Nurturing Subversive Seeds
What The New School’s Mobilization Taught Me"
“They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds.”
– Mexican Proverb
Most folks at The New School today haven’t heard of “the Mobilization,” the series of protests over questions of diversity and inclusion which convulsed the campus between 1996 and 1998. But I learned about it on my first day as Eugene Lang College’s first Director of Civic Engagement and Social Justice. A colleague handed me a copy of “Anatomy of a Mobilization,” a chapter of M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing. I could tell by the intense tone of her voice that I needed to read this document; that doing so was an act of subversion.
Ironically, I did not find time to delve into the reading until years later because, within my first week on the job, a town hall was held to address a leaked administrative report entitled Desegregating Diversity: From Myth To Mandate. This report detailed how students, faculty, and staff were incensed at the New School’s lack of attention to, and commitment toward, the issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and other social identities. I concluded my first week deep in the throes of a university still struggling to live into the progressive principles of its founding origins.
It was clear that what the problems named in the leaked report were virtually identical with those fought for by the Mobilization. When I arrived at The New School in 2010, it was no longer the place that it was when it was founded in 1919. It was now a mid-size university serving a more diverse body of students, students with a variety of socio-cultural and financial needs; students who demanded that it deliver on its progressive origins. My time at The New School showed me the extent to which the struggles that took place while I was there between 2010 and 2016 were clear extensions of campus activism begun decades before, and which had been written about by Alexander.
The Mobilization for Real Diversity, Democracy, and Economic Justice was, in Alexander’s words, “a broad coalition of faculty, students, staff and security guards” that took place over two years, from 1996 to 1998. The goal of the Mobilization was to “transform a wide range of inequitable institutional practices in hiring, decision making, curricular and intellectual projects, and the unequal appropriation of labor, all of which produced a culture of domination that stood in the way of justice.” Alexander was at the center of a political struggle that was fighting for formalizing her faculty position while simultaneously fighting for other institutional changes for students, faculty, and staff. Most inspiringly, Mobilization participants created The New University in Exile in the lobby of 65 Fifth Avenue, a place “where alternative classes were held, a People’s Reading List was posted, and, for nearly three weeks, candles burned for a dozen hunger strikers.” Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, then a New School student, captured some of the Mobilization’s activities. (You can see them here and here.) Indigo Violet, a student at the time, wrote: “The New School’s anti-racist, multiracial, pro-feminist, queer-friendly Mobilization for Real Diversity, Democracy, and Economic Justice enabled spaces of critique, dissent, and direct action to expose the university’s unfulfilled promise of progressivism and diversity.”
In my role as Director of Lang’s Office of Civic Engagement and Social Justice, I developed a suite of programs for students to explore and deepen their sense of history, agency, and action for justice. I instituted a mini-grants program to re-distribute the office budget to provide unrestricted financial support for student and faculty projects and research. Additionally, I designed and led two cohort-based programs, the Summer Student Fellowship Program, and the Gural Scholars Programs, both established in 2013, as sites for the practical application of justice in action.
When designing the first year seminar course for the Gural Scholars Program, I knew that the Mobilization would need to be a part of the course of study. I first brought it in as a teaching tool during the Spring 2015 semester as a cumulative reading assignment about student organizing. The reading responses ranged, but for many of my students, the Mobilization was both new and resonant. One student wrote:
I really liked this week’s reading because it was about our school. I was a little surprised at how much happened here that I never knew about; it was really powerful to read about how much activism and mobilization had occurred here less than 20 years ago. It really put a lot into perspective, because I see a lot of those same issues reflected in administration/classroom settings today.
Another student pointed to the Mobilization’s relatedness to the current campus climate:
Pedagogies of Crossing was such an interesting read! I had no idea that there was this struggle that existed in The New School’s past. It is specifically interesting now because I know that part-time and adjunct faculty are currently organizing for better wages and benefits at The New School.
While I was glad students were connecting with the complexity of The New School’s history, a few students argued that the Mobilization should have been taught earlier in the year (this course was a year-long seminar). In response I re-arranged my syllabus for the following academic year to do precisely that.
In addition to this re-arrangement I also added further texts. We read Indigo Violet’s student-perspective in the anthology This Bridge Called my Home, for example. We read the 1997 article “Nightmare on Twelfth Street” in Lingua Franca. And, most excitingly, I was able to arrange for several former Mobilization participants to share their experiences with my class via video conference. I wanted my students to come to understand the Mobilization from the student organizers’ perspective. This pedagogical shift felt especially critical in a program designed to develop students’ sense of agency at The New School. And it seemed to work. As one student reflected:
It seems that our project is directly following this one. As I move forward in Lang and with the Gural Scholars Program, I will continue to walk the bridge built for us, ‘…a bridge [that] has been made to a generation who will carry the torch, honoring our ancestors’ (Violet 494). I take with me a sense of community, gritty determination, and the commitment to never walk alone, to walk hand-in-hand, to step through the door and make the brick wall into a table where no one needs to be invited, where we are all seated, where transformation is our company.
The students in the Gural Scholars Program, particularly those who composed the Fall 2014 and Fall 2015 cohorts, were taught about the Mobilization in an effort to critically examine The New School’s history beyond its renowned origin story – to offer a history in which these contemporary students could recognize their own commitments and struggle. My students learned that their experiences at The New School were part of a longer history of resistance and student organizing, a history that empowered them to organize on and off campus.
Even though the Mobilization was not successful either in securing tenure for Alexander or in overhauling the curriculum, the Mobilization’s residue can still be found lingering around the university in the spirit and action of New School student organizers. And many of the programs at Lang that I created are descendants of the Mobilization’s vision, a vision stirringly articulated by Alexander in Pedagogies of Crossing. There she writes:
We share an ethical and intellectual commitment to understanding the histories and knowledges of particular movements and struggles involving class, race, and decolonization; different feminisms; lesbian/gay/queer liberation and theory; and transformational and anti-imperialist perspectives and critiques.
During the 2015-16 academic year, New School students, inspired by the Concerned Students 1950 at the University of Missouri, led efforts to demand changes in the classroom and curriculum at The New School. Students led a sit-in in the President’s office and a demonstration with a reading of demands at a Lang faculty meeting. Many of the student organizers were Gural Scholars. In January 2018, I learned that many of my Gural Scholar students were organizing with other students, this time for space on campus for students of color. This effort included strategic tactics like a forum, a petition, and social media to build momentum. In the end, the student organizers in the University Center.
I planted seeds in the form of history and knowledge so that students, faculty, and staff would feel enabled to take direct action at The New School. This work, grounded in history and knowledge, felt empowering and urgent to me particularly because it speaks to what Black Studies giant Manning Marable meant when he wrote: “we must always remember that we are the product and beneficiaries of those struggles, and that our scholarship is without value unless it bears a message which nourishes the hope, dignity, and resistance of our people.” I believe that knowing the history of struggle at The New School empowers a sense of solidarity with those who participated in the work before us – and with those yet to come.
Seeds were planted long before I arrived at The New School and the fruits of the harvest are manifesting in campus unrest and organizing. These fruits will continue to manifest as long as diversity, democracy, and economic justice remain mere public relations tools. As we are invited to celebrate The New School’s centennial, we – as a university community – must reckon with the university’s failure to deliver on its progressive origins. We must put in place a plan for deep-rooted institutional transformation for the next 100 years lest an exclusionary history repeat itself again and again.
Judy Pryor-Ramirez is a consultant living and working in New York City.