Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Occupy Movements and the Universities

The Occupy Movements and the Universities

Mark Naison
Fordham University

The Occupation movements spreading around the nation and the world have the potential to revitalize University life, particularly those initiatives involving community activism and the arts.. The role of arts activists in Occupy Wall Street is a story that has not been fully told,. Community arts organizations in New York such as the South Bronx's Rebel Diaz Arts Collective and Brooklyn's Global Block Collective have been involved with Occupy Wall Street for almost a month, making music videos on the site, documenting the movement's growth through film, and trying to bring working class people and people of colore into the movement. The Occupation has become an essential stopping point for a wide variety of performing artists, none of whom have asked for payment for their appearances ( see videos below)

Musicians Occupy Wall Street - YouTube
2 min - Oct 13, 2011
Uploaded by okayafrica

Bronx Hip-Hop Duo Rebel Diaz, Live From Occupy Wall Street ...
3 min - Oct 6, 2011
Uploaded by democracynow

Occupy Wall St. Hip Hop Anthem: Occupation Freedom ... - YouTube
3 min - Oct 10, 2011
Uploaded by djvibetv

University faculty and participants in community outreach initiatives can only benefit from tapping into this tremendous source of energy and idealism. I have never seen students on my campus so excited about anything political or artistic as they have about these Occupation movements, which have spread into outer borough New York neighborhoods ( We have had "Occupy the Bronx") as well as cities throughout the nation and the world. What the movement has done is reinvigorate democratic practice- much of it face to face- widely regarded as nearly extinct among young people allegedly atomized by their cell phones and ipods. One my students, a soccer player at Fordham said the following about her experience on a march across the Brooklyn Bridge that led to mass arrests

"Going to the protest I felt like this was the closest I was going to get to reliving my father/uncle's young adulthood! While we were stuck on the bridge people were passing around cigarettes, water, food anything anyone had they shared. Announcements were organized so everyone knew what was going on. People were yelling were changing the world! THE WOLRD IS WATCHING. I called my father on the bridge told him I was getting arrested, and I could tell he was proud! It was unbelievable".

Her sense of excitement about the energy and communal spirit at OWN mirrors my own. Each time I have been at OWS I have sat in on discusion groups created on topics ranging from Mideast politics, to understanding derivatives, to educational reform. The discussions I have participated in have been rigorous, political diverse, and to be honest much more virbrant than most comparable discussions I have been part of at universities.

Those of us who work at Universities need to find ways of connecting to a movement which has inspired so much creativity and intellectual vitality.. As someone who has been to many “Occupation” events, ranging from teach ins, to grade ins, to marches, and has spoken about this movement at my own university and to global media, I have experienced this energy and vitality first hand. But most important, my STUDENTS have experienced this and it has given them a sense that they have the power to make changes in a society which they feared had become hopelessly stagnant and hierarchical. Consider the remarks of 2010 Fordham grad Johanne Sterling who works at Fordham's Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice, about what participating in this movement meant to her, even though the experience got her arrested and sprayed with mace
"I had plans to attend a peaceful protest on Wall Street . . . I was happy to know that I was offering my voice and my support to a movement I believed in. As a young person in this country, I cannot say that I have not grown more and more unnerved with the injustices I see every day. The fact that our governmet is quietly but surely taking away our democratic rights (First with the Patriot Act, ironically named, and then with new voting restrictions that are being put into law), the fact that so many of my fellow graduates cannot find meaningful, rewarding work no matter how hard they try, the fact that our country's infrastruture is falling apart while the richest 1% continue to increase astronomical amounts of wealth, and the fact our justice system was able to execute and continue to execute and/or imprison innocent individuals disproportionatey based on their socio-economic position and their ethnicity are simply a few reasons as to why I decided to attend the rally."

This kind of civic consciousness and social justice activism is precisely what so many progressive scholars and university based community outreach programs have sought to inspire. It is being brought to life by young people themselves in this growing national movement.

There are now over 100 Occupations in cities throughout the nation. They are part of a global awakening of young people that has caused governments around the world to tremble, and financial elites to face the first real challenge to their power in decades

We in the Universities did not create this movement. But we ignore it at our peril. It brings to life many things we have been teaching. And it does something that we should be doing, but aren't doing enough- it empowers our students!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Buffalo Story: How School Turnaround Mandates Undermine Effective Community Organizing

A Buffalo Story: How Mindless Application of Federal and State School Turnaround Mandates Undermine Effective Community Organizing

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

During mid October, I had the privilege of spending two days getting an in-depth exposure to one of the most radical experiments in democratic urban transformation in the nation- a Choice Neighborhoods initiative in the East Side of Buffalo created by SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies in partnership with Buffalo’s Municipal Housing Authority and Erie County’s community action agency. The brainchild of the Center for Urban Studies visionary leader, Dr Henry Taylor, the initiative seeks to engage residents in some of Buffalo’s poorest neighborhood in redesigning and transforming public housing projects, business districts, schools, and vacant properties in the target area. Improving schools is one of the key objectives of the initiative; but it seeks to do that not by insulating school children from the forces surrounding them and educating them to escape the neighborhood, but by engaging them in a democratic community planning process along with their teachers, their parents and their neighbors and by making a problem centered pedagogy part of the school curriculum. Even before the Choice Grant, the Center had gotten students in one of the schools involved in the initiative- Futures Academy- involved in transforming a rubble strewn lot across the street from the school into a beautiful park and vegetable garden and another smaller lot nearby into a bird park. The students had also done remarkable arts work for the initiative, both in public spaces, and the school. They had become agents of neighborhood change

What the students had accomplished was nothing short of miraculous, but unfortunately, such accomplishments did not on the metrics mandated for low performing schools by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and mechanically applied by the State Education Department in Albany. As a result, Futures Academy, whose school population was drawn from students who could not get into or were pushed out of charter schools and magnet schools, went through three different principals in the ten years the Center had worked in it, each one forced out solely because of poor student performance on standardized tests. Student participation on democratic neighborhood transformation could not save those principals; they were judged solely test performance and Futures Academy, for school administrators, became a revolving door.

While Professor Taylor and his colleagues realize they cannot change educational policies being shaped in Washington and Albany, it is sad to see how these policies place handicaps on what they are trying to accomplish. In a neighborhood where over 90 percent of the residents are black, most are poor, half of the land sits vacant, public transportation is inadequate, and abandoned stores and factories dot local business districts, the public schools are one of the few remaining neighborhood anchors. They are not only the largest remaining buildings in the East Side neighborhood, they contain space and resources – auditoriums, gymnasiums, class rooms computer labs- which could be vital assets to all neighborhood residents as they participate in the planning ,well as underutilized cultural capital in the form of student creativity/ Professor Taylor’s goal, through in school and after school programs is to enlist public school students in every part of the neighborhood redevelopment initiative, from having them involved in public art projects, neighborhood beautification initiatives and urban agriculture, to having them help redesign local business districts, to having them imagine new neighborhood institutions which enhance public safety and democratic participation. But to have students play this role effectively, the project needs on stability and continuity in the administration in the administration of the three public schools included in the initiative- Futures Academy and ML King School, both K-8 schools, and East High School. And unfortunately state and federal mandates are making that difficult to impossible.

Let us take East High School, the one secondary school in the planning zone. Although East has had a rich history serving Buffalo’s Black community, producing many famous and accomplished graduates, in recent years, as the East Side neighborhood has undergone disinvestment, depopulation and decay, it has become a school of “last choice” in the Buffalo school district and a revolving door for principals. Now, a brilliant new principal has been brought in who specializes in “turning around” tough schools and who is an enthusiastic partner in Professor Taylor’s initiative. But as he told me when we met, the first day he entered the school, he realized he would be out in three years because he could never raise graduation rates to meet national and state mandates. Why?
Because of the 160 students in his freshman class, 157 were “1’s” ( on state reading and math tests), 2 were “2’s, and 1 was a “3”! Essentially, ONE student in his freshmen class tested above grade level, 157 below!!

How did this happen? Basically because after magnet schools and charter schools picked their students, those who were left went to schools like East Side. Not only did these students test poorly, they disproportionately came from troubled families that moved from house to house with great frequency and occasionally disappeared. Given this population, it was going to be virtually impossible to meet the graduation rate targets established by the state and the school would have to be placed in receivership once again with the principal removed, and up to 50 percent of the teachers replaced!

Given this tragic and absurd outcome, why did the principal take the job and why did Dr Taylor choose to make East High School one of the anchors of his community development initiative.. The answer is simple. Because both saw East students as more than the sum total of their scores on standardized tests, and the problems they experienced in their homes and places of residence. They saw them as citizens in the making possessed of invaluable knowledge about their neighborhood and a deep reservoir of cultural capital not only in artistic and musical talent, but in resilience, endurance and ability to overcome great obstacles. They wanted to incorporate them in the neighborhood planning process, get their frank assessment of what needed to be preserved and what needed to be retained, and involve them in hands on tasks ranging from cleaning up the local business district, to organizing talent shows and oral history projects to highlight the community’s past strengths and future potential. In the process, their test scores might go up, and attendance might improve. But that was not the major goal. The goal was to tap the full range of East students talents in a process of community renewal and to encourage them to see East Buffalo as a place to be re-imagined and rebuilt, not as human toxic waste site that all people with skill and talent seek to escape/

This kind of idealism and faith in the human potential of students and neighborhoods is at the very heart of what Democratic Education should be about. Unfortunately, it is being undermined, in the name of equity, by federal and state policies which reduce students to test scores and graduation rates,

Dr Taylor,the Principal of East High School, the principal of the other two schools in the East Buffalo Choice neighborhood initiative will persever no matter what, but wouldn’t it be better if state and federal authorities relaxed automatic school closing triggers and allowed schools the flexibility to become true centers of community empowerment?

We can only hope that at some point, sanity will prevail in the US Department of Education and the New York State Board of Regents. Hopefully, that moment will come sooner, rather than later

Mark Naison
October 21, 2011

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why We Are Having a REAL Affirmative Action Bake Sale at Fordham

Why We Are Having a REAL Affirmative Action Bake Sale At Fordham

Dr Mark Naison
Professor of African American Studies and History
Fordham University

The REAL Affirmative Action Bake Sale, organized by the Affirmative Action Senior Seminar at Fordham University, not only represents my classes’ outrage at the “Promote Diversity” Bake sale organized by College Republicans at the University of California Berkeley, it reflects my own frustration at the misinformation about Affirmative Action that prevails among large sections of the American public.

If you would believe Donald Trump --who claimed Barack Obama only got into Columbia and Harvard Law School because of Affirmative Action--and millions of other Americans, including many of my student’s friends and relatives, you would think that preferences given minorities are the major departure from an otherwise meritocratic admissions process at the nation’s top college.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As I know from both my own research and from personal experience, preferences given recruited athletes and children of alumni are far more powerful than those given under represented minorities and affect a far larger number of students. According to James Shulman and William Bowen, in their book The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, recruited male athletes, in the 1999 cohort, received a 48 percent admissions advantage, as compared to 25 percent for legacies, and 18 percent for minorities ( the comparable figures for women athletes were 54 percent, 24 percent, and 20 percent, respectively). Not only do athletes get a larger admissions advantage, Bowen and Shapiro report, they constitute a larger portion of the student population than under-represented minorities at the nation’s top colleges, averaging 20 percent at the Ivy League colleges and 40 percent at Williams. And the vast majority of the recruited athletes at those colleges who get those admissions advantages are white, including participants in sports like men’s and women’s lacrosse, golf, tennis and sailing, which few minorities participate in.

But it was not the material in The Game of Life which most outraged my students, it was the analysis offered in a book I used in my course for the first time, Peter Schmidt’s Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning The War Over College Affirmative Action. According to Schmidt, higher education has become a plutocracy, where “ a rich child has about 25 times as much chances as a poor one of someday enrolling in a college rated as highly selective or better.” In the last twenty years, Schmidt claims, universities have quietly given significant admissions advantages to students whose parents can pay full tuition, make a donation to the school, or have ties to influential politicians. Schmidt’s statistics, showing 74 percent of students in the top two tiers of universities come from families making over $83,000, as compared to 3 percent come from families making under $27,000 a year, enraged my students. They had no idea that students from wealthy families had such a huge advantage getting into college and when they read a September 21, 2011 New York Times article by Tamar Lewin, “Universities Seeking Out Students of Means” which confirmed all of Schmidt’s conclusions, they got even angrier

Enter the College Republicans “Increase Diversity” Bake Sale at Berkeley which charged Whites, Asians and Males higher prices than Blacks, Latinos and Women, and left athletes, legacies and children of the wealthy out of the equation. When I suggested that we might consider organizing a bake sale whose categories and pricing structure were based on the materials we had been covering in class, they jumped all over the idea. They formed committees to write press releases, secure support of campus organizations, develop a price structure consistent with what really goes on in college admissions and make sure we have an ample supply of baked goods. Thanks to all their hard work, thee sale will take place Friday, October 7, from 11 AM to 3 PM, in Fordham’s McGinley Student Center, and use the following price structure, based on the latest research on actual advantages in college admissions

Women (General Admission) $1.30

Men (General Admission) $1.25

Under-Represented Minorities $1.00

Legacies (Children of Alumni) $1.00

Recruited Athletes $.50

Children of the Very Wealthy $.25

We are also calling on students in other Universities to follow our example and organize bakes sales of their own based on sound research, not rumors and myths. The goal is not only to dramatize the extraordinary power of great wealth in American society- something highlighted by the Wall Street Occupation and the protests inspired by it around the country- but to remove the stigma that has been placed on minority students as recipients of unfair preferences. These students are tired of being attacked as an affront to American “meritocracy.” Enough is enough!

My students are excited and confident, looking forward to the discussion and debate on and off campus their bake sale will inspire

I am very proud that of the courage and energy they have displayed in organizing this ground breaking event!
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