Tag Archives: Education History

Member of the Week: Erika Kitzmiller

1501610745836Erika M. Kitzmiller

Teachers College

Columbia University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My scholarship examines the historical processes and current reform efforts that have contributed to and challenged inequalities in present-day urban spaces. My work leverages quantitative and qualitative data to understand the intersections of educational policy and the lives of teachers, students, and families.

My current book project, The Roots of Educational Inequality, traces the transformation of public secondary education in urban America over the course of the twentieth century. By arguing that the roots of educational inequality were embedded in the founding of American high schools in the 1910s and 1920s, this work directly challenges conventional declension narratives that hinge the challenges of urban schools on postwar white flight and failed desegregation policies.

I became interested in this work when I began teaching middle school at Wayland Middle School and became an activist in Philadelphia. I was fortunate to be able to meld my interests as an activist, scholar, and educator into this research agenda.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

 I am currently teaching an educational foundations course and an elective, Education in the Age of Trump, based on the Trump 2.0 syllabus. I feel very fortunate to be at a school of education that values historical context and teaching, and thus, I have been able to infuse my research interests into my teaching. My next project is about youth inequality, mobility, and opportunity in rural and urban America and stems from my Trump course.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars? 

I’m very excited about two forthcoming publications that are coming out in 2018. First, Rachel Devlin’s work on gender and school segregation, Girls on the Front Line: Gender and the Battle to Desegregate Public Schools in the United States1945-1968. Second, I’m eager to read Keisha Blain’s upcoming book, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and Global Struggles for Freedom, with Penn Press. I’m also eager to follow and continue reading Jack Dougherty’s On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and its Suburbs, which is an open access book in-progress with collaborators, including MAGIC (the Map and Geographic Information Center at University of Connecticut Libraries), with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Remember what brought you to graduate school, stick to your passions, and find mentors to push and cultivate you. I left my middle school classroom reluctantly. I loved teaching, but also knew that I wanted to give myself time to really understand the history of education and the challenges that urban schools face today with experts who had studied this for decades. I was fortunate to have a wonderful mentor and dissertation advisor, Michael Katz, and a terrific committee with Tom Sugrue, Kathleen Brown, and Stanton E.F. Wortham. I am the scholar I am today because of what my middle school students taught me, because I stuck to what I was passionate about, and because I had a great team of advisors who pushed me as a scholar and teacher.

Your website is beautiful and makes excellent use of photographs to illustrate your work in the classroom and as a researcher. Does photography play a significant role in your research methodology? And do you have any advice for UHA members who want to incorporate photography into their work?

 My commitment to visual work stems from conversations I had with individuals who did not always believe the challenges and inequities that I had witnessed in urban schools. I began taking photographs to show people what I had seen. To show them the inequities in our urban schools. Second, it was about access. I wanted people who do not enjoy reading or who have a hard time accessing academic prose to be able to learn from and contribute to my research agenda.

In Philadelphia, I took several photography classes and worked with a documentary film maker, Amit Das, as a graduate student at Penn. What Amit taught me is simple: pick up a camera and just try. You will make mistakes and you will learn from them. In the past, photography has not played a significant role in my work, but in my dissertation I filmed my oral history interviews because I wanted people to be able to experience what I was experiencing—to see and hear from individuals who either experienced or challenged racism in their schools and communities. And now, today, I am beginning to incorporate photography and film more in my work to expand access and open people to the humanity that history offers.

The New York Times and the movement for integrated education in New York City

Our second entry in The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest explores the role of the New York Times in NYC school integration debates during the early 1960s through the lens the newspaper itself and the Pulitzer Prize winning work of Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s work, Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. 

During the 20th Century, a strategic decision was made by media outlets to associate America’s race problem with the South. To uphold this one-sided narrative, actions, and events regarding Martin Luther King Jr., the Montgomery Bus Boycott and school integration in Alabama were strategically covered by journalists. This has been recognized in Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. In meticulous detail, Race Beat explains the role of the press as it traced events of racial confrontation across the South, the book emphasizes information crucial to the development of black and white media sources.

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John Lewis, then leader of SNCC now congressman, rises to speak at the March on Washington, Bob Adelman, 1963, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Undeniably, the media played a central role in the civil rights movement; as former Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader and Congressman John Lewis observed, “If it hadn’t been for the media … the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song.”[1] This framing presented the relationship between the media and movement as inseparable. But when we flip the question, what do we see when exploring the New York Times’s relationship to civil rights activism in the North? The bird didn’t have wings in cities like New York, given the media’s tendency to dismiss and disparage the movements there.

In January of 1964, a decade-long movement demanding desegregation of New York City’s public-school system came to a peak. Ten years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, civil rights activists in New York City (like their Southern counterparts) had grown weary of the gradual progress in the movement for racial equality. Building on the momentum of 1963’s widespread grassroots organizing, New York activists looked to resume civil disobedience through a series of protests that targeted the Board of Education (BOE) for their failure to create and implement a reasonable integration plan. After much debate and a decade of official intransigence, numerous New York activists, both African American, and white, decided that a one-day mass school boycott would be a productive step forward.

On February 3rd, 1964, 464,361 students and teachers of color participated in the school boycott to dramatize the poor conditions in predominately African American and Puerto Rican schools.[2] This protest has been recorded as the largest civil rights protest in American history, surpassing even the 1963 March on Washington. This demonstration could have been a decisive opportunity for the media to oppose and expose segregation in the city and all of those who maintained it. Unfortunately, what we see from the Times is complacency and even opposition; while grudgingly noting the massiveness of the protest, they diminished the existence and negative impact of segregation in city schools, only to characterize the boycott as “unreasonable” and activists as “reckless” and “violent,” ultimately furthering support for the white power structure within NYC.[3]

The February 3rd, 1964 “Freedom Day” protest was directed by Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Reverend Milton A. Galamison of Siloam Presbyterian Church.[4] Reverend Galamison had moved from Philadelphia after attending Lincoln University and lived with his wife and son in Brooklyn. Galamison had made previous attempts to negotiate with city officials, but even under the guidance of Mayor Robert F. Wagner, who was known as New York City’s most “Liberal Mayor,” city officials had been lackadaisical in their approach to school integration.[5] The reverend had hired civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to help organize the boycott. Rustin had recently helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, which drew a crowd of 200,000 people, and was working as the Executive Secretary for the War Resisters League.[6] In a profile, the Times depicted Rustin as a lifelong activist with a talent for “putting demonstrators in demonstrations and pickets in picket lines.”[7] While the Times was eager to profile Rustin for the boycott, possibly because of his international presence, they ignored Galamison, the boycott’s director, in addition to the parents and teachers who dedicated their expertise to the cause. Grassroots activists from Brooklyn’s Congress of Racial Equality, The Parents’ Workshop, National Advancement Association of Colored People (NAACP) and Harlem Parents Committee showed support for the boycott in February of 1964, but these activists also went unnoticed by the paper.[8] Given Galamison’s strong presence in the community, it would have been easy to produce a comprehensive profile that showed his dynamic character. As momentum for civil rights in NYC persisted, opposition to the protest from white liberals continued, many complaining that leadership within the African American community had “taken a turn for the worst”.[9]

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People, some with picket signs, gather outside Lincoln School in Englewood, N.J. protesting the city’s failure to end racial segregation, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the coverage leading up the school boycott the Times failed to see the demonstration as part of the larger movement. An editorial titled “No More School Boycotts” framed the demonstration as “tragically misguided” and generalized all boycotts as “pointless”,dangerous” and “destructive” to the children of New York.[10] The newspaper castigated Reverend Galamison and let it be known that, when concerning segregation in New York City, “there is no realistic way to alter the balance.” However, the Times suggested that it’s up to the “reasonable” civil rights leaders to mend ties with their liberal counterparts.[11] In 1964, activists were calling on the BOE to create an integration plan that is “complete and city wide” instead of the “piecemeal” Princeton (paring) Plan,[12] which asked for small portions of the city to be bused, leaving the majority of predominately African American and Puerto Rican schools segregated. What this Times article ignored was the fact that cities like New York had been segregated though racist housing policy, government zoning and neighborhood pacts by whites to keep communities racially homogenous.

Following the boycott, the February 4th, 1964 issue of the Times stressed a variety of opinions, analyzing the role of educators and students, while also shedding light on what reporters considered the flaws and successes of the boycott. Times correspondent Homer Bigart reported that the boycott “was even bigger than last summer’s March on Washington” which had been the biggest civil rights demonstration to date.[13] In an article titled “Leaders of Protest Foresee a New Era of Militancy” long-time journalist, Fred Powledge wrote of the boycott as a communal effort in which people of all kindsjoined the effort to make food, posters, and prepare lessons for the one-day boycott directed by Bayard Rustin.[14] Powledge failed to recognize that the demonstration was a significant step ­­within a much larger movement that was orchestrated by New York City activists, with the help of Rustin. This inaccuracy minimizes the efforts conducted by activists in New York and emphasizes the Times’s failure to recognize grassroots activists who made the boycott successful.

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Bayard Rustin (center) speaking with (left to right) Carolyn Carter, Cecil Carter, Kurt Levister, and Kathy Ross, before demonstration, 1964, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Meanwhile, reporter McCandlish Philips felt that Freedom Day was “not very useful” and quoted Dr. John H. Fisher, President of Columbia University’s Teachers College at the time, saying the “boycott was a mistake from the beginning.”[15] Many liberals aligned with this sentiment, declaring that things were moving too fast, including Rabbi Max Scheck, President of the New York Board of Rabbis who was quoted saying, “They’ve been waiting for 100 years now…we’re asking them to wait a little longer.”[16] The notion that African Americans needed to be patient and wait for societal standards to change gradually was a philosophy often articulated by segregationists in South.

Not all reporters failed to see this demonstration as a singular act. Seasoned reporter Peter Kihss placed the boycott within the larger movement ­in his article “Many Steps Taken for Integration.” Kihss emphasized the boycott as one of many demonstrations by Northern civil rights activists, who had been working to create equal opportunities for the children of NYC since the 1950s.[17] Kihss focused on the longtime struggles made by civil rights activists such as African American lawyer Paul B. Zuber and Galamison, applauding their ability to continue the battle even as “white parents remain hostile” to desegregation efforts in New York.[18] With the exception of Kihss, Times journalists failed to mention that white backlash was embodied in the Parents and Taxpayers Organization, whose organizing was rooted in a racist ideology.

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On their way to the March on Washington, CORE members swing down Fort Hamilton Parkway, Brooklyn, toward 69th St. ferry on trek to the capital, O. Fernandez., August 15, 1963, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Reports published by the Times on the boycott showed there was a consistent impact on school attendance, stressing that 44.8 percent of the total enrollment had not shown up, but recording that the average absentee rate hovered around 10 percent.[19] Numbers showed that in predominantly white communities attendance was hardly affected. Staten Island for example had a slight increase in attendance, with an absentee rate of 11.2 percent.[20] Reporter Robert Trumbull explained that the Citywide Committee for Integration of Schools noted that more than “400 Freedom Schools had functioned for pupils staying away from classes” calculating the attendance at Freedom Schools to be between “90,000 and 100,000.”[21] There were accounts of lessons being led by community educators in religious institutions, recreational spaces, and homes of volunteers. Students who regularly attended class in an NYC school building had complaints of “water overflowing from the toilets” and “rats in the cafeteria”, recognizing that it was the first time they’d received a quality education in sanitary spaces.[22] This article was one of the few in which the deplorable conditions plaguing New York City’s public schools were mentioned.

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Leonard Budner reported “3,357 of the 43,865 teachers who were employed by the city were absent on Monday, nearly three times the usual number.”[23] Even with threats from Superintendent Donovan that “We don’t pay people to march around,”[24] many teachers were spending their day at Freedom Schools teaching a curriculum of African American history and civics, both curated and distributed by the Harlem Parents Committee.[25] By spending the day teaching without pay or recognition in makeshift schools, teachers were drawing attention to the desperate conditions in African American and Puerto Rican schools. Instead, the Times focused on the criticisms given by Superintendent Donovan, who said that all teachers would receive an “official warning” if they “[26]

By understanding the New York Times’s criticism of the local movement, we are better informed of the structural, societal and ideological barriers that activists faced when attempting to secure an equal and integrated education. With extensive criticism and a lack of moral support, we see how the New York Times chose to support the struggle in the South but became a foe to the activists, children and parents of the movement in New York.

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Ethan Scott Barnett is a PhD student in History at the University of Delaware where he studies 20th century African American history, with a focus on the Jim Crow North and West. He can be reached on twitter at @EthanScottBarn.

 

 

 

Image at top: Mrs. Claire Cumberbatch, of 1303 Dean St., leader of the Bedford-Stuyvesant group protesting alleged “segregated” school, leads oath of allegiance, Dick DeMarsico, September 12, 1958, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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[1] Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006), 407.

[2] Clarence Taylor, Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 96.

[3] “A Boycott Solves Nothing” NYT (Jan 31, 1964).

[4] Clarence Taylor, Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 96.

[5] Ibid, 95.

[6] “Man in the News” NYT (Feb 4, 1964)

[7] “Picket Line Organizer” NYT (Feb 2, 1964)

[8] Fred Powledge, “Leaders of Protest Foresee a New Era of Militancy Here” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “The School Boycott” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[11] “No More School Boycotts” NYT (Feb 3, 1964).

[12] Fred M. Hechinger, “Education School Boycott” NYT (Feb 2, 1964).

[13] Homer Bigart, “Thousands of Orderly Marchers Besiege School Board’s Offices” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[14] Fred Powledge, “Leaders of Protest Foresee a New Era of Militancy Here” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[15] McCandlish Philips, “Many Clergymen and Educators Say Boycott Dramatized Negro’s Aspirations” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Peter Kihss, “Many Steps for Integration” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Boycott Cripples City Schools” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Robert Trumbull, “Freedom School Staffs Varied but Classes Followed Pattern” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Leonard Buder, “Move to Mediate School Dispute in City is Rebuffed” NYT (Feb 5,1964)

[24] Ibid.

[25] Robert Trumbull, “Freedom School Staffs Varied but Classes Followed Pattern” NYT (Feb 4, 1964).

[26] Leonard Buder, “Galamison Group Modifies Position on a New Boycott” NYT (Feb 19, 1964).

Member of the Week: Elizabeth Todd-Breland

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Photo credit: UIC – Jenny Fontaine

Elizabeth Todd-Breland

Assistant Professor

University of Illinois at Chicago

@EToddBreland

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I am currently finishing a book about transformations in Black politics, shifts in modes of education organizing, and the racial politics of education reform in Chicago from the 1960s to the present. I’ve always been personally and professionally interested in African American history. I also spent time working with Chicago Public Schools students in schools and afterschool and summer enrichment programs. This project has uniquely allowed me to merge my training as a historian with my commitment to racial justice and educational equity.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Two of my favorite undergraduate courses to teach are Race and Education Since Brown v. Board and The History of Chicago. I’ve been able to draw on my research to inform the content and assignments for these classes. In these courses I require that students leave the confines of the classroom to attend local school and community meetings, conduct community research projects, and/or visit Chicago’s museums and neighborhood-based cultural institutions. The students analyze these experiences within a broader historical context informed by course readings and other materials. While I want my students to learn new content and develop a critical analysis of history and the city, I’m also always excited for them to visit and engage intellectually with parts of the city to which they might not otherwise venture.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m excited to finally be finishing my book, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2018). The last book I read was Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. It is a beautiful and thrilling novel that challenged me to be more imaginative in thinking about the space and genre of the city in the particular way that good fiction can. I’m also looking forward to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s forthcoming book Race for Profit on Black housing and the relationship between the private sector and public policy during the 1970s.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

You will be with your research projects for a long time. So, it is important that you are passionate about the topics of study that you choose. Keep asking questions. Take the time to build relationships with people in the communities where you conduct your research. Be prepared to learn more from these collective experiences than you will ever teach others.

What was the most memorable oral history you completed as research for your book project?

I’ve had the privilege of conducting some amazing oral histories for my book. One of my most memorable was with a woman named Lillie Peoples. She taught in Chicago schools for more than forty years, organized Black teachers as a leader in Operation Breadbasket’s Teachers Division, and impacted many people along the way. Over the course of several phone calls and in-person interviews, she shared her personal and professional journey with me and allowed me look through her private collection of pamphlets, newsletters, obituaries, meeting minutes, and photographs. She is a dynamic storyteller with a quick wit, speaks her mind boldly, and remains a passionate advocate for Black children and public education. Like many of the Black women educators who I interviewed, Lillie Peoples’ story has not been adequately documented in an official historical record. Nonetheless, these Black women transformed city politics and education efforts as education practitioners, theorists, community organizers, and anchors of blocks and neighborhoods. There is an added urgency to this history given recent political attacks on public school teachers and public sector employees nationally, which have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black workers and Black communities.

Member of the Week: Claudio Daflon

20150531_104913Claudio Daflon

@claudiodaflon

Doctoral Candidate in History

University of Connecticut 

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My dissertation is about the expansion of the national university system towards the metropolitan municipalities of the Gran Buenos Aires. It questions how this process relates to the urbanization and transformation processes experienced in the conurbano bonaerense in the last three decades. I depart from the idea that only politicians and state educational policies have been influential in this expansion; multiple, contradictory voices participated in historical developments that institutional agents certainly did not always expect. Apart from the dissertation, I’m also working with some colleagues on a project about samba music and citizenship in Rio de Janeiro.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I’m currently a teaching assistant at UConn. I have taught courses as different as Contemporary European History, Western Civilization, and the recent history of the United States. The experience of teaching different courses is enriching. I have been fortunate to have the liberty to relate some of my discussions to topics connected to my specific research.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I strongly recommend one of my latest readings: Matthew Karush’s new book Musicians in Transit: Argentina and the Globalization of Popular Music. It narrates the transnational careers of some Argentinian artists, exploring themes such as popular culture, race, global cultural industry, and how they relate to Argentine national identity. I’m excited to start reading historian Jason Chang’s recent monograph Chino: Anti-Chinese Racism in Mexico, 1880-1940, which investigates how racial discrimination against Chinese Mexicans played an important role in the revolutionary Mexican state nation-building process.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

In my experience, reading the most recent ‘classics’ of the field (whatever time and national scopes they cover) is a key step to developing the necessary skills to frame relevant questions for our own work.

What Brazilian city are tourists mistakenly leaving off their itinerary, and why do you recommend they visit it?

I’m very curious about Recife, the capital of the northeastern Pernambuco state. The city holds a long history of cultural encounters (that includes the occupation by the Dutch and the slave traffic that fed the sugar cane industry) and complex urban developments. I’m especially attracted by its effervescent popular culture, which combines many traditional folk expressions to very cosmopolitan influences. Recife is now a powerhouse in cinema, theater, and music; its nightlife is described as very vibrant, and its carnival as one of the best in Brazil. Sometimes overshadowed by the paradisiac beaches of the Brazilian Northeast, Recife is definitely a city that visitors should add to their travel plans.

Adding Fuel to the Right Fires

JuravichToday we are initiating our Scholar-Activist of the Month series. Nick Juravich, defended his dissertation in U.S. History at Columbia University on Monday, and in September he will be an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society. Nick offers this reflection on the relationship between scholarship and activism.

I was honored and somewhat surprised when The Metropole asked me to contribute to their new “scholar-activist” feature, as I don’t think of myself as a particularly good activist. (My first thought, upon getting this request, was “all of the best scholar-activists must be out organizing people”). I do, however, think that scholars in general, and urban historians in particular, can and should contribute to movements for justice and equality. I believe, in fact, that we have an obligation to seek out ways to do this, particularly if our own research involves the study of activists and organizers as historical actors (as my own work does).

That said, activism is a broad and ill-defined term. In trying to make sense of the range of possible intersections of scholarship and activism, I’ve come to distinguish between activism as a vocation, activism within the academy, and scholarship as activism, while still recognizing that all of this work is connected. As a graduate student, I’ve been lucky to have great mentors, colleagues, and comrades who’ve modeled scholar-activism and who’ve pulled me into projects that have shaped my own thinking and practice. In what follows, I want to sketch out a range of possibilities for scholar-activism, and chart my own trajectory toward activism rooted in particular places and collaborative practices.

When I think of “activism,” the first thing that comes to my mind are the full-time activists and organizers I know who work in the labor movement, the environmental movement, and the like. I worked with friends to oppose the Iraq war and challenge on-campus labor practices in college who then went on to careers as organizers. When it comes to getting out into the streets today, I follow their lead, because they’re in the trenches every day and know a lot more than I do about how and where to apply pressure. Many scholars are, of course, themselves effective leaders in broader movements – I think here of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, or scholars who have worked extensively in and for the prison abolition movement – and I look forward to reading about their work on The Metropole down the line.

Scholar-activism also has an important role to play in making Universities live up to their putative ideals. Since this is a new blog of the Urban History Association, it seems appropriate here to cite the example of both the UHA’s Nathan Connolly and the bloggers at Black Perspectives (co-edited by Keisha Blain and Ibram X. Kendi), whose leadership in challenging institutional racism in the academy should inspire us all. On my home campus at Columbia, students have led many campaigns in the time that I’ve been here, from May Day gatherings to support the Occupy Movement to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and, most recently, our campaign to organize a Graduate Students’ Union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (UAW 2110). I haven’t been a lead organizer on any of these, but I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing people as we’ve tried to make Columbia a more democratic and accountable place for its students and workers. Working on my dissertation, has, in fact, pushed me to be more involved in our unionization campaign. More specifically, the longtime union organizers who I’ve interviewed for the project are savvy folks who keep up on the labor movement, and they have pushed me to get involved. As one ninety-three-year old teacher unionist wrote when she read about the campaign, “I hope you are involved. If you are, right on!” As they understand it, I can’t study activism without doing at least some organizing myself. That’s a strong push to action.

Most of my activism as a graduate student, if it is fair to call it that, has primarily been doing what I like doing most and know how to do best: history. It’s something of a truism, at least since the rise of the new social history half a century ago, that historical study can itself be a powerful means of challenging the status quo (or, as Herbert Gutman put it, “revealing the contingency of the settled order”). The challenge is finding ways to connect historical studies to particular movements and publics in ways that are responsible, relevant, and accountable to people beyond the academy. It’s not enough just to write a great academic monograph about a movement (though we should, absolutely, do that). We have to challenge ourselves to work with people as producers and interpreters of history, not just in the bounded space of an interview that becomes raw material for our articles, but in every context and space where history matters.

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Educating Harlem

I’ve learned a lot by watching great mentors whose own work has been an inspiration to me, from undergraduate advisors including George Chauncey and Susan Gzesh at Chicago to Mae Ngai, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Samuel Roberts at Columbia. As a doctoral student, my scholar-activism began in earnest when I joined two projects: the Educating Harlem project at Teachers College, directed by Ansley Erickson and Ernest Morrell, and the South El Monte Arts Posse’s “East of East: Mapping Community Narratives in South El Monte and El Monte,” directed by Romeo Guzmán and Carribean Fragoza. These are very different projects in terms of their origins and positions in relation to the University, but they share a set of commitments that have taught me a lot. In both cases, we are building open-access digital archives of documents, photos and oral histories, and we are circulating them on social media to build a wide audience that “talks back” (in Claire Bond Potter’s formulation). Even as we make use of digital tools, both projects are also rooted in particular urban places, and we host local events that bring scholars, activists, and community members together. This forces scholars to put aside our “expertise” and hear from people who’ve shared their histories with us, and it challenges us to learn from them whether our interpretations ring true. Finally, each project has engaged local youth as historians, generating narratives and ideas with them and contributing material to high school history curriculum that challenges popular narratives of Harlem and the San Gabriel Valley. These three strategies reinforce each other. Building digital, accessible archives helps us connect them to particular people and places. Making these connections helps us generate new questions, content, and perspectives. Working with youth helps us build the next generation of these archives and create new narratives from them. These aren’t the only ways to turn scholarship to the service of activism, but they’ve all inspired me.

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Leading an oral history workshop with high school students, January 2015

My own dissertation is a study of community-based educators – people we know today as “paraprofessionals” or “teacher aides” – in public schools, freedom struggles and the labor movement from the 1960s through the 1980s. I worked alongside “paras” as a student teacher in Chicago and an after-school educator in New York City, where their labor proved vital, but was often invisible. While the folks I’ve interviewed for the project are nearly all retired today, they keep in close contact with people working in these jobs now, and they’ve pushed me to do the same

As I’ve come into these spaces – workshops and professional development sessions for paraprofessional educators in New York City – I’ve tried to deploy strategies I’ve learned from Educating Harlem and SEMAP. After some trial and error, I now try to walk in not as an expert bringing history to non-historians, but as a fellow educator with shared commitments. When I started out, I’d bring long presentations; now, I’ll bring a few documents, and use them to start a discussion, which opens up space for the folks who do this work now to connect past and present. These educators make use and sense of this history in ways that serve their work in the here and now, and listening to them do so informs my own research questions and practice as I study the evolution of programs and movements for community-based education in an earlier era.

I’ve also tried to create and contribute to digital projects that live in the world far beyond my own academic writing. I contributed research and commentary to the AFT’s 100th Anniversary Documentary, and I put together a blog post and lesson plan for the “Teacher/Public Sector” initiative of the Labor and Working-Class History Association. This last one has come back to me in unexpected but exciting ways; last fall, I got a call from a union organizer who was fighting for a contract for paraprofessional educators and was using a Bayard Rustin editorial that I had linked in the post. We had a long conversation, I sent her more materials, and they used them in the next phase of their campaign. It felt like a good way to honor the organizing efforts of fifty years ago that my interviewees had shared with me.

In doing all of this, I think of something Colin Prescod, a Black British scholar-activist, told me years ago, quoting his own mentor, A. Sivanandan: “We are not at the front. We are putting gas in the tanks of the trucks that are going to the front.” I’m not a full-time activist, and I can’t and shouldn’t speak for those who are. As scholar-activists, however, if historians can add some fuel to the right fires, I think we’re contributing.