Swamp Monster Betsy Devos: Nominee for Secretary of Education

Going to protest the possibility that Betsy Devos could become the Secretary of Education of this country tomorrow at BMCC in lower Manhattan. Watch her avoid responding substantively to any questions about equal protections for all students who have disabilities, who suffer bullying, who take out student loans, who are taken advantage of by for-profit career colleges.
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Here are some of the reasons why I’m demonstrating tomorrow:
  • Devos is a dominionist, which means she believes in Christian education and doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state
  • She is a billionaire whose family has funded anti-LGBTQ social actions in the South
  • She is pro-charter school, pro-privatization, pro-voucher (which Senator Hassan (D, NH) in the first video pushes Devos to say she will make available to students with disabilities, instead of signing away their rights to protections they have now), anti-public school and anti-protection at the federal level of fair and decent public education for American children
  • She still has not completed her ethics questionnaire and thus has dodged the proper vetting procedure needed to evaluate her fitness as the country’s lead figure in determining education policy
  • She has never worked in a public school as an educator or an administrator
  • Her work has signaled a desire to protect corporate profits over the needs of children of color, children with disabilities, children who are poor, children who are non-Christian, and other children whose civil rights have consistently been compromised and attacked historically
  • She clearly is unfamiliar with federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and debates about “growth” vs. “proficiency” (see the Franken video)
I love this last exchange in the first video:
Hassan: “I would urge you to become familiar, should you be nominated, with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and I do have to say, I’m concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it, and that you seem to support voucher schools that have not honored, you know, have made students sign away their rights to make sure that the law is enforced. That’s very troubling to me.”
Devos: “Senator, I assure you that I, if confirmed, I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that.”
Hassan: “And with all due respect, it’s not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to public education, high-quality public education, and the reality is that the way that the voucher systems that you have supported work don’t always come out that way…”

Of the people, by the people, for the people

Watching a video of an interview with Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower, fugitive and public intellectual living in Russia. I saw Citizen Four, the movie about his decision and actions to release information about the widespread NSA surveillance both in the United States and around the world, last night. The story impressed me, not in small part because it featured Snowden in his humility, his philosophical thinking, his challenge of the contradiction between the American value of the right to privacy — encoded in the Fourth Amendment — and the justification for gathering data about millions of Americans under the Patriot Act.

The video I’m watching contains a set of lines from Snowden that I love and resonate deeply with conversations I’m having with colleagues and friends about the question of government and governance (for they are not the same thing) and what it means to live in a democracy:

…We should be cautious about putting too much faith or fear in the work of public officials. At the end of the day, this is just a president…If we want to see a change, we must force it through ourselves. If we want to have a better world, we can’t hope for an Obama, and we should not fear a Donald Trump. Rather, we should build it ourselves.

Can we have a people-powered movement, a change that flies in the face of corporatism and cronyism and doublespeak and corruption of not only democracy but also critical thinking? Can we have a government, again, of the people, by the people, for the people, as Lincoln once mused?

Paciencia, then. Estamos plantando. Let’s start planting.


Getting started

It’s a funny title for a post, since I’ve been writing this blog since 2014. However, what began as a scholarly exercise, to be executed faithfully but unhurriedly, has shifted in my mind. The stream of conversation now, in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, has become a torrent of great anger, anxiety, sorrow, and uncertainty, with smatterings of told you so’s and many predictions for the future. I am writing this now to exercise my voice and to contribute what I can, as a PhD student, a professor, and a reader and writer about immigration and education. As both aspects of the conversation about the future of America very much need defense and advocacy, I commit myself to doing this as much as I can, both here and elsewhere in my work.


Last night I read a Truthout article about the increasing influence of big donors on public education. Entitled “Are Wealthy Donors Influencing the Public School Agenda?“, the piece detailed the shifts in education policy at the local and state level that have occurred more and more via the donation of big money from wealthy “reformers” (the discursive construction of the term reform will be the topic of a future post.) These philanthro-barons come to the proverbial table with disproportionately loud voices, silencing participation from smaller (read: less well-funded) participants on decisions relating to educational policy taken by local school boards. Donations from such “education reformers” — who are often not members of the communities to which they donate — have influenced the ways in which school board elections come out, using the power of media representation to undercut messaging from competitors with smaller coffers. Aside from skewing the democratic election process, the influence of wealthier, more powerful donors brings the increasing presence of the values they espouse, which, according to the article’s authors’ background research (see here and here), differ significantly from most people in the United States. These donors tend to hold neoliberal perspectives rooted in market-driven solutions like “school choice” (code for controversial voucher programs and the increase in the number of charter schools, which are meant to provide alternatives to struggling district schools and compel those in existence to ‘step up their game’) and “accountability” (code for highly problematic data-driven decision-making which supports funding cuts and staff reductions for underperforming schools).


The issue resonates with the 2016 presidential election for me, not because of the “fat cats always win” crowing I’m doing along with many other folks. Instead, I see this as part of a conversation we in the United States need to have about the role of the media and messaging in shaping our public discourse. The Truth-Out article includes the story of a local school board candidate who, like me, works in the education of adult immigrants. He states the following:

It [money] changes the discourse…their [the reform candidates] message is the only message. Not just the dominant message anymore. It’s the only message people are hearing.

Why is this the case? Are parents and communities literally unable to get access to a diversity of perspectives in decisions about education? Is it the fact that we are so overloaded at work, so wrapped up in the latest Netflix series that we can’t find the time to talk to the other people on our street or on the bus or subway? The blinding and deafening of corporate media blitzing, which likewise draws strength and influence from the strategic controls of wealth, may have something to do with this. The news tells me the schools are struggling, teachers are not doing their jobs, students are innocent and must be saved, our families are under fire, and other messages that induce panic. We must make change. Enter…reform. Exit community togetherness, dialogue with equal sharing of the mike.

Money massages us into forgetting that we don’t need saving by outside angels. We forget that we have our own tools. Can we recall that in a democratic country all voices should be equal, not some “more equal than others” because they come from throats swathed in silks printed in glossy campaigns that inundate and lure us away from critical thinking and connection to our neighbor?

Pro-immigrant activism in Boston

Yesterday morning I went with organizers from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (https://www.miracoalition.org/) to the State House in Boston to advocate for the support of amendments to the state budget which protect immigrants’ access to housing, in-state tuition, education, and health care. We spoke with representatives and their aides and interns about this complicated but yet very human process of passing laws. Inspiring to think about how shaking hands, seeing people face to face (if not eye to eye), can still influence change. We are all civically connected!


I’m also attaching the a link to the documents which listed the talking points we brought with us to speak with the representatives. MIRA made it accessible and real for everyone involved. A great model to follow in considering how to participate in the health and protection of our community in partnership with our elected leaders!

MIRA opposes Public Housing Discrimination 1
Please co-sponsor these amendments_&_opposed amendements for action

Discourse, voice, and rightness in an animal rights activist talk

Tonight I attended a talk at the Blue Stockings Bookstore on Allen Street in lower Manhattan with a friend, where we partook in a conversation about animal rights called Animal Rights Campaigning and Racism. Interesting questions framed the talk:

  • How can we campaign for animal liberation while being self-aware of privilege, xenophobia, imperialism, and the ongoing instrumentalization of animal welfare issues by racist parties and groups?
  • Who has the “right” to criticize “other” cultural practices?
  • What role does our language and imagery play?
  • Which targets should we choose?
  • How are we to remain sincere to our anarchist, emancipatory ideals for total liberation?

My friend, a near-vegan and animal rights proponent, had invited me to join her and I was looking forward to learning something new, especially with such a critical frame. Topics like decolonization, anthropocentrism, and speciesism came into the thread, and some of the important racist dimensions of the construction of animals-as-inferior, which include anti-indigenous and genocidal practices in the past and present, were discussed by the moderators, three young people of color who had studied, participated in, and taught about animal activism.

I struggled with some of the discourse generated by the talk. A recurring theme was the indictment of the White Eurocentric settler colonialist tradition, which is absolutely important to discuss in terms of topics relating to oppression and consumption. Yet at times it seemed reductive. American thinking tends to be very race-centric as a way of constructing difference, and there is so much more to explore when thinking about the cultural relationships we have to our environments as human beings, including geography, religion, economics and labor relations (though capitalism and neoliberalism, in fairness, were referenced a couple of times). At times where someone brought up a point not considered supportive of the overarching theme mentioned above, like a comment by a young woman about food deserts, it was shot down fairly quickly either by the moderators, or with their support.

This is good to observe, as a budding professor and future moderator of conferences (I hope). I felt that the way the moderators spoke implied (a) a strong belief in one’s rightness, which was drawn from what were assumed to be common understandings among the group, and (b) an emphasis on pontification and proselytization. As a participant, this became a sort of drone that I ended up taking little away from.


This really signals the important question of voice, which resonated with questions I have about how to manage my classes in a way which is fair and values all participants. Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of the night (it went on too long for my taste, with too much showing-off of knowledge, intermingled with teary accounts of one’s deep convictions and struggles), I’ll just say that events like this are instructive. They remind teachers like me that any leadership posture we have in a group confers power over internal norms and language use, terminology, processes of inclusion and exclusion, and other ways of shaping how the group interacts. And I hate to say it, but after this, I don’t know if I ever want to be a part of a “group” like this again.

The power of “I don’t know”         

We are supposed to have opinions, have things figured out. Taxes, gasoline, housing, transportation, diet, clothing, schooling. “You should do this…” “I read that…” “But you know, it’ really not about…” We respect people who speak with authority and affirmation. In PhD programs I think we are given a lot of latitude to be Authorities on Stuff. We get a special immunity from critique in the outside world because we’re supposed to know a lot of stuff and we’re ostensibly smart enough to become professional students. (Know, by the way, that this is the polar opposite within the towers of academia; there, unfortunately, people are also smart enough to smell bulls**t a mile off.)


At CUNY last night, we had an open house to host prospective students who wanted to learn about the program. I sat with different people and heard a wide range of impressive things: someone who had started his own mentoring program, another person who worked as an advocate for students with disabilities, a third who had created fashion videos for an online course for a friend who wanted to connect education and design. Of course very impressive, and for the billionth time already, I asked myself, “Am I supposed to be here? Everyone here is so sure of themselves!” But I remember one young woman sitting at a table with me and a couple of other people. She quietly listened, focused yet with a different motivation, it seemed, that many of the rest of the people there. I asked her what she was interested in, what she might want to do in a PhD program.

“You know…I don’t know.”

I loved that. How true, how real to say that to someone in a situation where most people are trying to seem casual about how amazing they are while also being mildly impressive with their perfectly crafted elevator speeches! I told her that that was where real learning started, and that she was in the perfect place to start to figure out her big questions.

Thinking about what is going on in today’s world, everyone is trying to have The Answer. With the no-indictment decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, bloggers and journalists are scrambling for their laptops to write the groundbreaking story on “the only way to end police violence.” This story in the Daily Beast, for example, does point to an important issue – the historical dehumanization of Black people in this country as a direct cause of both the violence and the ignorance/ignoring of this violence in the dominant White community in this country – but I’m taking issue with the headline.

Are we in an era when we need to act like we know, even when we don’t and can’t completely know? You could argue that a thoughtful, critical mind should be reading as many of the news sources of the moment to understand what’s going on in the world right now, and I think that’s a priority especially when our country is rupturing into a wild and heaving cry that we haven’t heard for eons about racial prejudice and oppression as a community issue rather than a sectarian, political, or academic one.

Yet it’s the weeping that keeps catching our ears even as we read, as we seek to disappear into the words of others about the deaths, the destruction of Black lives and Black families, rather than give this grief our full attention. Perhaps it cannot be until we truly listen – until we truly say, “I don’t know” – that we can begin to understand more fully. When we stop acting as though we with the pedigreed degrees and affirmative, wordy ways of speaking know what is true, and start listening, really listening, to what is going on, to the depth and rawness and madness and pain of our neighbors, our lovers, our strangers, our country…maybe that’s where real learning can start. It is a howl, a moan of grief that has been woven into our country’s voice for years. Let’s hope we – and I mean all of us, as Americans – haven’t forgotten how to listen.

La Guitarra
by Federico García Lorca

Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Se rompen las copas
de la madrugada.
Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Es inútil
Es imposible
Llora monótona
como llora el agua,
como llora el viento
sobre la nevada.
Es imposible
Llora por cosas
Arena del Sur caliente
que pide camelias blancas.
Llora flecha sin blanco,
la tarde sin mañana,
y el primer pájaro muerto
sobre la rama.
¡Oh guitarra!
Corazón malherido
por cinco espadas.


The weeping of the guitar
The goblets of dawn
are smashed.
The weeping of the guitar
to silence it.
to silence it.
It weeps monotonously
as water weeps
as the wind weeps
over snowfields.
to silence it.
It weeps for distant
Hot southern sands
yearning for white camellias.
Weeps arrow without target
evening without morning
and the first dead bird
on the branch.
Oh, guitar!
Heart mortally wounded
by five swords.

Translation taken from http://allpoetry.com/La-Guitarra.

The performance of suffering for the rich white audience

A friend of mine posted a video on Facebook today featuring Anuradha Koirala, a Nepalese activist fighting sex trafficking in her country and in neighboring India, being honored at the CNN Heroes Award ceremony in 2010. The courage with which she fights for the rights of girls and women to have control over their bodies, to live with dignity, and to rediscover their right to freedom and self-determination, inspires and moves any viewer without a doubt.

I guess it’s my fault I got a little distracted.

While I was watching the video of the ceremony, introduced by Demi Moore, I found myself irritated by shots of audience members getting teary-eyed through the presentation of Koirala, whom the women she has helped save call “elder sister,” and her mission. Moore’s voice broke with emotion as she spoke…but weirdly, I wanted to holler at her. I became tearful, then annoyed with myself, while I sat and watched the music, the video clips, Koirala’s earnest plea to “take each child as your daughter” and remember that it is in solidarity that we can stop such abominable practices. I felt a sense of distant yet palpable anger: How convenient it is for me to sit, safe, untouched, in my dining room with my laptop and shed a noble, clean tear for poor women thousands of miles away whose suffering I could never understand!

The convictions and missions of people with brown faces in this country, either home-grown movements like the civil rights movement or international causes like human trafficking, have always been framed by white, wealthy voices, voices that include those of Hollywood actresses, activists in the same cause, or politicians. I don’t mean to say that the publicity of such missions has no merit; quite the contrary – they need to be heard. But there’s a process of cooptation, of reappropriation, that takes place once they pass through the dominant discourse of charity and social change, which normalizes them for the public. In a way, the weeping of rich white women at the awfulness of the truth of kidnapping and enslavement of girls in Nepal makes the mission more real to us, safer to view through the shared lens, while in some ways it acts as a distancing performance of the much more savage and brutal existence – it cannot be called “life” as we understand it – of the women who are kept as slaves.

Weirdly, these survivors are objectified once again through the lens of Hollywood, even as their story is told. And we rich white Americans get to sit here in our lives of ease and convenience and enjoy our easy moment of catharsis before getting back into our days.

Varietévorführung im Haus Vaterland