Today 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.
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.
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.