Category: social activism

“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!


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?

“If we can think, feel, and move, we can dance”: Anna Halprin’s radical pedagogy

At Hunter College last week, I saw an installation which accompanied a dance performance taking place this fall on campus entitled Radical Bodies, which features the work of choreographer Anna Talprin. Halprin, whose experimental workshops took place on a beautiful outdoor stage, did work that “rejected the high style and codified technique of reigning modern-dance choreographers like Martha Graham in favor of improvisatory tasks and everyday activities.” (NYTimes, March 24, 2017)

Many of these images are featured at Hunter College in the North Building, along with a description of the commitments to community building, embodiment and moral philosophy, and the search for authenticity through “self-generated creativity” (from Halprin’s Manual of Dance, 1921). Beautifully, and rightly, the Hunter description describes Halprin’s work as a radical pedagogy that speaks to the pain and struggle of the individual in the present era: isolation, homogenization, commodification, and standardization collude to obscure and trample on the stirrings of soul and unexplained, nascent, vicious little visions and vitalities we all have buried deep within us.

Halprin’s work resonates with John Dewey and other educational philosophers who explored the relationship between art and experience, and emphasized the importance of an education premised upon experience, of interacting with one’s world to create new meanings and emerge into a more fully developed self.

A beautiful proposal, indeed, one that is rare nowadays but not, thankfully, gone from our pasts, or our futures.

Educators as political participants, sanctuary as co-authored activity toward radical hope: Politico article about CUNY professors and our syllabi

On Wednesday, Politico published an article about the opening statement I and other professors use on their syllabi at City College, Hunter College, and other CUNY campuses in New York. The statement, which I adopted in January 2017 and have included for all of my classes since, reads:

 As an educator, I fully support the rights of undocumented students to an education and to live free from the fear of deportation. If you have any concerns in that regard, feel free to discuss them with me, and I will respect your wishes concerning confidentiality.

Furthermore, I am committed to making CUNY a sanctuary campus for undocumented immigrants, not just in word but in deed – through the campus community refusing to allow ICE to enter our campus and refusing to cooperate with and struggling to prevent any government attempts to ascertain the immigration status of members of our community or to detain or deport undocumented immigrants.

Since I included the statement – which I read aloud on the first day of every class – I have gotten strong, generally positive reactions from my students. In New York it’s common to have very diverse classrooms and conversations about racial, linguistic, gendered, and other types of difference include challenges to stereotypes and misconceptions about people of color, poor people, and transnational (immigrant) students and their families on a regular basis. Many of my students themselves are immigrants or from immigrant families, and many are directly impacted by the decision by Donald Trump to rescind DACA this week.

What I have loved about this statement since I included it is that it asks educators to think about what their role is in their classrooms and with their students. We should always be asking what being part of an educational community means, how we want to live and learn and teach in this community, and more than anything, how we define “community.” Including such a strong and unequivocal statement establishes an ethos of equity and safety in our classrooms, a space for learning where undocumented students could hear from their professors and know that while total protection can’t be guaranteed, their professors will stand up and fight to keep them safe, just as they would do for all students.

This equity view is very important, as is the desire to rehumanize a group of individuals which is typically homogenized and totalized as a social “issue.” I believe that we tend to take a charity view of this issue, talking about “these poor undocumented immigrants,” but the reality is, they also have positive, hopeful stories as well, hopes and plans like other students, and also regular human lives and experiences. They are regular people and not a statistic, as an undocumented student of mine over the summer reminded our class. 

While this last thought was not included in the limited space of the Politico article, I am including it below. I speak of radical hope, and of remembering our history as a public university system, arguably the oldest in the country. It’s one I am very proud to be a part of as a student, an educator, a community member, and an ally:

I believe that collective activity which supports the idea of “sanctuary” as a co-authored political alternative to intimidation and fear is the only option we have. Sanctuary means acting in ways that actively resist and oppose terror. It means visibly and unequivocally protecting, valuing, and uniting behind undocumented students and colleagues as an expression of community. And I think an effect is that it means demanding that our country’s and city’s leaders refuse to support policies which are used to intimidate and divide our communities. To do anything else would be to turn our backs on our own history as well as our community members who need us now.  It’s a form of radical hope and it’s an honor to be a part of this now.

We ready, we comin’: the end of DACA and getting started

Hi Diana, I feel you, I know it’s scary…

Tonight I took part in a phone call last night held by United We Dream, a national organization fighting for social justice run by and for immigrant youth. Apparently over 2,000 people from all over the country including Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Oregon participated in the call, and the organizers fielded calls from immigrant youth and their supporters as they asked tough questions about the risks of going in for a renewal appointment, traveling, and other questions related to changes in their status. Information was shared, contact numbers and resources provided, and the silent host listening in shared in the communal response.

It was clear from the calls from DACA recipients, allies, and other community members that this is a difficult moment, human, messy, raw, and real. At one point a caller’s baby chirped in the background. Tears and anger choked the voices of both callers and the call leaders. Energetic and spiritual exchanges brought relief. We all breathed together as we experienced what this might mean for our families, our students, our community members. Two powerful themes emerged: uncertainty, and an absolutely unwillingness to stop and roll over. A beautiful, evocative phrase from one of the call organizers rang in my ears as I listened:

We are not defined by papers.

A White middle-class woman called and asked what she and other allies like her could do. The response was invigorating, earnest, assured. Allies need to continue to do what they’re doing. People with money and time to contribute need to call their representatives. Organizers need to be funded, which means organizations like United We Dream are welcoming donations. And trainings on how to stop deportations need to take place in local communities.

No matter what, we need to remember that we are not alone in this. We are not alone in believing that this fight is far from over. Again one of the organizers:

Our communities have fought way too hard to get us to this moment.

And my favorite quote of the evening, hollered together in joyful, unstoppable, hope:

We ready, we comin’! We ready, we comin’!

You’re goddamn right. Time to get started.

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.