Category: social activism

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Cashing in on citizenship privilege

Sunday, May 6th was Mother’s Day. One of the movements that has drawn my attention and respect is the movement to bail out poor Black mothers from jail, where they stay for weeks, months or longer simply because they cannot make pay the cash bail set for them. This year was the third year that “Black Mama’s Bail Out Day” took place, occurring as a week of events to draw public attention to this injustice. Importantly, activists use a broader definition of “mother” which moves away from the bio-normative concept of care-giving. According to Arissa Hall, project director of National Bail Out collective:

We’re talking about more than just birth mothers: caregivers, queer mamas, and the people responsible for taking care of our families and communities.

Keeping over 500,000 of the caregivers in White, middle- and upper-class communities in jail would be unthinkable. Yet in the case of Black communities, particularly those who are poor, this appears inevitable under the rubric of infectious late-stage capitalism (which is also a racial[ized] capitalism), where Brown and Black bodies are regulated, violated, and consumed.

In a Democracy Now! interview with Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), Amy Goodman asked Hooks about the contributions that wealthy donors, including celebrities like Kim Kardashian, make to activist projects like Black Mama’s Bail Out Day. Hooks rightly refocused the lens on the work of longtime committed contributors at the local level, but gave a nod to Kardashian:

…[A] shoutout to Kim for continuing to cash in her white privilege to do what must be done for the sake of other folks’ liberation. Efforts like that should continue to happen, and we should see other entertainers and celebrities get up under grassroots movements and the work that’s being led by black women, queer and trans people to free our people.

This phrase, “cashing in on one’s privilege,” struck me as I reflected on my work in immigrant rights activism with New Sanctuary Coalition. Those of us who are U.S.-born have powerful advantages in this society. Our citizenship privilege is that of people who have the right to reside in a place without fear of being sent far away, the right to live without constant anxiety that our doors will be knocked down and our children dragged out in front of us, the right to labor protections, the right to speak out against injustices enacted against us.

We need to cash in on this privilege of citizenship, see the power that we have and advance against the forces of White supremacy and nationalist violence alongside our undocumented neighbors. Sure, you can catch me out on the contradiction between my critique of capitalism and my use of a market-y metaphor, but the point stands. Those of us with the power, the privilege, have to get the lead out.

Doing more than just “getting by” in 2019

It’s the end of January and the beginning of the semester. This is a month late in writing, but I feel like the vibe of it still rings true as classes start up and hopes for learning and growth gain root for students and teachers.


These days, I’m thinking about the way in which people ring in the new year with the hope of doing better, doing more than “just getting by.” The song “Get By” by rapper and activist Talib Kweli crossed my Spotify Recommended for You playlist and rang just as powerful and fresh as it was ten years ago. Kweli’s video is shot in New York, mostly in Brooklyn, where he was raised by a mother who was a professor at Medgar Evers College of CUNY (point of pride here; the video also has shots of subway stop for City College, where I teach). It is a tribute to the amazing neighborhoods, families, community of New York. It made me think about where we all are today, where we’ll find ourselves in the coming year together. Will we be…

…just “getting by” economically? As a grad student who has spent seven of the last eight years being broke and hoping for gold, it can feel like there’s no end in sight.

…just “getting by” politically? We’re doing much more than this, but there are no signs of stopping the Trump bus as it careens around knocking down protections for and connections between us, both of which we need to keep fighting for to stay alive and stay strong. This line from the song:

I let them know we missin’ you, the love is unconditional
Even when the condition is critical, when the livin is miserable
Your position is pivotal, I ain’t bullshittin’ you
Now, why would I lie? Just to get by?

And will we be just “getting by” socially? We crave each other, yet these little screens—like the one I’m writing this on—and so many other distractions entrance us and pull us away from looking at each other curiously and being open to what might be possible for others and for us. How do we resist the script that sets us up to consume, to collaborate in our own lack of focus, our own limitations and isolation and exhaustion?

We commute to computers
Spirits stay mute while you eagles spread rumors
We survivalists, turned to consumers
To get by…just to get by

And are we just “getting by” spiritually? What are we counting on? What are we praying for? What gods can we count on?

Some people get breast enhancements and penis enlargers
Saturday sinners Sunday morning at the feet of the Father
They need somethin’ to rely on, we get high on all types of drug
When, all you really need is love
To get by…just to get by
Just to get by, just to get by

More fighting left to do. More stories to tell, more songs to sing.

Not all immigrants are “nice”: Critiquing the “good immigrant” trope

2019 has begun with pain, exhaustion, and uncertainty for many people in the United States, and hope has been hard-won and tenuous. I volunteer with New Sanctuary Coalition, whose executive director, Ravi Ragbir, was forced to attend an ICE check-in this morning, one of many techniques that the government has been using to intimidate immigrant rights activists and their allies. The conviction of No More Deaths activists in the Arizona desert of littering on a federally protected wildlife reserve is a reminder that the Antigone defense, alluded to by the judge, would not hold up in the case of these activists, who were seeking to help migrants survive their treacherous voyage across burning, lifeless sands. Much like Antigone, their appeal to a higher law was to fall on deaf ears; that anyone would take a similarly terrible risk to discover a better life for their family than that waiting in their home country is likewise an appeal to reason that makes little dent in the steely facade of White nationalists.

Photo: Meghan Dhaliwal / New York Times

Given that such spitting, spiteful condemnation of migrants’ stories is the norm from many xenophobic camps here, many in the immigrant rights movement find themselves gathering up humanizing details about their interactions with migrants at the U.S. border, which galvanizes sympathy among those geographically far away with progressive values. I believe this is meaningful, and yet I want to bring forward a concern that may be overlooked in polarized times: the slippery slope of using the “good immigrant” trope.

In an op-ed in Truth-Out entitled “Transcending Language Barriers to Connect With Asylum Seekers,” the author, an activist who has helped transport migrants from Central America as they seek asylum in the United States, relates his recent experiences at the border. The personal story is emotive and powerful, sharing how he and his colleagues supported migrant families—called “friends” in the immigrant rights activist community—on their long and arduous journeys into a strange new place. But a couple of the statements the author made gave me pause:

Our friends are among the most capable and determined people I’ve ever met…

I’ve played with their young children, held them as they’ve cried, exchanged hugs with them and heard their heartbreaking stories. I’ve bought them meals, given them clothing and I’ve come to love each of them…

Our friends are gentle, loving, compassionate, kind and unbelievably strong…

I have no doubt that the author has had transformative experiences helping people get to safety. I don’t doubt his conviction or his commitment to this great work as a witness and a neighbor. Yet I have to wonder whether it becomes necessary for some to justify their work by drawing upon the image of the “good immigrant” to ensure that others who might be unsure about the values or future activities of these newcomers won’t look askance. When I refer to the “good immigrant” trope—which appears in education as well as other contexts where immigrants and U.S.-born people interact—I mean the way in which immigrants are characterized as “blameless,” “hardworking,” “gentle” [one of the words the author used], and otherwise nonthreatening…in large part because doing so sets them up to receive care, to be recipients of humanitarian aid. Again, I don’t mean to call into question the great good of such missions as a whole, but using such language nonetheless characterizes migrants as quiescent, happy to receive our help without any particular contributions as to how it take place.

What about the immigrant who was kind of rude, who didn’t respond, who was crass or odd? I wrote a blog post in 2017 entitled “Immigrants can be funny,” with the intention of signaling the fact that in the construction of the “good immigrant” in public discourse, individuals and their unique quirks and sharp edges are left out. We need to remember that yes, migrants are united in need, but they are not passive, apolitical versions of human beings with hands outstretched. Maybe they are “fierce,” like the author said, but maybe they’re also irritable, exhausted of dealing with savioristic White people, and taking up a position of quiet in the face of no other option. Maybe they’re people you would never otherwise want to talk to, if you lived in the same community. And maybe seeing them in the full range of human options is in fact even more radical than some of the embedded “good immigrant” narratives we tell each other in our activist work.

Learning to be silent and stand by: accompaniment training to support our immigrant friends

The word friends was included without quotes in the title of this post because the unadorned word properly reflects the core values of community, solidarity, advocacy, and recognition of humanity expressed at an accompaniment training held at New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith/nonfaith group fighting for immigrant rights, in midtown Manhattan this past Monday. Accompaniment as defined by the presenters is a form of “advocacy for others without confrontation,” a way community members can stand in solidarity with immigrants who are facing different kinds of hearings and check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Something I loved about the presentation was the emphasis on seeing this form of advocacy not as a savioristic enterprise – volunteers are not there to “save” or “speak for” the immigrants who are going through these difficult experiences. Attempting to do so is a means by which to silence, to pave over the extraordinary efforts that are already taking place in immigrant communities, where the battle has been taken up by families, houses of worship, schools, and other centers of strength and communion in the fight for the right to live with dignity. We are simply standing with them, with our friends and neighbors. According to the presenters, judges in the New York City immigration court system have said that the presence of accompaniment volunteers is “critical” to the decision-making process regarding whether an immigrant defendant will, for example, be issued a bond or given more time to find an attorney if they don’t have one. Essentially, the paradox emerges that judges are more likely to be fair if they see that an immigrant defendant is surrounded by community members, e.g., volunteers, especially older White women, like many of those in attendance with me tonight.


Source: Reuters / Kyle Grillot

I will be signing up to participate in various accompaniment days. We can’t take pictures inside the courthouses and of course cannot speak of specifics of the experience. That won’t matter, and in a way, the dignity involved in not trying to speak or get attention or command authority, which those of us with power in this country by nature of our skin or bank accounts or language or status unconsciously assume as a birthright, will be beautiful. I’ll be standing alongside my friends and neighbors, using my Spanish when I can, my Whiteness and my privilege as a grad student with a flexible schedule, and my anger, sorrow, and energy to do my part in helping save our entire community.

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.

“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.

“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.

Our educational ecology: adjunct professors and our role within our communities

I was invited by Left Voice to publish a version of a speech I gave yesterday at the Graduate Center’s rally for better compensation and conditions for adjunct professors (like myself) who struggle with precarious labor conditions yet comprise the majority of labor in higher education across the country. The link to the story, entitled “Our educational ecology,” is here. My main point: Exhausted adjuncts directly influence the experiences of their own students, some of whom (like mine) work in public schools as New York City Teaching Fellows…which means our work together influences the education of our city’s kids. If this isn’t enough reason to review the unstable and stressful conditions under which we and other adjuncts work across the country work, I don’t know what is.


​Image from March 23, 1995 CUNY walkout from Slam! Herstory Project

Protesting the GOP tax bill: yet another attack on public higher education

Today I and my classmates at the Grad Center are joining forces with students from NYU and Columbia in a Walkout to protest the Republican text bill, which will tax tuition waivers and reduce our already small incomes as graduate assistants and teaching fellows. (For those of you who don’t know, adjunct professors like myself comprise over 50% of the country’s faculty, meaning that many college students today work with us.) My own grad students at City and Hunter Colleges, New York Teaching Fellows who study full-time while supporting NYC public schools, are in a similar situation. They will likewise see their incomes reduced by these cuts, painful for people many of whom are supporting families. All of this is taking place to ensure that money flows into the pockets of corporations, while the national deficit is poised to increase by over a trillion dollars.

Education is one of the central tenets of a democracy in which people contribute ideas and work together to make a better and more equitable society. This is an attack on our communities of scholarship, but also on our communities of working people with aspirations for their children to make a good life. Our institutions of higher learning stand to lose thousands of already struggling graduate students who simply cannot afford to stay and imposes a greater burden on those who do, compelling us to borrow more money to survive while working long hours as adjuncts and contributors to scholarship.

Today we marched in Union Square to protest this inhuman attack on our institutions of higher ed. We work very hard to serve our universities and our communities. It is time to stand together and fight for the rights of all students to a good education and become educated citizens in a country who must not forget us.

“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!