the film, along with the movie’s co-creators and producers.

Jong Min (second from the left) is one of those individuals. The film ended with his story, a risky move because it is less positive than the other two, and yet an important one. Jong Min had missed the opportunity to receive protection under DACA, without which he won’t be able to continue his education (he can’t get scholarships to support him) or get a job. He works at his parents’ store in Queens. The other two students (one of whom is a former student of mine) have done better, continuing to create new paths for themselves and sharing these triumphs with the filmmakers. Yet it was Jong Min’s story that really caught my attention. There is no answer for him. He is unprotected, and he has had to accept that his life’s dreams are slipping away. He’s in his late 30s, and many of the possibilities, the plans that U.S.-born people take for granted as a simple question of “working hard enough” (the perennial nod to American meritocracy and its embedded prejudices against people of color, the poor, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, and others), are simply fading away. When the moderator of the panel asked Jong Min what he had learned, how his life had changed, over the five years between the first movie and the second, he thought carefully, and answered drily, “Not much.”

After questions went on for a few minutes, the conversation turned back to Jong Min. He was asked about final thoughts, and he paused thoughtfully before admonishing the audience:

We need to move beyond the stories.

The moderator responded professionally and politely, but I think there was a powerful message here. Telling hard stories is important, but it is only one piece of this puzzle, and at its worst and laziest (not the case with these important films), it often keeps “those poor immigrants” in an objectified role of receiving benevolence, rather than as active contributors to U.S. politics and society.

For those of us who are lucky enough to be U.S. born, we have to move from being audience members to being community members, true companions in the struggle to make changes to protect DREAMers. This means putting ourselves at risk, of course, in financial and sometimes even political terms. But good things are happening, and the fight is far from over. Grassroots actions and coalitions across communities have emerged across the country. Activism has generated palpable change and shifted public opinion. New questions are being asked, new creative actions are taking place, and new challenges are being met with the force of the will of the people. We are increasingly discovering our ability to resist, insist, and persist, in all the ways we’d expect, and in all of the ways yet to be discovered.

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“Adjuncts: Underpaid, Overworked and Mobilizing on International Women’s Day” (article for Left Voice)

I just published an article for Left Voice, a progressive news source where several of my friends and colleagues from the GC collaborate to dig in to news that affects us as workers, students, citizens, and human beings. So proud to offer my services again! Here’s the link, and here’s the text below…


In “Living a Feminist Life,” Sarah Ahmed claims that “to become feminist is to kill other people’s joy; to get in the way of other people’s investments.” (p. 65) While suggesting a somewhat sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek tone, this line also resonates with the reality of what it is to review, resist, reject, and re-envision the structures, relationships, and histories that generate our now and our tomorrow. To become aware of our current state of affairs – and to act on this awareness, in solidarity – is to get in the way of an established way of thinking about how we define what is ethical and possible in our labor and our politics.

The International Women’s Strike, taking place this week on March 8th in demonstrations across the globe, is an example of this rising collective get-in-the-way-ness that is challenging some of our most venerated institutions and traditions. As a political strike, rather than a strike for bread and butter demands, it is asking questions that in the past have been dispersed across different groups with distinct agendas. These questions address workers’ rights, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, housing rights, even the right to mobilize ourselves, but are not limited to these areas of focus. The International Women’s Strike, writ large, is a call to action against a state of affairs that has normalized tenuous and unjust living and working conditions, a call that asks all of us to consider the ways in which our society shushes our political voice and consciousness by working us harder and harder and separating us one from another. The Strike on March 8th is, as Tithi Bhattacharya reminds us, vital to our current state of affairs because “for the first time in many, many years we are seeing questions being raised about what it means to be a worker in this country.” Bhattacharya suggests, in no uncertain terms, that it is our lived experiences as laborers, increasingly characterized by rising inequality, anxiety, and precarity, and our ability to fight back to regain our dignity and self-determination, that are at stake. We are, she claims, opening a conversation about “a wider world of better living” in the global actions on March 8th.

Such questions invoke thinking about public discourse and our national narrative. Put the phrase “U.S. worker” into Google and you get images of men in hardhats, working with large machines to produce cars, steel, buildings, roads. This reflects a default view of labor in this country which is masculinist, nationalistic, and heteropatriarchal, grounded in a narrative that locates worker rights within certain male-dominated spaces, industries, and geographies. Under such a rubric, women’s labor become ancillary, a support role, an afterthought. This doesn’t mean that women have not made great strides in labor equality, education, and political representation. Far from it. But when we think of “labor,” of “workers,” we still tend to project a very specific set of images and ideas. Other forms of work which do not conform to this narrative, and the bodies that rise to produce it, are often invisible-ized, misunderstood, devalued, denuded, depoliticized. This is the case with immigrant labor, with domestic labor, with emotional labor and other forms of un(der)compensated, unrecognized work. These work activities are usually feminized, downplayed, seen as the purview of female-bodied, Brown and Black, and/or immigrant people, yet they are in fact necessary to the successful running of the global capitalist machine. As political philosopher Nancy Fraser argues, the un-recognition and exploitation of feminized labor as an aspect of social reproduction, which perpetuates unequal social arrangements over time and space, is the “backstory” which makes capitalistic accumulation possible.

One of these subsets of feminized labor is adjunct work in higher education. Adjunct professors, lecturers, and instructors are part-time, at-will laborers who fill in the gaps created by the budget shortfalls that plague the institutions of higher education. As I stated in an article I wrote in December 2017, those of us who work in this capacity make up half of the teaching faculty in these institutions across the country, yet tend to be poorly compensated and struggle with a lack of job security as well as visibility and respect. Ironic is the fact that adjunct faculty take on important responsibilities including structuring important coursework for undergraduate and graduate students, advising and supporting these individuals, and contributing to the curricular materials and the ongoing needs of the departments where they teach. In an analog to Fraser’s discussion of how capitalistic relations require unrecognized, un(der)compensated labor to support official production activities, an argument could be made that adjunct labor is a “backstory” to the officially recognized and rewarded full-time faculty, supporting the latter’s existence by covering courses that are inconvenient and/or unstaffable at a low cost. This is, indeed, understood to be “the way things are.”

There is an affective, relational dimension to this. As adjuncts, we simply don’t “get in the way.” We are of service. Generally, we do this out of love for what we do. We are grateful to be able to support our students and our departments. But gratitude is a tricky thing. When I think about my work as an adjunct professor, I am similarly grateful to have worked with graduate students for the last three years. The majority of these individuals are public school teachers in New York City, and it brings me joy to think that my energy, my hours spent, my creativity, and my scholarship contribute directly to the health and strength of our city’s schools and the young people who attend them. So this begs the question: if I’m more often satisfied than not with this work, why would I interrogate how adjunct labor functions in the context of higher education, and dare to question on what conditions adjuncts should be working? (It should also be said that daring to do such a thing may have real consequences as to my future hireability as a full-time professor.)

I would respond to this unasked question with another question: Is it ungrateful for the teachers in West Virginia, who no doubt care deeply about their students, to be striking in demand of a pay increase and more reasonable health care premiums, an ongoing movement which is inspiring similar actions in Oklahoma and other parts of the U.S.? What about the strike by lecturers, librarians, and other workers in over 60 institutions of higher education in the U.K. for stable pensions? Is getting in the way of the marching drum of dehumanizing capitalist accumulation and progress ungrateful…or ethical, real, and just? This is also a question of history, and how we contribute to it as active members of society. The strike in the U.K. is the biggest strike in its history, as these brave individuals refuse to accept what they are calling the “casualization” of staff and challenge their consignment to future poverty. They are writing history, recognizing that the only way change can be made is if collective action can emerge to contest the inequitable, extractive conditions in which they have been working and claim new possibilities.

Is it getting in the way to ask that the way be made together? Is it getting in the way to disrupt the status quo political economic arrangements that have benefited the few on the backs of the many, especially women, people of color, immigrants, and/or other the members of the precariat, for so long? Is it getting in the way to demand that all people’s joy, all people’s investments, should comprise our present and our future? On March 8th, I will march with colleagues and friends in downtown New York. I will yell until hoarse, and I will get in the way. I would not dare to tell my students that I did anything but.

“Tell us what to think”: the Florida shooting and media’s subtle shushings

I watch PBS Newshour sometimes when I’m waiting for DemocracyNow! to come on in the mornings. The reporting on PBS is well-intentioned though influenced by corporate and wealthy sponsors in order to make up harsher and harsher cuts in government support over the years. It’s a decent source of information, a more polished, slightly more toothless lens through which to look at the world.

Yesterday was the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. 17 people were killed and 15 were injured. According to many sources, there is one shooting every 60 hours in this country. The shooter was a 19 year old who had been expelled from the school and apparently had a pattern of domestic violence, stalking girls at school, and White nationalist comments online. This was definitely an individual who had been under suspicion for the potential for violent behavior, though he was not stopped in time. This is a profoundly shocking loss for the community and families in Parkland.

In discussing this, Judy Woodruff of PBS leads the story with the following:

Given this tragic pattern, one could throw up his hands and think there’s nothing to do. But we have to believe, for the sake of our children, there is a way through this. How do we think about it?

She echoes this question with the program guests:

What would you suggest we start to think about now?

What is one way we should be thinking about this right now that could move us forward?

I understand our collective need for discussion, for problem-solving, but this approach troubles me. Something about asking how we should think reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s alleged deep suspicion for newspapers, which he argued told us what to think about the world’s goings on. Though they give important information we couldn’t otherwise access, media representations do tend to urge us to move in certain directions in our thinking – and even to suspect our own abilities to think critically about our reality and our ability to influence it.

In terms of the shooting in south Florida, the way of framing this conversation typically involves making a list of shootings – Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Virginia Tech, the Pulse Nightclub, Columbine, San Bernardino, Tucson, Colorado – and then asking about how and why the gunman did what he did. Conversations about mental “illness” tends to emerge as a go-to point of focus (though I’m grateful for work like a recent article by Dr. Jonathan Metzl, who argues against demonizing people with emotional or psychological disabilities and challenges for mass shootings), and the stories tend to become individualized, discussing the personal path of the shooter or shooters to this destructive endpoint. We tend not to look at the systemic problems that give rise to easier access to guns, and more lethal ones at that, for more than a moment. Or rather, we tend to be shepherded away from such thinking. This is happening through our country’s leadership as depicted through the media as well. The President, for example, refused to comment on gun control questions at all in his address about this tragedy yesterday, and Alex Azar of the Department of Home and Health Services claimed that mental illness would be a target in this debate.

Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow! made a great point in her reporting: that most mainstream networks on the left and the right have set up the terms of debate for us, terms which do not generally include a serious discussion of the influence of NRA money on government decision-making. Metzl added to this critical position by starting from a truly ethical perspective:

Why do we need so many guns in the first place? What kind of society do we want to live in?

I want to contribute a commentary on media’s role in how we might think collaboratively about our present and future: What kind of society do we live in that we need the news to start even the basic thinking about yet another mass killing of children? It’s almost as though we have a collective mental block, a cognitive blank in the face of what seems inevitable.

This is the problem. It’s absolutely not inevitable that these shootings happen. I do not pretend to have an answer for violence writ large in this country, for why people may find themselves drawn to hurting others. However, I think we need to resist the storytelling approach to framing these painful events that depoliticize the broader context in which shooting violence takes place. Individual stories have their place, but we have to remember the structural reasons that possible-ize such violence that are obscured in “these difficult times.” Plainly put, the NRA lobby is paralyzing our lawmakers, and our democracy, through the use of money as political speech. They have spoken for us about gun use and possession, even though the majority of Americans favor new legislation for gun control that requires background checks and bans the purchase of semi-automatic weapons (see here). And behind this potent influence on our government is a White nationalist, patriarchal discourse that shushes all questions, lulls us into inertia.

I’m not saying, don’t read the newspaper or watch the news. I’m saying, be ready to ask more questions before sinking into the warm bath of “maybe tomorrow will be better.” Because it won’t. Not without serious collective action against the forces of White patriarchy and violence that fetter our government and feeds whispered responses into its well-oiled message machine.

I voted today: getting from one place to another, together in New York City

I love to vote. Some people find the process tedious, full of long lines and old-fashioned procedures involving paper and bubble-filling, but I love going to my local school, finding my council and assembly district, signing my name in exchange for the ballot in its huge long sleeve, and heading over to the area where I make my choices as a citizen. Not only do I get to participate in civic life in an active, direct way, I also get to say hello to neighbors I never otherwise would have met.

In a bizarre twist, I ran into my choice for mayor in person on the Upper West Side only three hours later.

It was definitely a what-are-the-odds type of situation and reminded me that being a New Yorker, for all of its stress and expense, also means being on the streets, on the subway, in shops and parks together. Lots of people hovered around De Blasio, a few hollered obscenities, but most just looked on peacefully as the incumbent shook hands and engaged in last-minute connection with the public.

On my way to the library to study, I gazed over my subway car and enjoyed the sight. Being in New York means being with people. There’s plenty to struggle against – including attempts to eradicate our city’s status as a sanctuary city, the pressure to privatize more and more schools, housing injustice and gentrification, complicated issues with policing and its history of racial profiling, not to mention my personal gripe with all the screens clogging up out attention spans – but at the same time, we’re all still human beings, getting from one place to another…together.

Public schools: the starting point for questions, for possibility, for the anti-dictate

I am a field mentor for student teachers getting their masters degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at New York University. I myself am not a public school teacher, and for this reason, I love coming to schools and working with student teachers and their mentoring cooperating teachers over the course of a semester of developing lesson plans, new strategies, and relationships with the students. These are precious, powerful times for new teachers. Student teachers are learning to be authoritative rather than authoritarian, kind yet clear, and knowledgeable as well as inquisitive. This experience tends to be particularly meaningful for teachers who come from very different backgrounds than their students, especially White teachers from homogenous suburban middle-class towns very different from the busy, multilingual, multiple-way-of-being neighborhoods of New York. By extension are beneficial to these new teachers the ways in which these complex, dynamic communities express themselves in schools, the ways they push their children to think about the world and their place and participation in it.

Community Roots Middle School in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan-Brooklyn Overpass), a shipping area-turned-artist-haven-turned-locus of gentrification off of the York Street stop on the F train, asks these questions in politically active, clear-voiced ways. The display on the bulletin board in the 7th-grade hallway I visited included the following signage:


Beautiful. Because it always starts with questions.


Image of Angela Davis (above) and political cartoon depicting labor protest.


A brilliant question, one that should be asked over and over again.


The question of resistance.


One of my favorite quotes by Alice Walker.

This is where questions, and questioning, start. Public education cannot be about competition at the global level, or about test scores, or about conformity in and preparation for economically and politically strident times. We are in a time when we believe this is so. Schooling is about starting to ask questions, to learn what is possible, to explore ways of being that are not dictated to us, which is the essence of democracy. Community Roots Middle School, at least in these images, expresses just this.

Is a conversation action?: bell hooks and theory for healing and liberation

A politically conscious and active friend of mine teaches in an early college program in Queens, where teenagers learn from him about U.S. history and great literature. This weekend, we chatted a bit about his work, how wonderful and inspiring it can be, as well as how uncertain in terms of greater consequences. My friend is not cynical about education, but he did lament the fact that his conversations with his students might have little real-world impact. “It’s not the same thing as getting out there and marching,” he said. “Not the same thing as action.”

Or is it? bell hooks, public scholar who writes and speaks about race, feminism, capitalism, and many other topics (I attended a panel which included her at The New School about Beyonce and “the booty” a couple of years ago), wrote in a 1991 essay entitled “Theory as Liberatory Practice” about the power of creative engagement, of theorizing in responding to our pain, a response takes place in the mind and heart and yes, in the community as well. Yet the proposition that thinking and talking, the generative imaginative tilling of soil, is “action” in and of itself is one that continues to meet resistance.


bell hooks. Image from the bell hooks institute.

hooks cites a meeting she has with Black female thinkers, in which she hears the frustration some women had with with dominant feminist theory, with “all this talk” which appears to oppose real responses, authentic, embodied ideas that address the lived struggles of the Black community. She responds that speaking can itself be subversive, when it disrupts elite claims on knowledge and the ability to produce it:

…I dared to speak, saying in response to the suggestion that we were just wasting our time talking, that I saw our words as an action, that our collective struggle to discuss issues of gender and blackness without censorship was as subversive a practice…Just as some elite academics who construct theories of “blackness” in ways that make it a critical terrain which only the chosen few can enter, using theoretical work on race to assert their authority over black experience, denying democratic access to the process of theory making, threaten collective black liberation struggle, so do those among us who react to this by promoting anti-intellectualism by declaring all theory as worthless. By reinforcing the idea that there is a split between theory and practice or by creating such a split, both groups deny the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness thereby perpetuating conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression.

hooks reminds us that academics, of all colors and backgrounds, have perpetually been regarded as singular creators of theory, an activity which is seen simultaneously as elite and without relevance to our worlds. Her words call for praxis – a reflective, dynamic, unfinished cycle of theory and practice – toward critical education evoked the work of Paulo Freire in the late 20th century as he advocated for the disruption of hegemonic, oppressive forces through emancipatory pedagogy. Importantly, hooks’s notion of democratic access to this ever-emergent praxis is a feminist, collective one, inviting contestation and imagination for changing times.

In responding to my friend, I mentioned this, and added that I had a socioculturalist take on the process of education. “How do you know what you and your students talk about won’t have impact outside the classroom?” I asked. “What if one of them comes home, tells her dad about What We Talked About In Class Today, and then her dad speaks to someone at work tomorrow, and then this creates some influences, and then, and then…?” I trailed off but I hoped it made sense. We can’t always anticipate or control the outcomes of our teaching, nor should we. We can’t tell our students what to do with the learning that they experience with us, but what we can do is have faith that building theory and creating new knowledge together can have influence far beyond the 45 minutes we’re with them.

This is where social movements start: with an idea, with a theory, with a question. How can you really say where talking stops…and action begins?

The question of community: climate change, DACA, and environmental racism

Hurricane Harvey is striking Houston and 50 other counties in Texas, pounding the region with enough water to fill the football stadiums of the NFL and all colleges across the country 100 times. Nearly impossible to imagine. At the same time, one-third of Bangladesh is under water in a monsoon season that has been strongly augmented by climate change (also called climate chaos or climate disruption). Both disasters, the latter of which has led to the deaths of over 1,000 people thus far, relate to the larger issue of the abuse of the environment that we as a species have undertaken for profit.

Coincidentally, President Trump is under pressure to end the DACA program in the United States, threatened by impending lawsuits from a cadre of Republican lawmakers across the country. DACA, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an Obama-era program for amnesty which provides the opportunity for immigrants who came to the United States illegally as minors to work, live, and participate in society without the threat of deportation. About 750,000 individuals in the United States benefit from this program, which has historically been a controversial one but has emerged as a polarizing issue since the 2016 election. Trump’s leadership on Muslim travel bans and the pardoning of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who profiled immigrants and maintained a detainee “concentration camp,” have revealed our president’s quest for popularity with his conservative, nationalistic base through nativist, Anglocentric, xenophobic speechifying backed up by executive action and regional actions like SB4 in Texas.

The connection between climate change and the marginalization of immigrants and other people of color and poor people is powerful. Hurricane Harvey exemplifies the devastating impact natural disasters (if this term really applies) have on communities of color and poor communities, including immigrants who are undocumented, constituting a clear form of environmental racism that is often accepted under the logics of deregulation and capitalistic expansion. As Harvey’s destructive consequences reveal themselves, reports state that many undocumented immigrants are not contacting authorities for help during the disaster, producing widespread health, safety, and economic concerns. Even when people are able to return to their homes and begin to rebuild their communities, they will need to work to make up their losses, to continue their lives, and, unfortunately, to prepare for disasters that surely will come in the future.

However, if DACA is ended, its 85,000 beneficiaries who live in Houston will be left without the possibility of doing just this. Immigrants activists like Cesar Espinoza, an undocumented immigrant and guest on Democracy Now! this morning, speak of his community as it responds to these questions. “The fight continues,” Espinoza says:

For a lot of people, though, it’s a piece of devastating news. They’re relying on their deferred action, on their ability to work, so that they can rebuild, they can go back to work, and help their families rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, if DACA does get rescinded in the next couple of days, these young men and women are going to be left with nothing, the rug is going to be swept from under their feet, and who knows how long it will take for them to rebuild.


Image from the Houston Chronicle

Community is where the strength to face such possibilities comes from. The question is, who belongs to this community? Who should be responsible for the fall into, and struggle out of new and continued poverty, housing instability, health complications, and other problems that members of Houston’s incredibly diverse community will face? The answer is, all of Houston, and all of our country, should be. Undocumented immigrants are a part of all of our communities, and should be valued as contributing members with the same concerns other residents have. We all share the same civil rights to life, to live without discrimination, to the ability to participate freely in society and build a life with self-determination and dignity. Climate disasters reveal that our thinking is not there yet. But we still have time to reconsider the political and social disasters to come if we don’t.