Event Recap: “Global Perspectives on the Fight for Higher Education”

On Monday, March 6, 2017 from 2-4pm, the Futures Initiative held its most recent event in the University Worth Fighting For series with the roundtable discussion, “Global Perspectives on the Fight for Higher Education.” Organized and moderated by Allison Guess, PhD student in Earth and Environmental Sciences (Geography) and Doctoral Fellow with the Futures Initiative, we were delighted to welcome a full panel of extraordinary and groundbreaking speakers, an attentive audience and a host of online participants for this very urgent and timely discussion. Using #fight4edu on March 6th, there were 600 tweets, 200 retweets and about 40,000 impressions of hashtag exposure.

The roundtable discussion was organized against a backdrop of the defunding of public/higher education across the globe. Settler-capitalist (both Liberal/Progressive and Conservative) discourses have been central to the creation of scarcity and conditions of austerity. Public education around the world is in need of an anti/de-colonial politic, through which, perhaps the delinking from settler-capitalist practices (and relationships) might generate a future that is worth fighting for.

At such a crucial time in the present-history of public education, Allison Guess invited six intellectuals who are doing the necessary work of transforming public universities to speak about—and against—the inherently colonial nature of research, colonial education, labor exploitation and the continual attacks on public education (inclusive of Indigenous, POC and those deemed immigrant students and workers) around the world.

Our first speaker, Marianna Poyares (PhD Student in Philosophy at The New School and Brazilian Activist-Intellectual), spoke about the nation-wide school occupations in Brazil that began in 2013. Poyares positioning of education as emancipation draws from Liberation Philosophy in her approach to understanding the attacks on public and higher education. Poyares outlined how normatively, universities should provide a social service to the public, and noted that public universities in Brazil are entirely free. Poyares then went on to explain that while public education in Brazil is free, it remains exclusive due to other historical and institutionalized racist (and classist) commands, such as the Brazilian national general test, which privileges white Brazilian elite students due to better educational preparation. The ongoing coloniality throughout Brazil demanded that students fight for public education.

Poyares argued that the school occupations in Brazil took on a student-led and radical approach that confronted a racist and exclusive educational system, bordered off by a colonial apparatus of differentiation. The relationship between attacks on public education (ie: the austerity package) and the police were apparent from Poyares’ perspective. She also talked about the public programming that occurred during the occupations. Schools did not simply strike, which perhaps would have led to cynical critiques of enclosure, but rather students formed subgroups and other assemblages to perform daily tasks like cleaning and holding public activities like theatrical productions to maintain the health of the schools. In terms of oppositional organizing, Poyares noted the influence from the historic civil rights movement led by Black Americans generations ago and inspirations from student movements in neighboring countries like Chile and Argentina.

Arianna Martinez (Associate Professor of Urban Studies at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY) spoke about her research on the criminalization of Latino immigrants and her organizing around the sanctuary campus movement. She introduced this work by saying that as a geographer she sees the university and precisely, public education, as a contested place. Martinez talked about “organizing across scales” at LaGuardia Community College through LaGuardia Rising, PSC CUNY-wide Sanctuary, Queens-based alliances and sponsoring students to go to a Mijente event, and also the cross-national sanctuary campus movement. She also talked about what she termed “Sanctuary from above” which includes protecting student data administratively, delay tactics, increased access to legal services and free mental health services, bringing diversity training to faculty and staff, etc.

Martinez also discussed the student-centered approach towards sanctuary organizing at LaGuardia Community College and the presence of thoughtful leadership among women (Latina) students, documented students vs. those undocumented and much more. Connecting the Sanctuary Campus Movement and the Dreamers, Martinez contended that the civil rights movement of the 60s, LGBTQIA liberation movements and Black Lives Matter all set the stage for inspiration of the Sanctuary Campus Movement at LaGuardia Community College.

The first portion of this round table discussion concluded with a ten-minute Q&A session moderated by Allison Guess. Guess masterfully tied the presentations together by asking questions that focuses on self-defense as de-escalation, the presence of sanctuary spaces in schools in Brazil and what it means to organize across scales. Other questions that filled the room involved questions about the historic civil rights movement, the attempts, struggles and stumbling blocks in building solidarity across movements in both the Brazilian and LaGuardia contexts and also questions regarding enclosure during Brazil’s school occupations.

For the second portion of the roundtable discussion, we were blessed to hear from our brilliant colleagues from occupied South Africa, Canada and our very own Graduate Center at CUNY. Zandi Radebe (Junior Lecturer in the department of Political Science at The University of South Africa and founder of many liberation-based organization) started off the second portion of the conversation. Radebe spoke about strides to decolonize South Africa pre and post-Apartheid. Her remarks focused largely on historicizing the modern-day Fallist Movements in South Africa by highlighting how unfortunately, many people (and on all sides) were/are not aware of the country’s colonial history and present. Referencing the 1976 student demands, Radebe makes a connection between the historical and present student demands, gesturing to an ongoing process of liberation—Black liberation in occupied Azania—more specifically. As Radebe then introduced Cleopatra Funzani Mtembu, she noted that Funzani and herself are Black woman leaders as are many in South Africa. This suggests another change occurring in social and leadership dynamics.

Cleopatra Funzani Mtembu (Student Organizer and member of the Fallist Movement from the University of Johannesburg) explained the Fees Must Fall, Rhodes Must Fall and Outsourcing Must Fall movements in South Africa. Funzani explained the Rhodes Must Fall movement opened up the conversation about what it means to decolonize in post-apartheid South Africa. She went on to say that the Fees Must Fall movement as is a call made by students across universities in South Africa for the democratization of higher education via free and public education. According to Funzani, Fees Must Fall was and is not just about fees—but rather and also, about the institutional alliances that exclude (mostly native black and working class peoples) from universities. Funzani explained that for many black/indigenous South African students, the decolonization of the school curriculum would be oppositional to the outrageous cost of education. For many calling for fees to fall, the commodification of education was in process. Likewise, Outsourcing Must Fall stood to recognize that both students’ and workers’ struggles was intertwined and overlapping. Funzani then went on to explain the Rhodes Must Fall movement as historical anti-colonial stance taken by many indigenous populations in South Africa. Funzani seamlessly connected the colonial past to the ongoing existence and practice of institutional racism that results in the exclusionary fees, colonial education and the outsourcing of labor much more. She explained that the Fallist movement has three primary guiding pillars: Black Consciousness, Pan-Africanism and Black radical feminism. Funzani concluded by asking (paraphrasing), “How do we get to a point where we actually achieve a decolonized education for every single Black student?”

Eve Tuck (Associate Professor of Critical Race and Indigenous Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto) is a Unangax woman and enrolled member of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Alaska. Tuck spoke about the academy and research itself as a colonial endeavor and project. She noted that, the colonial roots of the academy have been thoroughly documented. Tuck also gave credit to Audra Simpson for the influence that Simpson has had on her thinking about refusal as a form of objectless analysis. Tuck’s remarks spoke heavily to refusing research and its attendant colonial methodologies.

Questioning whether research is actually what is needed, Tuck mentioned the idea of “biting the university that feeds.” She critiques the academy’s thirst for what she called “pain stories” from subaltern groups, critiquing that, Indigenous and people of color in the academy are often encouraged to tell their stories of violence and pain with no commitment from the academy to actually change those conditions. The “archive of pain” that Tuck terms the academy’s accumulation of people of color/Indigenous’ stories, is according to Tuck, the only time that the subaltern are invited to speak. Tuck also masterfully drew links between the colonial ideology enacted through research territorialization—the making of the researcher’s claims—into private property, “marking of something new [and then] act of possessing, of enclosure, of colonizing [(indigenous) knowledge].” Tuck’s comments called for deep critical questioning as to how we conceptualize theories of change, especially those theories of change that seek to highlight subaltern pain, by asking generously, “What is research for?”

Zee Dempster (Assistant Director of IRADAC and the Assistant Coordinator of the Africana Studies Certificate Program at the Graduate Center) spoke to her involvement in CUNY’s union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), and what labor is, from her perspective. Drawing inspirations from the beautiful Palisades, the built environment and geology, Dempster compellingly stated that such are a result of the natural forces working in conjunction with and over time. Highlighting how minuscule elements of being create what Dempster called “great wonders,” she defined this as, “labor in its truest form.” Accordingly, Dempster suggested that activism must realign with nature, that is also to say time and labor, to work towards the whole. In narrative form Dempster explained why she got involved with the PSC. She recounts not having had a new contract in five years and this brushing up against the increased cost of living in New York City. Dempster, expresses the urgency of defending public education as it is a means for many working class people, within the CUNY system more specifically, to achieve more. Dempster ended leaving many to question time and labor once more, she remarks, on the various generations from previous decades that used public education to advance their lives and how now, descendants of those very same peoples now undermine the public university.

The second portion of the discussion concluded with a ten-minute Q&A session. Audience members asked questions about topics ranging from why not pain stories to why community-based groups focus on decolonization rather than trying to obtain wealth.

Resources and Further Reading:

For those of you who missed the event, check out these resources:

Lastly, we’d like to thank all of our co-sponsors including, The Center for Place, Culture and Politics, Women of Color Network at The Graduate Center at CUNY, The Center for the Humanities, University Student Senate, IRADAC and HASTAC, for their enthusiastic support of this event.

Because these efforts must be not only theoretical but also practical and embodied, we will host a Bystander Tntervention/(De)escalation training on Wednesday, April 26 from 5-7:30pm. Futures Initiative Fellow, Allison Guess, will frame this upcoming event further translating what she referred to as the “ontological obligation of higher education” during the “Global Perspectives” event referenced, herein. Instruction will be provided by the Center for Anti-Violence Education. Please watch our website and newsletter for more details.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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New York, NY 10016-4309