In response to questions raised at the opening plenary of the 2014 Imagining America Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Erica Kohl-Arenas of The New School Faculty: The New School for Public Engagement Harry Boyte of Augsburg College and Public Achievement Public Achievement-Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College and Carlton Turner of Alternate ROOTS (Carlton Turner: Alternate ROOTS) came together to discuss how universities and communities might join in a common movement towards cultural, social, political, and economic justice and deeper democracy. We addressed the creative tensions between confronting unequal systems of power (including stratification in public schooling, rising student debt, and technocratic career-focused learning) and transforming institutions from the inside out. Addressing problems of today, we shared stories from our work about the role of civic education and cultural organizing in democratizing communities, classrooms, and higher education. This is a condensed version of our conversation.
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: The opening panel of the Imagining America conference in Atlanta, Georgia last October raised questions about how to revitalize democracy by linking universities and communities in a common movement towards cultural, social, political, and economic justice, and deeper democracy. In this conversation we want to address tensions that emerged between Carlton's comments as a member of this panel and Harry's comments from the audience. Carlton, you proposed that we first recognize the economics of higher education today, describing a system that produces a form of indentured servitude where graduates desperately chose career paths that enable them to pay off skyrocketing debt, but do not serve their communities. Evoking the spirit of Ella Baker, you urged university allies to join with social justice and community engagement work on the ground instead of always bringing people to the university as the center of knowledge production. You ultimately proposed that academic institutions are not currently designed to benefit all people in society and that academics will have to build with people who are already engaged in confronting systems of inequality and building truly democratic learning spaces.
In agreement with the problem described by Carlton as an education system consumed by individualistic, competitive, hyper-career-focused cultures, and debt structures that weaken critical thinking and democratic capacities, Harry proposed a different solution. Referencing the perspectives of civil rights movement organizer Bayard Rustin, Harry suggested that to transform higher education we must revitalize the democratic narrative, the genius of higher education at its best, to win over Middle America. He reminds us that within these institutions are large numbers of professionals who can be enlisted in the work of democratizing our institutions from the inside out.
Based on your combined years of experience in community building and democratic education, how do you understand the tensions between an approach that calls for naming and taking on systems of inequality versus an approach that aims to engage mainstream stakeholders from within the system?
CARLTON TURNER: Thinking about the critique of higher education as a system that is not working for the greater good of society, one could consider a space of reform. The middle class is the space of reform. Yet a narrative we've been hearing a lot in politics, and that we have seen from an economic standpoint, is the shrinking of the middle class. When the middle class holds economic and political power, they can expand their reach on both ends of the political spectrum. But when we don't have that strength in the middle class, then you're left with radical perspectives of takeover and abandon and very little middle ground for reform. Instead of reform, those that have been marginalized in this struggle are more interested in replacing existing institutions with institutions that make more sense. This revolutionary moment comes out of a place of desperation. I think of James Baldwin's saying, "how much time is enough time to begin to treat people right and beg the promise that has been put forth in this American idea?" (1989). We worked so hard within structures that weren't designed to work with equity. The reformist is trying to work within a system that was designed a certain way in hopes that they can change it and transform it over time.
I think about economic systems because we are in a society that has monetized every aspect of our lives. My grandparents in Mississippi didn't have a water bill. My parents, because they lived in New York, had a water bill as long as they can remember. The criticism that goes to the rural community in the Deep South is that you are not modern enough. You need to get with the times and be modernized. With public works, running water, and all of those things, now you have to pay for an aspect of life that before was just a part of your natural habitat. Now, if you don't pay you are "not responsible." We see what we have in Detroit with all of the people who have had their access to the water system denied. Think about the parallel to education systems. The education system here in Mississippi, and other parts of the country, offers a level of sharecropper education that gives young people just enough education to move into one or two trajectories in their life. One is to be a lifelong low-wage worker who is teetering on the edge of financial ruin and can only think about day-to-day survival, and who is more likely to end up in the prison industrial complex. The other one is on the higher education train, which if you are able to be identified early on as one who has the capacity to be that "good student," then you get on the track to higher education. You have very bright young people who are going to an institution that again has been monetized into a place in which you will leave—unless you are an athlete and you are getting a full ride—with a large amount of debt that, day one after you leave, requires you to get the kind of job that pays the rent and the debt. That limits your options in terms of using the knowledge you've acquired. The sharecropper education is working on both ends to create indentured servitude. You are either working in vain towards a life out of balance of natural living cycles or you're on the other end, where you are causing the imbalance by supporting the system of "I got to get out there and work this job to pay the student loans."
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: I struggle with this moment of declaration that you describe, Carlton, when we feel we can no longer reform institutions that are not designed to serve the majority of people, especially poor people, students of color, and communities not benefiting from the competitive individualistic model. Out of this desperation, you and many others right now seem to suggest that reform or even resistance is futile and instead say, "Let's create our own new institutions." When I teach Grace Lee Boggs's ideas of creative cultural renewal (Boggs 2012 Boggs Center ) that feature new community-based institutions they are forming in Detroit, all of my students love it. They love it because they don't see reform or protest politics as effective anymore. Our institutions feel too big and massive to change. The creative alternatives approach is inspiring, but troubles me as well. I recently attended a residency with bell hooks at The New School, and she suggested that we abandon all public schools that, in her estimation, will not raise black children, in particular, for anything but the prison industrial complex. I share her concern, but do we abandon one of the only remotely socialized systems in this country in order to create alternate ones? When we give up on our major institutions, like public education, the alternatives will most likely take the form of privately funded or home schooling programs that are not as feasible for people who are already strapped financially. While I recognize my privileges, I include myself in this dilemma as a working mother with a child in the NYC public schools.
HARRY BOYTE: I have a different view. The heart of the civil rights movement tied the struggle against the evil of segregation to a struggle to deepen democracy. This was Septima Clark's vision for the movement. Myles Horton of the Highlander Center also talked about that (Highlander Research and Educational Center). Progressives have given up on the idea of radically democratizing the social fabric of all of our institutions. The movement in the late 1960s sought to form countercultural organizations, which gave up on the institutional fabric and the professions. It left power intact.
We recently had a town meeting of students in Public Achievement (Public Achievement-Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College) about how students could become agents of change. The meeting was student run, culturally diverse, and included people from many backgrounds. There were some students who hadn't been involved in Public Achievement work or any other democratic project, including two students from the University of Minnesota's education department. This education department always uses the language of social justice. Yet both of these students said that they had actually never heard of the connection between democracy and education. This is the shrinking of the progressive imagination. It strikes me how much the progressive imagination has shrunk from the depth and profundity of the democratic vision of the movement I experienced as a kid.
CARLTON TURNER: I want to respond to that. I think the education system, K through 12, demolishes the ability to imagine. That is part of the plan. It's part of the social structure of K though 12 education, especially for African American children, Latino children, white children in poor communities. The design is to destroy the imagination. The shrinking of the democratic imagination is not because the vision isn't there. It's because young people aren't being taught to think critically at a young age. Arts and culture are taken out of the framework and it is all about the testing. It's all about these measurements and metrics that can allow a group that is outside of that community to point fingers at that community and say, that community is underperforming.
HARRY BOYTE: It is also something else. I have a colleague in South Africa, Xolela Mangcu, out of the black consciousness movement, who talks about technocratic creep. Technocratic creep is the refashioning of spaces in more bureaucratic, detached, and purportedly objective scientific terms. It has spread across the whole world. The reason people give up on institutions is because they don't know how the hell to deal with that. They just feel desperate in institutions like K-12 education. Erica, your story about becoming frustrated with professionalized and grant-seeking nonprofits was a good example of how it affects all sorts of places including so-called civil society. It affects religious congregations. Mainstream seminary education has cut the practice dimensions, where future ministers learn how to work in communities. The result is that ministers learn how to be in the bubbles that are their congregations. My colleagues from the civil rights movement in the South say that the black churches have gone in the same direction. They don't have the same depth of relationship with the larger community. So we have these institutions that have detached from the civic life of places and become static, abstract, rationalistic, impersonal, and centralized. It is happening in every system. It creates despair on the part of people of different races and cultures and backgrounds and income levels. People feel imprisoned by a creeping process, when everything is scripted and controlled and shaped by forces outside that they don't even see. No amount of building of alternative institutions or protesting the evils of whatever is going to change that. Unless we crack open those systems and reverse that process, we are in deep trouble.
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: Across what both of you are saying we see the limits placed on people's imagination, voice, and capacity to think critically and shape their own path. If we consider our shared experiences with popular education and community organizing, and echoed in the central proposition of Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed ( 2000), we know that a central challenge to a democratic movement is a competitive and individualistic culture that places limits on the creative mind, cooperative spirit, and dignity of those who don't benefit from the current system. I would agree with Carlton that the economy is a driving factor in presenting these limitations, be it through the nonprofit sector, K-12, or higher education. People are burdened with debt, surviving on barely living-wage jobs, competing against each other for foundation grants, and struggling in unequal educational settings that privilege those with the most resources. I see in most of my students the financial fear that Carlton was talking about. They have to read and write within the lines if they want to get that job, because most of the jobs aren't there. Some end up in retail or restaurant service after $50,000 in debt from graduate school. I have a moral anxiety about working in this space that is a part of the problem. So coming back to one of our central questions, if our institutions are not working for a majority of people, do we abandon and replace them from the ground up? Do we work from within to open up spaces of creativity and critical thinking? And how has resistance politics changed since the social movements of the 1960s?
HARRY BOYTE: Let me interrogate. Freirian theory is one strand of popular education. There's another strand of popular education that we three here draw upon, which is a Scandinavian folk school tradition of citizenship education that inspired the Highlander Center. Then there is the black tradition of cultural education—the Harlem Renaissance. The difference between the Freire-inspired liberation politics and the Highlander approach is like the difference between the Moses narrative and the Wilderness narrative in the Bible. The Moses narrative—the Exodus narrative—is the struggle against oppression. But the wilderness narrative is the struggle to build a way of life—in institutions, governance structures, stories, and culture. The wilderness narrative is productive, difficult, and messy. People kept refusing agency and wanting to go back into Egypt. A later narrative, written during the same period, is the Nehemiah story of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, where the people also rebuilt themselves as a people as they reconstructed the walls. Within Nehemiah is also a struggle against injustice, describing the nobles who were ripping off the people and how an assembly of the people held them to account. This occurs within the larger story of reconstruction. So, the way I would pose our task today is a story of democratic reconstruction as well as construction and struggle. And we need to use new methods. There have been advances in organizing that are not part of the classic community organizing methodologies but which allow us to take habits and practices of organizing into the work of institutional transformation.
That's what we do. We get inside professions like teaching, nursing, or business, and work with educators and students in becoming a citizen nurse or a citizen teacher.
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: Can you talk more about what that actually looks like? What are the components or qualities of this citizen practitioner and how do you teach people to embody these qualities?
HARRY BOYTE: The process involves learning organizing skills in the context of institutions and professions. When we started working at Augsburg over four years ago, we also began working with the special education faculty and their students and their partners around the Twin Cities. Special education is an example of everything wrong with education. Eighty percent of kids in special education end up in jail. It's very racialized. It stigmatizes kids, trying to get them to fit into a hypercompetitive individual system, which they don't fit into because they have different values, often better values. The special education people at Augsburg and some of their graduates wanted to take on special education. In a local school, Fridley Middle School, the teachers working with Public Achievement changed the culture of education. Kids, who were stigmatized and locked away, seen as failures, became community leaders on issues like bullying, healthy lifestyles, solar power in the school, cruelty toward animals (see link to a video on Public Achievement in Fridley Public Achievement in Fridley--Transforming Special Education).
The practices of Public Achievement are about how you develop a sense of agency. You don't wake up suddenly and feel powerful. Like the citizen education program in the civil rights movement, you learn skills. In Public Achievement, young people learn power mapping, learn how to deal with that principal that they don't like—who they think is a mean person. They learn to deal with other kids outside of their buddy group. They learn how to discipline anger. In Fridley Middle School, the teachers used the Public Achievement approach to radically transform the pedagogy as a whole. Now kids take the lead in their own learning.
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: Carlton, how does your work relate to or differ from this approach of building civic professionals?
CARLTON TURNER: I've been listening and appreciate everything that is being said. First, I also don't think the dismantling or abandoning of our major institutions is a solution, but they do have to be reimagined. My own creative practice and my work with Alternate ROOTS are on the front lines of imagination. What I think Harry referred to as "citizen education," we call "cultural transformation." The type of cultural practices that we use in communities is about individual and collective transformation. We try to infuse cultural practices into individual, organizational, and institutional power structures. ROOTS is one of the few organizations that straddles very wide boundaries. We are working that middle pretty wide. For example, we will have a meeting at the National Endowment for the Arts, and help to inform policy. We're working with organizations like Highlander Center and the We Shall Overcome Fund to support community engagement and cultural organizing on the ground. We will work on meeting with the chairperson of the Commission of the FCC to talk about net neutrality. We have access to conversations on the level of large-scale institutions. And we are working with Project South for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide to build a Southern movement of real awakening—the contemporary iteration of the civil rights movement in the South. So, we work across a wide expanse to help transform within the institutions and to do the work of building other structures that support cultural transformation from the ground up.
There's no lack of ideas about how to change the system and how to create different types of scenarios for a more progressive and more widely beneficial society. But the system's reluctance to scale those types of solutions is due to the fact that there is both profit in the mindset about achieving your American dream and power in creating a society of noncritical thinkers. What we've seen is that many of our institutions are designed to keep these things in place. So we work in the pressure points—and pressure points are very difficult to find because you've got to find where the veins and the arteries and capillaries all come together in the same area, and to be able to strategically apply pressure to these illogical intersections. In organizing, the challenge is to understand the confluence of agendas, where you have regular folks who can bring their agendas to the table, where power players have their agenda at the table, where educators and health care workers and many different types of people will be at the same space to have this conversation. Where can we apply pressure in those moments? ROOTS has been able to design partnerships that look outside of our own boundaries and bring people together in a way that allows us to humanize each other, which is a really important part of any movement.
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: Carlton, your term "working the front lines of imagination" is very important. The thing that keeps me going as a teacher is when a student tells me that this is the first time they shared their own ideas and stories in class instead of quietly sitting in the back. The "front lines of the imagination" is what teaching is all about. When someone finally feels their own voice and works with others, they can participate in the change they seek. Carlton, I want to hear what the front lines of imagination look like from your own cultural practice.
CARLTON TURNER: For us, it's about creating spaces for exchange that value the expertise every individual brings to the room, which is part of that humanizing. It is creating opportunities for communities to come together across class, race, ethnicity, educational achievement, and professional background in order to have a conversation that is locally and historically grounded. We create a space to share our stories as a way of understanding our collective history and the different analyses we carry with us, informed by our cultural upbringing. And then we figure out how to share that—where are the pressure points within those conversations that we can act on. Where is the place where I can say something about a particular tradition in the community and everybody in that room has a visceral experience and memory? We use this as a place to talk about how we move a particular issue forward.
The people of Spirit House in North Carolina (Spirit House Inc.), which is deeply engaged with Alternate ROOTS, have been working on developing a Harm Free Zone around a particular high school that has been a place of violence and high police activity. As a part of this work, they are taking a conversation to a large body of people that includes educators and policy makers and city government workers. They often start with a question: Close your eyes and imagine, what does it mean to be safe? Call out those things that bring you safety. People begin talking about things like their mother or a warm home or healthy food or these other things that make them feel safe. Nobody ever says police or jails or judges. So, they begin working from this space with people really acknowledging what provides them safety. How do we create that and how do we transform the institutions that supposedly exist to provide those things? How can we get them to shift to ideas that are actually bringing safety to our community? There are also applications of this work that I've been doing around race with my company M.U.G.A.B.E.E (Turner World Around-Transuniversol Music) in collaboration with Mondo Bizarro (Mondo Bizarro), Roadside Theatre (Roadside Theater: Art in Democracy), and Junebug Productions (Junebug Productions). This collaboration is about using the power of storytelling to humanize people and take the myth out of race, so that we can begin to deal with Southern communitties hell bent on the division between white and black, the idea that they are actually two completely different physical beings. This framework doesn't leave space or room for any other cultures and communities to engage in that conversation. We developed a program called Race Peace (Race Peace: Constructing Humanity, Deconstructing Racism) that is designed around a community's needs and can be a three or four-hour workshop, a two to three day, or a weeklong or multi-month engagement. It bring tools and stories to explore how we understand our place in the multiple narratives of race, and offers exercises that allows us to unpack race in a space where we can humanize each other as equals. The project is part media and part socio-metric exercises, which uses the body and space to map and graph our lives. We always use a lot of different artistic and cultural disciplines.
HARRY BOYTE: Those are great illustrations of important developments in civic practice, crucial to humanizing an increasingly impersonal world. We recently had Japanese and Chinese educator colleagues join with others from Augsburg, the University of Minnesota, and Minneapolis Community College to talk about strategies for bringing the classroom to life as a free spaces. This is what you are getting at about the classroom, Erica. There are a lot of ways to do that. There is not one simple way. One guy who teaches a class on relationships, who is a part of the Citizen Professional Center (Family Social Science- Citizen Professional Center), talked about students co-creating the curriculum because none of the textbooks about relationships spoke to the students. Over the last two years, a class of 200 students each year has been co-creating a new textbook and doing public work projects. One was to take on self-mutilating activities that students do in the sororities, pushing back against the degraded culture.
These students talk about learning three things. They learn a radically different understanding of democracy. I don't think it can be underestimated how little students hear anything about democracy that isn't simply elections. Another thing that students talk about with eloquence is developing habits of a different kind of politics. How do you learn to listen to people you disagree with? How do you think in terms of analyzing a power situation? And then third, kids in consumer cultures don't usually feel like they are productive contributors to the life of communities. So, how do you generate experiences where young people can feel like producers, not simply consumers? The emergent literature in what is called "civic studies" focuses on concepts and practices of civic agency and co-creation, involving making work more public—what we call public work—and the importance of free spaces (Levine and Soltan 2014; Boyte 2015).
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: It sounds like we all have been working to create what you call free spaces—spaces where people are participating equally, creatively, and critically. The Tamejavi cultural organizing work with immigrant communities in California's Central Valley, directed by the Pan Valley Institute of the American Friends Service Committee that I have been a part of, also shares this approach (Kohl-Arenas, Martinez Nateras, and Taylor 2014). I love how sometimes it comes down to the small things, like the ability to imagine what safety looks like or how to discipline anger. In my classroom, I have been surprised that some of the lessons that stick with my students the most are the simple listening activities. The space of a classroom is often one where people are either waiting to get their point across or are terrified to speak. They are consumed in their own heads. Learning to engage in dialogue through listening is something that has really stuck with people, and I think that is also central to democracy. In order to build anything collectively you have to be open to and curious about others. This connects back to where we started with our critique of the individualistic, competitive, career-oriented culture that has taken over education. People are so consumed with getting ahead, and getting their own point across.
HARRY BOYTE: The hyper-individualist culture disadvantages immigrants, working class communities, communities of color who have more interdependent values.
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: Because Imagining America generously invited us to have this conversation, maybe you could both conclude by sharing your thoughts on the role of university-community partnerships in this particular moment in time, as compared to the movements of the past century.
CARLTON TURNER: I'm the eternal optimist. There is always opportunity to change things from the way they are now to the way we envision and need them to be in the future. Right now, colleges and universities are such a part of the growth and development continuum for young people that they see it as a place where they aspire to land. We should think about opportunities for universities and colleges to adopt a more holistic approach than just be the one teacher here or the one department there that is exceptional. We need to help develop the type of exceptional institutions that can receive all of these young people. We need to then direct people towards those institutions as the models, versus the wholesale grab-bag model that we have now. That is what I am interested in. IA offers an important opportunity to organize across the spectrum of a lot of different types and sizes of institutions to bring together a more solid grounding for where we can begin. There is leverage in IA that should not be overlooked or made small. It should be made bigger and more radical. Having institutional partners across the spectrum is really important in order to sustain a radical approach. We talked a little about the religious faith-based communities and their connection to the civil rights movement. In the same way that they were instrumental in holding up the movement in the 1950s and 1960s, they've been instrumental today in not providing that same type of base. So, you need broad-based support if you are going to push a radical agenda. You need widespread and holistic support from a number of different types of institutions across sectors. There has to be a holistic approach.
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: From the perspective of the movement building work that you're doing, what are some of the specific things that you would want higher education and IA's network to embrace and do?
CARLTON TURNER: I'd look towards the work of Project South (Project South: We All Count, We Will Not Be Erased), which deals with decolonizing higher education. I also recommend that people in higher education think about the work that is happening in the field, in communities. There is scholarly work happening outside of academic institutions. How is this work validated? I've been working for Alternate ROOTS for over 10 years. I've gotten a graduate level degree in cultural organizing in arts and social justice. But there is no actual degree. It's the learning that I have in my body, in my practice. How do we validate that? There are so many people who have that from working in community but aren't part of an institutional continuum. College Unbound (College Unbound- Pursue Your Passion, Earn Your Degree) and the work of Ashé Cultural Arts Center (Ashé Cultural Arts Center) with Adam Bush are moving in that direction. I think IA is a perfect partner in that work.
HARRY BOYTE: We need to prepare a generation of democracy builders. The task is a long march to re-democratize and humanize our institutions. Not to be nostalgic about the past, but to recognize that there is a reconstructive dimension as well as a constructive dimension. The task around education involves both innovation and new ways to credential and recognize knowledge. Technocratic creep has been driven by the devaluation of all sorts of knowledge and the assertion of a very narrow range of what counts as intelligence, knowledge, and credible information.
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: Yes, I know this personally as a relatively new tenure-track faculty member who comes from a community building background. There is an enormous disincentive to create or validate different kinds of knowledge.
HARRY BOYTE: Absolutely. If the task is to re-communalize and democratize the social fabric, which has become detached, abstract, and impersonal, education is key in several ways. It trains millions of people every year who go out and try to lead institutions like nonprofits that you were so frustrated by, Erica, using a particular one-way model of what it means to be a professional. Often, it is about fixing people who are seen as deficient—with little understanding that people from many backgrounds have all sorts of talent and creativity and energy. We have to be bold and fierce in recalling the democratic narrative of education, which includes bringing broad publics into the conversation about what kind of education system we need. The deliberation, "The Changing World of Work: What Should We Ask of Higher Education?" (LIVE BROADCAST: The Changing World of Work, NIFI) is one resource, building on an earlier conversation called Shaping our Future (Shaping-Our-Future.pdf). We need to recall the democracy college tradition; what Scott Peters calls a prophetic counter-narrative to both the technocratic story and the tragic story of higher education as simply colonizing.
Like Carlton, I'm an optimist of the will. There are hidden stirrings all over. People are hungry for a different democratic narrative, in the traditions of every broad democratic movement, such as the civil rights movement and the labor and farm movements. All involved a different understanding of the American Dream, not based on individual success and how much money you can make, but on a more cooperative, egalitarian, productive American Dream. This is what we need to revive and adapt for the twenty-first century.
ERICA KOHL-ARENAS: Thank you both so much for participating. What an honor to share in this conversation with you. It has been helpful for me in my own work in higher education, and hopefully will inspire others in the Imagining America network and beyond. I appreciate both of you sharing your wisdom.
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Kohl-Arenas, Erica, Myrna Martinez Nateras, and Johanna Taylor. 2014. "Cultural Organizing as Critical Praxis: Tamejavi Builds Immigrant Voice, Belonging, and Power." Journal of Poverty, 18 (1): 5–24.
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