The gravitational forces of public institutions: community-building for more just policing in New York

Being a student in one of the two largest public university systems in the country is an amazing experience. CUNY is powerfully connected to its complicated history with New York City, and there are few people who are not proud to study or teach there (or both, as many of our graduates continue on as professors at one of our campuses across the five boroughs). This history is activated in our collective actions as we stand alongside immigrant rights activists in downtown Manhattan, fellow demonstrating students fighting for the right to unionize, our masters students whose tuitions may rise in top-down decisions from school leadership, and many others.

Last week, I encountered two examples of how public institutions of higher education generate the centripetal forces that pull people from our communities together to fight for a common cause, like gentrification, unfair housing policy,  our city’s role as a sanctuary, and, like these two examples, the policing of Black and Brown communities which has terrorized families, perpetuated fear and anxiety, and resulted in the senseless death of far too many people. The first was a station set up on 5th Avenue with an information booth and colorful signs draped down its sides. It had been set up by the New York Civil Liberties Union.When I asked what was happening, one of the organizers told me that the signs were actually stickers that people could pull off and attach to a postcard that would then be mailed to the mayor’s office to articulate the community’s concerns about policing in New York and how it could be changed in the name of a more just system. Below is the flier the NYCLU provided with the same images:

 

I made my choices, added my postcard to the pile, and thanked the organizers doing this great visible-izing work in an area where they knew they’d get good support: CUNY students, professors, staff, and community members.

The second example of these amazing community forces flowing through CUNY showed up in a flier I found inside our building, one of hundreds that paper our hallways and bulletin boards:

A plain-language discussion of how gentrification and institutional racism are reinforced by police profiling of communities of color, the flier offers real solutions, resources, and contact information for all of us to become a part of community-based change by building relationships between residents, joining cop-watch teams, seeking mediation, and getting information on how to provide first aid.

These texts are living, continuing a dialogue in which we speak truth to power and give care to each other. So proud to be a part of this place.

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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.

Is love an emotion or an act?: White nationalism as a complicating complement to Bakhtin’s philosophy

Is love an emotion or an act? I recently asked this in a student working group where we discuss topics including whether men have a right to contribute to the shaping of public discourse about sexual harassment (appropriate as the #MeToo movement has emerged to inspire and to generate new questions) and how community college students can engage as agentive, conscious scholars even as they are frequently overlooked in discussions about higher ed (see here and here). The question came from a brief paper I’d read by Beth Ferholt, a professor at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, in which she reviewed a book in 2015 about Bakhtinian concepts  (who I’ll admit I reference quite liberally) as they frame early childhood education in ambitious and creative new ways. Concepts like polyphony (the presence of multiple voices in a social context or even within an individual), authoring (the notion that each person is responsible for, and contributes to, their future-in-the-making), and answerability (an ethical claim that all people are responsible for their actions in our unique, “once occurrent being” in the world) all appear, and it’s nice to see philosophical approaches to education pave the way for new thinking. Love, according to the author, has an aesthetic (unifying) proposition in dialogic pedagogy, e.g., it is an act of lovingly being with another as this other learns.

So again, is love an emotion or an act? When I posed this question, a great starting point emerged when someone asked, “is this an either/or? Could it be both?” I wondered post facto whether it could even be a project, rather than a single experience. Intriguing and evocative for educational thinking.

This idea emerged back into my consciousness a few days ago when I read an article in Truth-out about a racially motivated and anti-immigrant attack that took place in Boston in May 2016. Characterized as a hate crime, two White men beat a Latino man with a metal bar and urinated on him. They were on record as making the following comment:

Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.

When asked about the attack, the response from President Trump was as follows:

People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.

A flashbulb went off in my head. I wondered: Can a love for one thing – one’s definition of country, for example, or one’s membership in a social group (which often overlap) – generate the predicate of hatred, even almost in a circular, self-sustaining way? Can this kind of love fall be an example of what Bakhtin meant? Is it possible to separate out the circumstances from the events, to challenge the inevitability of a cause-and-effect perspective in which a feeling of love and an act of hate can co-occur and, according to a White nationalist perspective, be raised to a higher value on some strange terms? To play demon’s advocate, this attack might have been less hateful in the assailants’ eyes and more a loving defense of their vision of home, country, and the way of life they see – however, myopically (sorry, my left-y side snuck in there) – is slipping away.


Piero della Francesca, Cupid Blindfolded — detail, c.1460, Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo

Is this love? Is it love-as-act? It is also rancor, and it evokes violence as well as a dehumanization of the individual upon whom the violence was enacted. Can one make such judgment calls outside of politics? I would say yes, of course…but I wonder that these two criminals might indeed, however perversely it may sound, agree with me.

A case against charter schools: send back your saviors

As a professor, I work with public school teachers who are in the process of becoming certified to teach in the New York City Department of Education in a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows. These new teachers support students from all over the world, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, emergent bilinguals (meaning people who are developing multilingual competences and literacies for a world that, they are told, will value these unique abilities when they enter the workforce), Black and Brown, and generally, within a single classroom, quite diverse. The important task of working with these young people puts my teachers into all kinds of schools and programs across the city, some in the neighborhoods where they grew up, and when we meet on a weekly basis, I hear great – and sometimes hard – stories about their experiences.

Some tell me they struggle with a demanding schedule, rushing from one teaching block to another with little time for a bite of lunch. Many have classrooms filled to the brim with students, working, for example, with 30 or 40 second-graders with wide-ranging individual needs requiring differentiation, personnel, and resources that the teacher often cannot provide. Others work in places like transfer schools which serve students who are struggling to graduate before the age of 21, when they age out of the system, because they have different language and academic needs and backgrounds than their more advantaged counterparts in other parts of the country. There are disciplinary issues, academic challenges, programmatic limitations, and a host of other struggles that these teachers face on a daily basis as they enter their classrooms and hit the ground running with “Miss!” “Miss!” called from the back of the room in the morning.

These classrooms are microcosms for the broader sociopolitical context of the United States and the city. For example, several of the teachers in my classes have received an influx of Puerto Rican students whose families have emigrated from the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria this summer. Others work with large numbers of lower-income students  (the term “free lunch” appears in such conversations) who make up a sizable portion of the New York City public school population. One of biggest challenges is the policy environment we’re working in, known as the high-stakes testing era, where student test scores can help define how much funding a school gets, what teachers are retained or receive tenure, and even how teachers teach their classes. Both causes and effects of inequality and injustice at municipal, state-wide, and broader levels, the victims are students often essentialized according to their race or immigrant identity and consequently blamed for the deficits in their “performance” (a term I put in quotes because so often in our social context we are primarily concerned with test scores, rather than with growth and development, which pits students against each other in the race for scant academic and economic resources).

Underlying most of these difficulties that tax our new teachers and demand their time – weekends, early mornings, evenings included – and health is the fact that the public school system has been perceived by our leaders as a bigger and bigger problem needing resolution, and, paradoxically, a place where less and less funding should go. Betsy Devos, current U.S. Secretary of Education, has been proposing since Summer 2017 a 9 billion dollar cut to public education while singing the praises of school choice, the blanket term used for the implementation of school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools across the country. Devos has suffered an embattled tenure thus far in office, for good reason. She is a huge proponent of privatization of education in this country, which she and her family directly benefit from, while showing little real understanding of the schools and their inhabitants, the teachers and students who engage in teaching and learning there every day. Devos’s perspective is critiqued as characteristically a policy maker’s one, with a dark twist: a belief that free-market thinking and business models, which emphasize streamlining, accountability, competition, and cost reduction above all else, will “cure” our schools of their problems. Charter schools represent such thinking because they ostensibly take the burden of education off the backs of tax payers and allow private entities to do better what our schools have not been able to.

However, I have never, ever heard one of my teachers say, “We should close my school and send our students to a charter school.” They have never said, “Someone with money from outside the community could do this better than we could. We’re just waiting for them to come in on their expensive white horse to help us out.”

A knight and his lover astride a horse try to escape ghostly figures of Death. Engraving by Harding after Lady Diana Beauclerk, 1796. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The problems our schools face are rooted in an issue that our government and much of the United States public are gravely mistaken about. We blame our schools for being ineffective, for not keeping us in the international game as economic competitors and leaders, for listening to teacher unions who, we say, slow down the important process of getting rid of bad teachers and replacing them with good ones. All of these points have some truth to address. But we do not give our schools enough money to solve their own problems. We don’t trust our teachers, who have over time been demonized by “bad teacher” scare stories in the press. Sucking the funding out of public schools, through policies that cut this funding, and put it into the hands of private enterprise that starts charter schools – which, incidentally, can be nonprofit or for-profit – while popular over the last few years, is much to blame. And policy makers who support this approach have failed in their promises that such an approach, paired with privatization, will save our schools. Cited in public debate as a savioristic option for youth of color in cities who struggle through the public education system, charter schools as a symbol of this corporate and philanthro-baron takeover in education have fallen far short.

Read “There Is No ‘Progressive Case’ for Charter Schools” in Truth-out for a thorough discussion of this issue. While some of my colleagues will disagree with me and cite their own schools as examples of charter school success, the pars pro toto argument cannot and does not apply across the board, though it provides an easy out for policymakers who face pressure to cut taxes. To avoid the much bigger, more complex, interrelationship of racism and capitalistic profit – where prejudice against Black and Brown and immigrant communities and the mad search for profit by the elites and corporations that influence political leaders to depict our schools as needing a business approach to “correct their missteps” go hand in hand – is to see schools as sick patients, rather than as groups of individuals already working together in and committed to their communities. My teachers see this, and suffer from the effects of social myopia that refuse them the resources, policy, and social support that they need to help our country’s youth engage with all of the possibilities of the future ahead of them. I fear that in a generation’s time, the problems we cite today will pale in comparison to the loss of creativity, diverse thinking, and responsibility to our fellow community members that is becoming normalized as we demonize “low-performing” schools and scapegoat our teachers for the starvation diet, on ideological and economic terms, we’ve put them on.

“Zines as creative resistance”: authoring the world, authoring ourselves

The Graduate Center library and first-floor hallways have spaces for exhibitions of art by artists with a variety of commitments and visions, some of which are beautiful, raw, terrifying, playful, and sometimes – in my favorite cases – all of the above. Below I’ve collected a group of images of zines which explore topics of race, queer ways of being, misogyny and women’s rights to self-determination, and other topics. Their images and stories are inventive, joyful, colorful, and saturated with the real commitments of their makers. An inspiration for all of us to author ourselves in authoring our worlds!


 

A Night at the Garden: White supremacy and collective forgetting

“A Night at the Garden” is a short film that depicts a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1939. Billed as a “pro-American” rally, the images of the columns of white, uniformed men from the ethnic German group called the German American Bund striking drums, carrying swastika-adorned banners, and displaying rows of American flags in front of a cheering, saluting audience are terrifying, to say the least.

This might like an anachronism in terms, perhaps, of haircuts or police mounted on horseback, or a distant document that should inspire immediate disgust in the 21st-century viewer. Nevertheless, the shock it produces also indexes the collective forgetting by an America that sees itself as a cultural leader in a globalized world, always moving forward in postures of innovation and newness, in denial of much of the anti-Semitism and white supremacy that has underpinned our country’s history.

The final image of the film:

As a testimony to the fact that such thinking is not so far away from the realm of possibility, one need only look at the rise of the right wing in Europe, most recently with the election of Austria’s newest prime minister, Sebastian Kurz, whose People’s Party is likely to build a coalition government by allying itself with the former Nazi-affiliated Freedom Party in that country. And if that seems too far away, too foreign to our own experience of life here, there has been a rise not only of right-wing activism (as we’re all well aware of in the infamous and deadly Unite the Right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017) but also in less visible locations. Recently, Bard College, a small, private college in New York, hosted a conference entitled “Crises in Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.” One of their speakers: a representative of Alternative for Germany, a far-right anti-immigrant nationalist party from that country. It could be inferred that his invitation represented an ethic of free speech, of seeking a balanced approach to the conversation.

Yet when I asked a colleague in attendance whether anyone protested his being there, or even asked a question to challenge his ideas, the answer was “no.” Was this politeness, a commitment to hearing all sides…or a quiet addition to the rising normalcy of violent nationalism percolating in the world nowadays?