Six ways to focus and strategize in your fight against injustices

In this blog, originally posted by the American Counseling Association, professor Christine Yeh identifies and discusses six specific ways to focus and strategize in your fight against injustices.

reject racism protest

Since the inauguration, I have spoken to many colleagues and students who feel overwhelmed by the number of troubling and complicated issues emerging with the new Presidential administration. From the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary to the reinstatement of the Dakota Access Pipeline, there are clearly many injustices that must be fought. I have spent some time thinking about how to prioritize, strategize and focus and wanted to share some thoughts that I have gathered from a variety of sources. My full list is much longer but I will begin with 6 ideas.

Below are Six ways and focus and strategize in your fight against injustices

  1. Limit your news sources
  2. Invest in organizations that have a proven track record
  3. Understand the role of corporations in furthering problematic agendas
  4. Identify outlets to share your voice
  5. Prioritize and focus on specific issues
  6. Establish long and short term goals
Limit your news sources

It is easy to be inundated with real and fake news stories these days and sorting through the onslaught of social media newsfeeds and headlines can be both daunting and time consuming. Try to select a few trusted sources, rather than read everything that comes your way. I subscribe to NPR, New York Times, Huffington Post, and Washington Post and focus primarily on these sources. But I also have several specialized newsfeeds related to immigration rights, public education, the arts, and psychology that I also turn to for more detailed accounts.  I also try to limit my engagement with social media to 2-3 tweets and Facebook posts a day, which allows me to keep informed and still connected with friends, without getting too much information. If you see something on social media that seems especially inflammatory (hard to tell these days), do your fact checking and always verify the information from the original source.

Invest in organizations that have a proven track record

Since we cannot fight all battles, I also believe in donating (in any amount) to several key organizations that have a demonstrated record of collectivizing supporters and using their resources to pursue key initiatives, policies, petitions, and lawsuits that are aligned with social justice efforts. For example, I supported the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuits and petitions which protested the confirmation of Sessions for Attorney General and the proposed Muslim travel ban. I also support the Southern Poverty Law Center’s work for LGBTQ rights, advocacy, and training. Of course, there are many other local and national organizations that are doing important work and many of these are specific to a particular cause.  Do your research and ask around to see which organizations may best support your cause. If you can’t afford to donate right now, there are also many ways to donate time as a volunteer.

Understand the role of corporations in furthering problematic agendas

Many news reports have emerged that have highlighted which companies and businesses support or do not support different issues that directly and indirectly impact the proliferation of injustice. For example, Wells Fargo has been funding the Dakota Access Pipeline construction and the CEO of New Balance has been fund raising for Trump and the Trump family. I found a good list here that is continually updated. Of course many business connections are not so clear cut for some. For example, there are large department stores such as discount store, Ross, that sells the Ivanka Trump clothing line. Does the daughter’s clothing line also get boycotted? For me Trump has already demonstrated that his family businesses are at the core his own branding and success and further his own interests. This is especially problematic given Trump’s Top Advisor, Kellyanne Conway, publicly urged folks to “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff!” so I believe it is important to let retailers know that how and who they profit does matter.

Identify outlets to share your voice

There are many ways to be activist and to make a contribution so spend some time thinking about your strengths and capacities. Some of the most important social movements in history (such as the civil rights movement) have emerged due to our right to share our voices and fight for equity. This can take many forms. For example, signing and sharing petitions can be very effective, especially if you get large organizations (such as unions, universities, cultural organizations, etc.,) to back them. Making phone calls is also a very powerful way to share your perspective with elected officials and only take a few minutes a day. You can also volunteer to be a first responder to immigration raids targeting businesses and homes. I also strongly believe in the power of large protests and marches. For example, the CEO of Uber backed down from the Trump advisory council after just one day of strong protests in San Francisco and a viral #deleteuber campaign. He instead decided to donate 3 million dollars to support drivers impacted by Trump’s efforts to enforce a Muslim travel ban. I recently met a woman who felt very motivated to help but did not know how to use her skills as a busy doctor to further this work. She decided she could host meetings at her house, buy supplies (such as materials) to make signs for protests, support important organizations that are experiencing dramatic cuts federal funding (such as the arts, the environment, and public radio), and bring food to different events. She doesn’t identify as an activist but has found ways to support causes she cares about locally.

Prioritize and focus on specific issues

I know that I don’t have the emotional capacity to fight all the battles I care about but we can focus on the ones that we feel most passionately about while continuing to learn about targeted communities who are most impacted by the new administration. It is also important to consider how to use our unique skill sets as counselors and educators to address injustices as they continue to emerge. I’ve learned to focus on primarily being a scholar activist while also engaging in other forms of activism. Some areas to focus on may include (but are not limited to); conducting research to provide evidence to support your cause, scholarly writing (blog and op-ed pieces that spread the word about an issue), sharing petitions, providing and supporting others, doing trainings for allies, educational workshops, or community organizing. Find colleagues who share your passions and build on each other’s unique skill sets to meaningfully collectivize around an important cause.

Establish short and long term goals

Through all of this, remember to take breaks to care for yourself and those around you. If you have children or work with young people, it is important to meaningfully engage them in this process as well. It is also critical to establish short and long term goals and to continually assess resources around you. As the past month has revealed, it is hard to predict what new issues will emerge each day. Try to stay grounded, balance your personal and professional priorities, and focus on what really matters. Spend some time realistically setting aside time for the work you hope to do and schedule when you will do it. It may sound ridiculous but I created a schedule for myself to insure I do something each day. For example, this may mean reading news reports and engaging in limited social media in the morning, midday and evening. Making 10 minutes of phone calls in the morning to elected officials, using meals or coffee to hold strategy sessions or conference calls with colleagues, and reviewing petitions and scheduled protests or meetings at night. Try to develop long term goals in partnership with targeted communities, organizations, and colleagues. This may include writing a policy brief, developing ideas for op-eds, offering free counseling and support groups, or planning events to support public (versus charter or private) schools.

In all of this work, I have been most inspired when I am working in solidarity with colleagues and friends with a shared vision for equity.

Scholars Speaking Collectively to Reframe the Public Debate

Kevin Kumashiro, Dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco discusses the importance of engaged scholarship and reflects on his experiences of working with communities of researchers.

Kevin Kumashiro
Kevin Kumashiro, Dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco

A decade ago, to a packed general session of the International Conference on Teacher Education and Social Justice, one of my mentors, the late Eric Rofes, rattled the room with his claim that professors occupy an assimilationist profession: we get hired and promoted by writing journal articles that speak to a small group of colleagues, and we actually discourage scholarship that speaks outside of the ivory tower.  We need, he argued, to reframe the identity of the academic so that, central to our work is the goal of significantly impacting practice, policy, and public consciousness.  We need to be public, engaged scholars.

A decade before him, one of my grad school advisors, the fabulous Elizabeth Ellsworth, wrote an essay, “Claiming the Tenured Body,” that illuminated the ways in which academia values the singularity or uniqueness of our work rather than the dialogical nature of knowledge production and the potential of collective action.  Put in conversation with Rofes, her argument makes me wonder what it would look like if university researchers were to place more value on speaking collectively and publicly as scholars to impact the public sector.  

In education, where the rhetoric of so-called reforms contrasts starkly with the realities of what is actually happening in our nation’s schools, such intervention is desperately needed.  

I was living in Chicago at the time of the mayoral election that followed the announcement by Richard J. Daley, the longest serving mayor in Chicago history, that he would not be seeking re-election.  Throughout the fall of 2010 prospective candidates poured out, from career politicians to long-time community activists.  But as campaigns ensued, a notable lack of debate was happening about public schools.  Across the board, candidates seemed to be repeating the same narrative about what’s wrong – people aren’t trying hard enough – and what’s needed –more testing, more accountability, more consequences that differ little from blaming and punishing the victims of broken systems.

In January, as election day approached, a group of Chicago-area researchers came together to strategize a response.  We wanted to challenge the all-too-familiar rhetoric and to re-frame the public debate, that is, we wanted to steer the conversation away from scapegoating individuals to addressing the bigger picture of the systemic problems, and to insist that evidence and research be forefronted in these conversations.  We identified four broad visions, fleshed out with recommended actions, pledges for leaders, and resources for further inquiry, into a working document, Chicago School Reform: Myths, Realities, and New Visions (the statement was revised in 2015 and is available at www.createchicago.org).  The four visions were: Provide bold leadership that addresses difficult systemic problems and avoids scapegoating the “usual suspects”; develop and implement education policy and reform initiatives that are primarily research-driven, not market-driven; improve teaching and learning effectiveness by developing standards, curricula, and assessments that are skills-based, not sorting-based; and ensure the support, dignity, and human and civil rights of every student.

We recruited at least ten researchers in each area who made themselves available to educational leaders, public officials, and the media for elaboration and further dialogue about the accompanying myths and realities, and gathered almost 100 signatories, forming the Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE).  Setting the stage was a statement of values concerning public education in a democracy, which emphasized that schools in a democracy should aim to prepare the next generation to be knowledgeable and informed citizens and residents; to be critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers; to be ready to contribute positively to communities and workplaces characterized by diversity; and to be healthy, happy, and able to support the well-being of others with compassion and courage.  We released the statement that March in a public forum with over 200 in attendance, where we highlighted both the work of researchers and the work of several organizations (of students, educators, parents, and community members) to advocate for research-based school reform.  The event and statement received some press coverage, but more importantly, it also led to additional initiatives, including research partnerships with the Chicago Teachers Union, forums for elected leaders, an ongoing series of research briefs and public events, and open letters on various policy issues.

When I moved to San Francisco a couple years ago, I again found myself in the midst of a community of scholars eager to act collectively and leverage our scholarship in order to reframe the public debate and impact educational policy.  We launched a new network last year, called CARE-ED (California Alliance of Researchers for Equity in Education), and as our first project, submitted in January 2015 an open letter to the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of several hundred university-based researchers in California to raise concerns about the proposed federal teacher preparation regulations.  We also helped to gather over 2000 signatures from researchers across the United States to raise concerns and make recommendations about the place of testing in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Both letters have been covered by the media, and provide opportunities for educative conversations not only in public spaces but also within our professions.  

We are currently tackling our next project, and we look forward to continuing to explore the possibilities for improving education when we situate our work in broader social movements for equity and justice.

Kevin Kumashiro is dean of the University of San Francisco School of Education and author of Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture.  @kevinkumashiro

Kindred Spirits

Joshua Gamson, Professor of Sociology, reflects on his book Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship, and he explores self-determination in making of families and expanding our understanding of kinship.

Joshua Gamson
Joshua Gamson, Professor of Sociology,

At the end of my recently published book, Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship, I began to think through the implications of telling family stories the way I’d done in the previous two hundred pages. In the book, I set out to tell personal, intimate tales of unconventional family creation—via adoption and assisted reproduction; by gay, straight, and trans folks; coupled, single, and multi-parent families—while revealing how they were shaped within and against social, legal, and economic structures. I asked how telling such stories as complex encounters with inequality might allow us to think and act differently rather than telling these stories as individual tales of inventive, dogged pursuits of parenthood.

The stories as I told them point toward an “expansive view of reproductive freedom.” Citing the sociologist and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts, I asserted that “reproductive liberty must encompass autonomy over individuals’ reproductive life—a woman’s choice to end her pregnancy, for instance—but must move beyond that,” to acknowledge and transform the economic and political inequalities that shape family-making decisions. “Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice,” I quoted from Roberts, “not individual choice.” I noted that a commitment to reproductive justice doesn’t currently inform social policy, though it could, and I basically left it at that.

I don’t disagree with myself, but those bare bones could certainly use some meat on them. I’m trying now to flesh out the connections between reproductive rights in the sense long used by feminist pro-choice activists (the right for women to control their own reproductive lives), reproductive justice in the sense Roberts and other black feminists have articulated (in Roberts’ words, “not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also the right to have children and to raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments”), and the sorts of family-making inequities I describe in Modern Families. Such inequities are multiple and intersecting, running through and across the stories in the book: The restrictions on family-making due to discrimination and stigma that queer people and single parents often face; the restricted access to assisted reproduction primarily to people, straight or not, with considerable financial resources; the potential and actual exploitation of poor women in the U.S. and elsewhere as paid surrogates; the vast inequalities in the adoption world between countries that “send” children and those that “receive” them, and between individuals who give up kids for adoption or fostering and those that become adoptive parents.

These various aspects of reproductive and family-making politics—which include different life experiences, widely varying positions of advantage and marginalization—are connected by a couple of shared threads. The first is the basic assertion that family justice requires self-determination in making of our families and in the use of our bodies in the creation of kinship, free from coercion and stigma. Clearly, that’s not where we are. When abortions receive no public funding and women’s health clinics are targeted; when adoption statutes and agency practices favor heterosexual couples; when in vitro fertilization is costly and not covered by most insurance; when surrogacy law is an uneven patchwork that requires money and legal assistance to pursue, and often leaves gestational carriers vulnerable; when black families cannot assume that their kids will be safe from state interference and violence; when paid family leave is only a reality for a small portion of the population; when the most effective methods of contraception are prohibitively costly for many: Self-determination about whether, how, and when to make a family is unevenly distributed and unevenly supported. When it comes to the personal, life-changed decisions about having or not having children, and about how to raise them, the most marginalized folks—women in the global South, poor women of color in the U.S.—have a lot less freedom than others.

The second connecting theme is that both culture and policy operate on a very narrow understanding of reproduction and kinship of what two recent critics have called “nuclear family privilege.” Family justice requires an expanded understanding of kinship that goes beyond the nuclear and beyond the biological. As the social change organization Forward Together puts it, most of us “fall outside the outdated notion that a family consists of a mom at home and a dad at work,” yet “too many of the policies that affect us are based on this fantasy.” Policy and resource allocation need to serve families as they really are and to tap into the insights, suppressed by marginalization and invisibility, of diverse family forms. What would family policy look like, for instance, if it centered on the effective ways single women often make use of extended, multigenerational social networks, as so many black, Latino, and working-class families have done for a long time? What would it look like if it built on the combinations of biological and social kinship—sometimes called “chosen families,” “fictive kin,” or “voluntary kin”—that foreground not biology so much as intention, commitment, and reciprocity in the making of family?

These two themes sometimes stand in complicated tension, in part because social class is a central constraint in reproductive and family choices in the United States. So, for instance, while being gay, single, or both means being subject to legal and bureaucratic restrictions in your decision-making, having money can quite easily help you bypass those restrictions—you can pay for adoption or surrogacy services and legal fees. And “family diversity” is expanded through decisions tied to social class: women who place children for adoption, donate eggs, or serve as surrogates for same-sex couples often do so (though not exclusively) because their financial circumstances make such choices rational. Securing reproductive justice for a gestational surrogate in India, not to mention in Indiana, may make it harder for same-sex couples building their family through surrogacy.

These tensions are hard but must be confronted. An expansive approach to reproductive justice certainly brings together disparate experiences of disadvantage. An economically privileged lesbian couple navigates family-making terrain quite differently than an economically marginalized single mother, just as the choice to pursue or terminate a pregnancy is quite different depending on whether you have access to healthcare, whether or not you face the racialized stereotype of single-motherhood-as-irresponsibility, whether you’ve got job security, and so on. But shared across these differences is the same pursuit: the freedom and conditions to make families if we want, when we want, how we want, and with whom we want. The challenge is to link ourselves, in thought and in practice, to those who are absent from our everyday lives but who are also struggling to make family freely, safely, and with dignity. We are, at the very least, political kin.

Faculty Spotlight: Desiree Zerquera

Desiree Zerquera worked in student affairs, higher education policy, and research before becoming a faculty member at the University of San Francisco (USF), and her experience led her to her current research focusing on universities in urban settings. Our conversation explored the intersections of academic policies, the effects on students, and the connections to USF.

Desiree Zerquera

How did you first become interested in research?

When I was in college, it really illuminated both that I was marginalized in classrooms–there weren’t a lot of people of color, there weren’t a lot of women in my math major–but then also recognizing the privilege that I had. There were microphones that I had that other people didn’t, so how can I best leverage those privileges so that they’re utilized for change? In my master’s program, I worked with faculty who really stimulated my curiosity and let me ask questions and find answers to those questions. I wanted to work in higher education to have a greater impact and see that impact through research. As I went into my PhD, I was really focused on how research can inform the policy arena because for me research was all about finding a way to change and inform change in the world.

What were some of the early questions when you were starting out?

My master’s thesis focused on Latinos in community colleges. There’s a lot happening with the Latino community, but I was disappointed that Latino’s were talked about in this really pan-ethnic way, absent of the diversity in experiences. I recognized my own privilege as the child of Cuban immigrants who were able to get political asylum when they came to the U.S., so their immigration journey was one of privilege even though we’re working class. I was aware that there’s something different for us than there is for other groups, and we should be paying attention to the differences to better serve Latino students.

What’s the shape that your research has taken now?

The work that I’ve done since really focused on these types of institutions that are in urban areas that do research, teaching, and service. They’re focused on serving their cities and urban students, and they see their identity as being part of those urban surroundings. There’s a growth of these institutions, which are called urban serving research universities.

What’s happened over time is this perpetual framing of these universities as being less than, but these are the universities that have traditionally served Latinos, African American and black students, and low-income students because they have this commitment to serve their urban surroundings. At the same time there’s this framing in higher ed of excellence and what excellence means, but that framing doesn’t value the contributions of urban-serving research universities. You don’t get a higher ranking for the number of Latino students or black students you graduate. You get a higher ranking for the number of students you say can’t come here. This framing doesn’t fit with what these institutions do. I look at the ways these institutions are stuck in this tension of serving this equity agenda while also trying to compete for prestige in this oppressive way.

Some of my work has looked at the relationships between pursuing excellence in this framework and what that has meant to access for Latino and black students. I’m talking to administrators in these contexts to better understand the balance that they try to achieve, to what extent is equity part of that conversation, and to what extent is it fitting within this dominant paradigm or is there reclaiming of this space to do it differently, which is essential for fighting the stratification of higher ed where students are funneled in particular ways away from opportunity.

What are your current projects?

In addition to the work with urban universities I just described, I’m also doing work with formerly incarcerated students, and I think about the consequences of policies that structurally keep people out and keep people down. They have to change their major so many times because they find out they won’t be able to get a job with their major because they have a criminal record, and they’re misinformed, miscounseled, and misguided about what opportunity looks like.

What I intend to do with that research is to create workshops for practitioners and write policy briefs that reach campus administrators as well as people in Sacramento.

How does policy factor into your research?

My work focuses on the structuring of opportunity, so I naturally look at policy—financial aid policy, admissions policies. Policy is central to my research, but I know if I’m publishing in an academic journal, chances are that policymakers are never going to see it.

When I say policy, I’m not just thinking of Sacramento—I’m thinking of people who are making policies that affect higher ed. For me, that includes my students working in student affairs. They’re making policies about college campuses, so I make a real effort to articulate my research in different venues. There are certain journals for associations like the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. I’ve published there intentionally because I want to reach people who are going to use this information in a way that benefits students.

How do your students inform your research and teaching?

I learn so much from students. I try to make spaces in the classroom where people are able to address issues that are relevant to them and apply the different frames and the different skills. The students I work with are doing work that matters.

I really appreciate that the students are working and directly applying what we’re talking about in their work settings, and they’re bringing the issues from work to class for us to talk about. I learn so much from their process. I learn what are issues of relevance based on what the students bring to the class discussion, and I just learn so much that I can take back and reflect on my own praxis as a researcher and how do I make this matter.

How do you bring your research into the classroom?

Before teaching, I remind myself of that ripple effect this class could have. The students want to be leaders in organizations—higher ed organizations, K-12 organizations, etc. I try to integrate organization theory with critical perspectives that reveal power structures and power dynamics. I want students to be able to navigate that world as well and to challenge it and push it, so when they’re making decisions, they can bring another perspective that asks critical questions. My students have to do papers that talk about problems and find solutions. My doctoral students write a traditional academic paper, op-eds, and an organizational report so they get three different types of writing. They need to know how to navigate these different worlds, to articulate their points of view, and how to advance our better understanding in those different arenas.

Since you inhabit all this knowledge of critical theory and ways of seeing systems, how do you know where to focus your research attention?

I’m in a privileged place where it’s my job to ask these questions. There are people who ask these questions everyday but they’re busy with putting out fires. This student just got evicted. That student no longer has financial aid. You have the practitioners doing that work. You have administrators who are dealing with how do we get enough money to keep the university going. If they don’t, then they won’t have a university to support anyone. You have all of these people that are in positions that don’t always enable them to think in this way, but I’m in a privileged space where it’s my job to think about these things. It’s not enough to write about these things in a journal that no one reads. It’s part of my responsibility to make sure that it’s articulated in ways that reach people.

How has being at the University of San Francisco affected your research?

At USF, there’s a lot of discourse about doing publicly engaged scholarship, so research that’s grounded in communities. That’s the same kind of conversation that’s happening at these universities. I see a lot of parallels between these institutions that are of real interest to me and the fulfillment of the Jesuit mission within the context of decreased financial resources. It overlaps with what I think about in my research—how do we make sure, that within all these discussions about our decisions for financial viability, for survival, that we’re also keeping focus on our social justice mission. I’d like to contribute to literature around Jesuit universities so we can learn from these urban-serving research universities to inform Jesuit universities.

How is your research connected to the USF community?

Thinking of my work with these urban serving research universities, I see direct connections with what I see happening at USF. USF has a strong social justice mission and also has pressures to survive. There’s always these tensions in admissions, tuition, the types of students that are targeted for recruitment, so I see the research helping me better understand. I bring that with me in my roles that I have on campus—understanding the tension and how USF is finding ways to survive and to better serve the students. USF is doing such important work collectively—administrators, faculty, students—and at the same time there are these really strong tensions and difficulties that need to be navigated. I think the greater challenge is figuring out how to do that well, how to be most impactful.

Research for Scholarly Impact and Policy Impact

John Trasviña, Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, writes about his experience with research in policymaking and the importance of scholarly impact and policy impact.
John Trasvina
John Trasviña, Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law

 

I came to the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law committed to training the next generation of leaders and lawyers following many years of public service and advocacy, especially in the areas of immigrant rights and civil rights. My previous work allowed me to see first hand how public policy and advocacy were greatly informed by research, which then influenced many of the policies, laws, and public actions I helped to implement as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices at the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the Academy, our work in the classroom is incomplete without preparing our graduates to achieve their professional goals and serve our communities in myriad ways.  In recent years, we have added clinical and experiential educational opportunities to the core of what we offer at the USF School of Law. Today, our global externships in China, Mexico, Vietnam, and across Europe are larger than ever and foster an understanding that globalization can help promote justice and the protection of human rights, while building legal skills for contemporary issues.

But our responsibilities to communities and to the profession do not end there. Faculty research and engagement are fundamentally intertwined and have the potential to deeply influence social change through both their scholarly impact and their policy impact.

Recently, the USF School of Law faculty was recognized as being in the top third in the nation in terms of scholarly impact.  In “Scholarly Impact of Law School Faculties in 2015: Updating the Leiter Score Ranking for the Top Third,” a group from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota ranked all accredited law schools based upon the number of times other law faculty and scholars cited articles written by each law school’s faculty.   Not surprisingly to me, our faculty ranked in the top third nationwide, 64th out of over 200 accredited law schools.  The study reviewed the scholarship of ten outstanding professors at each law school and documented the number of times their law reviews or other scholarly articles were cited in other law reviews and publications.

This scholarly impact is certainly an important indicator of how our professors’ expertise and stature are recognized by other scholars in their fields.  However, another measure is policy impact, how our faculty research is actually used by people outside of the academy—judges, appellate attorneys, policymakers, advocates, and media opinion makers—to advance particular aims.  In my previous work in the U.S. Senate, law professors and other scholars would send me their research papers and articles describing various missteps by Congress or the Administration on a bill, law, or regulation. My typical reaction would be that it was important research to understand but I was receiving it after any possible action could have been taken. It made me wonder why I could not get access to this work in the midst of the battle or controversy when that research could have been deployed for maximum effect. This frustrating realization about the limits of scholarship in the academy leads to my main point. Beyond scholarly impact, our faculty members engage in meaningful policy impact.

When the Connecticut Supreme Court narrowly struck down that state’s death penalty in the summer of 2015, at least one justice cited an amicus brief prepared by USF School of Law Professor Connie de la Vega.  And when California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the California Electronic Privacy Act (Cal-ECPA) in October 2015, a bi-partisan victory for civil libertarians and service providers with support from the law enforcement community, our own Professor Susan Freiwald provided much of the academic backing as an issue expert for the bill’s authors.  She also testified before committee hearings in Sacramento, organized several academics across the country to get engaged, and together they prepared and submitted a scholarly analysis and support letter to Governor Brown.

Our faculty members in all fields can assist local, state, and federal policy makers as well as advocates by conducting research, offering expertise, conducting surveys and promoting public dialogue.  Our outstanding Center for Research, Artistic and Scholarly Excellence (CRASE), led by Professors Christine Yeh and Saera Khan, can guide professors in all fields who seek to widen the impact of their important research and scholarship.  At the School of Law, we benefit from and support the CRASE and its initiatives and encourage all interested USF colleagues to participate.

How to come up with an interesting and meaningful blog post or public scholarship.

Rick Ayers, Assistant Professor in Teacher Education at the University of San Francisco and Huffington Post blogger, walks through his process for writing a blog post with a bunch of tacked on advice, ideas, and encouragements.

A walk through my writing process and a bunch of tacked on advice, ideas, and encouragements.

Knowledge is socially constructed. So are blog posts. To write a piece of public advocacy is not accomplished by you sitting staring at the screen.  It is the result of ongoing engagement – with colleagues, with the public, with your classes.  Often a blog post is strung together from wide-ranging conversations you have had, including some insights you have gotten and others you picked up from others.

I remember the debates about the Vietnam War when I was a freshman at the University of Michigan.  I knew I was against the war but was not adept at all the arguments.  When some students raised a protest against military recruiting on campus, hundreds of people gathered in front of the army table.  I would argue with someone until I got stuck on a point.  Then I would wander around and listen to other debates, searching for someone who could answer the point that stumped me.  Then I would return to the fray.  It was a roiling mass of people, made up of dozens of smaller discussions.  And it was a powerful education in debate and how to engage and persuade.

Unfortunately, academics often see ourselves as isolated, toiling away in offices and libraries.  But engaged scholarship calls on us to be engaged in the debates in the world, to always be alert to issues that are impacting communities and to arguments that need to be heard.  You will never craft the best argument while just in that cubicle.  You have to be testing it out, as during the Vietnam debates, to hone your point and help make it understandable. Kevin Kumashiro often talks about our responsibility to be “framing” the debates, looking at the fundamental assumptions that drive a policy and how to challenge them. I reject the idea that knowledge is “created” at the university level.  Knowledge is in practice, in the community.  Our contribution is to understand struggles on the ground and how to represent and advance those struggles.

How to get started:   Start with a moment.  Not a constructed story for an article but actually something that happened that got you thinking.  If you pay attention to your interactions, these will come up as the genesis of pieces.  For me this might be a classroom interaction, a demonstration or event in the community, or even driving and listening to NPR.  Even if you don’t start your blog post with this story, you write it down.

This also suggests that you should use the first person pronoun and point of view.  Well, not always.  But quite often you should.  At least I think you should in order to find your voice and to move into a more relaxed, genuine way of writing.  When I first started writing for Huffington Post, an editor gave me the advice to “write like you are sending an email to a friend.”  That is a great idea.  I try to do that but in fact my pieces end up being a bit more formal than an email – they really are small essays.  But at least thinking of an email moves one off the “stuck” place of staring at the screen.  And it pushes the style to a more mass audience, not an academic one.

To start:  An interaction, discomfort.  Describe the picture.

So below is an example of an incident I experience that troubled me, as I began to wonder if this is something I should pursue and write about:

Committee meeting, representatives from different constituencies.

“The problem is,” I ventured, “there is very little you can tell from a standardized test of students and then to tie evaluation of that teacher to performance of those students becomes even less valid and finally trying to compare professional development graduates to other teachers is just a fool’s errand.”  That was my intervention in the discussion, a big dissention blurted out.

It was a meeting of a collaboration group for an innovative summer professional development teaching project – I was a visiting professor in a medium-sized California city, Charley was from the professional development non-profit and Greg was from the school district.  We were discussing evaluation data to send to the granting agencies and Charles had suggested that we collect “Better Balance” test scores from our graduates and compare to other teachers.  I was immediately doubtful – not only that this measure would distort and narrow the teaching practices of our graduates, but that it would provide support and validation for the advocates of value added evaluation across the state.

Greg, the district guy, showed no interest in my comment.  He did not even raise himself to disagree or debate me.  He simply declared, “The superintendent wants these numbers (on the test) and we are collecting them so they can be used as data.”  The look in his eyes, the subtext of his dismissal, was essentially, “What is this pinhead talking about?  It’s irrelevant.”

Charles actually agreed with me.  He is a progressive educator who knows the debates and the game.  Why, then, had he made this proposal?  It was, of course, the pressure of the grant.  Both foundation and federal grants for the professional development program required “quantitative” data to determine if our graduates were effective.

Now I realized that this article might put Charles, Greg, me in a difficult situation.  While I had fictional names for the main characters, I decided to go back and fictionalize the place and the program.  Still probably a weak disguise but the best I could do.

Extending the idea:

So there was an idea, a conflict.  How did I regard it?  What was behind it?  And, even now, I had to think: if I were to write it up, what is the audience, who needs to hear about this, why would I write it up?  I began to think about people working in these different spaces, the non-profits, the universities, the school districts, and the built-in tension between their missions.  They could use a discussion and clarification – and this article could contribute to that.  More broadly, what does this situation tell us about problems in education policy and the corporate “reform” agenda?

So this is the period of reflection, open-ended exploration of the issue.  For some people that means writing a mind map, a web, or simply notes.  It is also a time to talk to others about the problem, the issue.

In the course of writing this piece, I talked to a lot of colleagues about this issue –  Sepehr, Lance, Monisha, Uma, Lillian.  I wasn’t always asking for input, I was just trying to explain the point, see how it would take, how to best articulate it.

The first thing I was thinking about was the problem for non-profits, the problem people in these positions have because they have to fulfill requirements of the grant in order to get the next phase of the grant paid.  I thought about other institutions I know who face tensions and challenges to their mission because of the demands of the grants.  I have seen this is places like Youth Speaks and Youth Radio.  They start with a radical, outside-the-box project and they are wildly popular with youth who flock to them, turning their backs on formal schooling.  Then the non-profit finds itself trying to sustain a staff and a budget and go for grants. And the grants insist that they take these youth and turn them back towards the schools, that they show “progress” in matriculation, grades, etc.  I have been in discussions with people in these non-profits and have also discussed the problem from the other side, as my brother was on the board of the Woods Fund in Chicago and they struggled with how to make their grant structures more honest.  I reflected on how difficult it is to be in a grant-driven non-profit. That was the context within which I recognized the different positionality of Charles, for instance, from me.  So I wrote:

The challenge for Charles was that he was ruled by the terms of the grant.  And for the grant he had to bring data – proof of success.  Some data could be qualitative (reports from teachers, supervisors, principals, students) but some had to be quantitative.  People who live by grants find themselves spending a lot of time worrying about the reporting, the data.  And often the terms of grants practically compel the recipients to be fraudulent, to make things up.  Because most grants require that you define problem and then declare that when you get so many thousands of dollars you will provide a solution of the problem.  But too often the problems are deep, structural, and difficult to move the needle on. Open-ended grants might allow projects that are exploratory or generative for participants.  But generally grants are for some kind of linear “improvement.” 

While in education research studies, “value added” teacher evaluation (basically evaluating teacher effectiveness by tracking improvements in the test scores of their students) has been demonstrated to be invalid, Charles felt compelled to put that idea in the assessment package.  

Rereading and editing:

I went back and read the draft a few times.  I noticed that I said “discussed” and “problem” a few times in the same sentence so I did some clean-up, drawing in new words.

Sometimes I just had to rewrite for clarity.  I had written:

Open-ended grants might allow projects that are exploratory or generative for participants.  But generally grants are for some kind of linear “improvement.” 

But the problem was that this sentence butted in too abruptly after the last one.  Is a grant being “open-ended” in contrast to the grants I’m discussing in the paragraph? Yes it is but I have to make that more clear.  Thus:

If you manage to get an open-ended grant, this might allow projects that are exploratory or generative for participants.  But generally grants in education demand some kind of linear “improvement.” 

There are a lot of thoughts packed in these 2 sentences but I also don’t want the blog to get over-long.  Are these sentences simple enough to allow me to go on? But do they carry the thought I’m trying to communicate?

Halfway through it was important to stop and ask a question to myself.  What is this piece about?  It’s not just about my discomfort at raising the objection to value added assessment.  It’s about how our different approaches to data-gathering arose not from the facts but from our different positions, who we reported to.  I’m taking the long way around to try to defend the university as an organization crucial to open inquiry and real progress.  So I had to explain more about grant-driven, foundation-funded educational projects.

And I had found myself in this meeting wondering about my privilege, the flip side of the discomfort felt by scholars of color when they intervene in such a situation.  For them, the subjective pressure, communicated through raised eyebrows and lowered gazes, tells them that they are not academically worthy, they are being emotional.  For me, in the white privileged side, the internal question reads more like:  who am I to raise this methodological objection? Who is this privileged academic to make the pathway for our student teachers, and the access to grant money, difficult for his abstract concerns?

Indeed, in my high school teaching and in teacher education, I am always mindful of my responsibility to support marginalized students through the gatekeepers even as I argue and debate that the gatekeepers are invalid.  To not do the former would be to sacrifice students in front of me who are doing well to my radical vision; to not do the latter is to sacrifice the futures of the vast majority of my students in the project of courting success for the lucky few.  So I was also seeking a tone that was not arrogant, not preachy; rather it was to simply point out the material structures that underlay the discussion.

At this point I started reflecting on a talk I heard some years ago by Arundhati Roy about the negative impact of NGO’s on radical social movements.  Also I was thinking back on a section we had on the Freedom Schools in Mississippi in 1964 that demonstrated what independent activism looked like.  I was not sure if I was wandering too far afield from my main point; but it seemed to be the best way to jump to a broader analysis of the problem.  I signaled the transition to this reflection with a one-sentence paragraph.

How does the world of non-profits, the social justice enterprise funded by grants, affect our work?

Some years ago, Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy made a scathing critique of the role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in containing social movements even as they “professionalize” activism.  Her point was that many activists who in the past would have gone into radical, non-sanctioned, community-based liberation organizations were now being brought into NGOs – where they could make a decent salary and where their every move was framed by grant reporting – long proposals, narrow goals, and constrained possibilities.  It was the kind of “repressive tolerance” of sponsored dissent that Marcuse had warned against.

Writing an outline halfway through:

And there was still a jumble of things I wanted to say.  So I made a rough bullet-point outline as to where I thought this was going, so I could just elaborate and explain each of the points:

  • Arundhati Roy – C Cobb
  • Foundations so big. Federal government now competitive grants.
  • Two points:  1)  they are big because of tax issue;  2)  they are authoritarian.
  • Universities.  Regarded as out of touch.  Foundations as source of money → Opposite of tenure or union protection

I also came across this article that demonstrates federal support for privatization, which, much like federal dollars for segregated housing after World War II, has long term impacts.

Generally in this writing I make no footnotes and no references to another author.  For example I wrote a piece a few weeks ago about the police.  I asserted that the police are the only people in society who are allowed by the state to use “legitimate violence.”  This phrase is something that Walter Benjamin coined in the 30’s in discussion of the state and repression.  I could have put a footnote.  Or I could have said, “what Walter Benjamin called ‘legitimate violence.’”  But really, why?  If anyone asked me more about this, I could point them to Benjamin.  Otherwise I could just claim and use the phrase because, well because it is a great way to put it.  That is a way of owning an idea and asserting one’s authority with the idea.  Academics often find themselves footnoting and referencing others throughout their prose.  Try writing with no references – just to feel how liberating it is.

And after making an outline of how I would end it, I sometimes would just throw down random sentences, notes to self, as to how I planned to argue the point.  For example:

Under grant you are cowering
When I raise a criticism of testing or value added, I feel like an egghead, out of touch with reality.  Reality is the grant. 

Problem of foundations have money because capitalists keep all profits
Taxes should have taken some of these resources – created by social labor – for democratic determination of where to go.

Foundations run things.

So I wrote:

Nonprofit organizations inside the US occupy the same space.  People who want to improve conditions for oppressed students, who want to challenge inequities, are not leading demonstrations in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Oakland, California.  Instead they are working for improvement within foundation and government-funded nonprofits.  The revolution may not be televised but apparently it will be funded.

It makes me think back to the Mississippi Freedom Schools that started as an adjunct to the voter education organizing there in 1964.  Charlie Cobb wrote up a proposal for the freedom school project.  Where today under a foundation grant it would be a 25-page (or a 200 page!) document with extensive claims about the situation they were facing and the exact outcomes they planned to achieve, Cobb’s proposal was two pages long and defined exactly the purpose of the schools.  It is a document that launched one of the most dynamic educational initiatives in the US and today is still studied as a classic artifact of movement history.

Certainly funding is a good thing.  Initiatives for change should be funded and organizing campaigns need resources.  But the question of who is doing the funding and what their underlying goals are – this is the rub.  Too often, the fundamental world view and values of the funders are written into the kinds of problems they will entertain and kinds of measurements they demand to determine success.  In this way, funding takes a social change project off track.

And foundations, private funding, have become such a huge part of the educational landscape that we accept without question that so many projects should be sustained by these kinds of grants.  Indeed the federal government, whose responsibility is to raise money through taxes and disperse it to communities for their education projects, now mimics the private sector – only giving out most funds through competitive grants.  Indeed, the largest of the grants we were discussing about the professional development program was a federal competitive grant.

One problem we have is that we tend to get caught up on our present reality, normalize it as if that’s the way it has to be. Living in the grant-driven world, channeling our social justice activism through non-profits, makes us begin to think this is just the way things are.  In this way, the hegemonic mind-set of neo-liberal market-driven systems colonizes our minds.  And how did it come to be this way? 

Trying to wrap it up:

This discussion about foundations making education policy takes me back to a point Mike Klonsky in Chicago made to me many years ago.  It is something that has stuck with me.  And I have said it often while speaking or teaching.  It is this:  The reason foundations are over rich and able to set policy is simply that they are not being taxed enough.  Those resources the1% hoard are produced by social labor and in general tax policies are there to collect some of those resources to use for broader social purposes – building roads, supporting schools and health care, etc.  This method suggests that there will be at least a somewhat democratic process in decisions about the disposition of those resources.

So I wrote:

One of the main culprits in this shameful development is the changing tax structure.  Starting after World War II but accelerating ridiculously in Reagan era, the taxing of the wealthy has changed enormously.  Where excess wealth created by society was once gathered through taxes and then distributed through at least somewhat democratic decision-making processes, now it goes almost exclusively into the pockets of the one per cent.  How does the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation have all these billions of dollars?  It is because they have not been taxed enough.  Resources that should be distributed through public projects are now in the pockets of individuals.

It follows then that the structure of grants and their reporting responsibility is a much more authoritarian way to make decisions than the democratic process of a community deciding how to prioritize education projects through a locally elected board.  The grant does not ask your opinion.  The grant says:  do this, do that.  It establishes instrumental goals, goals directed towards narrow, concrete outcomes that can be quantified.  And we see evidence every day that the federal government is completely bought into the privatization project, restructuring education like top-down corporations.

Looking back on the piece so far,  I reflected that it is an important issues and one I could try to reframe the discussion on.  But the title was boring.  I had called it, “Foundations and the Dumbing Down of Activism,” and, while that said something of what I wanted, the very first word “foundations” was going to put people to sleep.  I’m thinking now of calling it “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.”  That does not explain much of what will be in the piece but it will grab attention.

Now the piece was driving towards the end.  I had jotted down some other notes at the bottom of the page about the university and open inquiry:

But actually academic world is what it should be – freer.  Under grants they must bow down.  Actually you want the deeper read.  Grantees don’t go deep.  Backward planning. 

Why universities with inquiry built the greatest educational system in the world.

When I raise a criticism of testing or value added, I feel like an egghead, out of touch with reality.  Reality is the grant.  But actually academic world is what it should be – freer.  Under grants they must bow down.  Actually you want the deeper read.  Grantees don’t go deep.  Backward planning.  Why universities with inquiry built the greatest educational system in the world.

This would not be at all how I would write the ending but it contains, in raw form, thoughts I wanted to communicate.  I hesitated to claim that US universities were the “greatest education system in the world” but I wanted to defend university freedoms.  I need to think about that a little more.  Also, there is a contradiction between the position that Arundhati Roy was extoling for activists – outsider, volunteer, community based guerrillas – and the position of university professor as somehow a better place to be than a non-profit.   Many community organizers I knew in the 60’s left universities precisely because they were too constrained.  But I don’t think I can go into all that.  I’ll probably just leave this contradiction unaddressed.

So I wrote:

So the awkward moment when I raised objection to value added measurement truly reflected the different positionality of the three people in the room.  When I raised the criticism of testing measures, I seemed like an abstract-thinking egghead, out of touch with reality.  But such framing accepts the grant and its demands as reality, something not to be questioned.  And it reminded me why universities are important. 

Yes, universities that grant tenure, that allow freedom of inquiry, that protect professors to say aloud what they see.  Universities now are under attack.  According to the critics from the business world, universities have not enough clear outcomes, not enough measures of success.  But the very open nature of university-based research and inquiry is what made the US educational system the most powerful engine for knowledge and understanding, the envy of the rest of the world.  The narrowing of the university, the constraining of the inquiries of faculty through grant-driven projects, disallows us from pursuing the truth.  Someone has to be in the room to declare the emperor’s new clothes to be a fraud.  I felt fortunate to have the protection of my position in the university.  But more and more, that is a voice that is silenced by the power of the foundations and now the federal government, who control the budgets.

Writing style:

I have made a number of comments along the way about writing style:  write it like an email, think of a mass audience, use first person, leave out references.  I would only add that you can find much of this kind of writing all over the place.  Check out social media.  Read Truthout, Jezebel, and Salon.  Follow polemics, about issues large and small.  Read New York Times for ideas.  Always read Valerie Strauss column in the Washington Post.

I’m not even sure that I like this so much.  It is fascinating to me but would anyone want to read it?  Am I reaching for too many points?  At this point, I would show the draft around to some of my friends and co-conspirator writers.  Get feedback and edits.  Then submit.