Above Photo: Students protest the rising costs of student loans for higher education on Hollywood Boulevard in 2012. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
On February 4th, the faculty of the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) delivered a vote of no confidence in mayor-appointed Chancellor Cheryl Hyman. At Harold Washington College (HWC) where I have taught arts and humanities with women’s/gender studies/social justice themes for the last 13 years, 114 out of 116 full-time faculty cast a ballot. Of those, 93% voted “no confidence.” We were triggered by sudden changes that will have devastating effects on students, faculty, and Chicago’s communities – made by CCC District Administration over the Summer of 2015 without any faculty or student input or warning. These sweeping changes include, a dramatic increase in tuition for part-time and international students, changes to registration deadlines for our most vulnerable populations, and “consolidation” and closing of academic and professional programs. Calls by faculty and students for open communication, shared decision-making, transparent justification and the data for these “data-driven” decisions were repeatedly denied, prompting the vote as one possible measure toward justice.
To anyone following the story, our “no confidence” was not a surprise. Across the seven independently-accredited colleges in the CCC district, faculty dissatisfaction, disenfranchisement, decaying morale, and distrust in the newly-configured and grossly overgrown district administration have been accumulating exponentially over the last 6 years, since Chancellor Hyman took office and initiated “Reinvention” – a strategic response to federal mandates to increase graduation rates at post-secondary institutions.
Ask the political machine, and you’ll hear that Reinvention is a huge success since graduation rates are up. Ask CCC faculty and you’ll hear that, despite the lovely advertisements posted on the El trains, Reinvention is a lavish effort to fix what (mostly) wasn’t broken. Graduating with an Associate’s Degree (AA) is one possible outcome of a CCC career; however, since their inception in 1901 to meet employment needs and provide liberal arts education for ALL people, open-enrollment community colleges (CC’s) have never been in the business of “graduating” students. More often, we provide general education requirements for transfer and meet a vast range of other academic, personal, and professional goals. Nor are our students’ successes always “measurable.” Justified by limited and skewed data which defined an AA the only measure of “success” for our students, Reinvention gained momentum by first misrepresenting the City Colleges as a failing system and then, ironically, implementing a host of ill-conceived and homogenizing initiatives that eradicated so many of our true successes. Supported by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Reinvention continues to pile the wreckage in its wake, more egregiously violating faculty’s expectations for shared-governance.
Why this is about social justice, and not just another love-hate quarrel between faculty and administration
The corporatizing of higher education is a national epidemic; community colleges are especially susceptible given their history as vocational institutions and the common misperception that this is their sole mission in a capitalist economy. While my colleagues and I have grown exhausted resisting its detrimental effects in and out of the classroom, CCC Administration and Board seem to have fully embraced a business model, failing to work with a willing faculty body as partners in self-reflection and change rather than steamrolling a “degrees of economic value” agenda.
And there is a great deal at stake.
By isolating programs geographically, CCC is continuing Chicago’s legacy of further disenfranchising already marginalized communities. The no confidence resolutionissued by District Wide Faculty Council (FC4) emphasizes a fundamental disagreement between the Board/Chancellor and faculty on the mission of CC’s. It backs away from saying (though my colleagues have said it elsewhere) that these decisions reinforce Chicago’s racial, class, language, and gender divisions and segregation. For example: How will a single mother from the far South Side– normally attending Olive Harvey College, working overtime, squeezing in a couple of classes, relying on public transportation and already-taxed family members for childcare – travel 2 hours each way up to Truman College to take a Child Development class (where all of these courses are now consolidated) and then turn around and go back to work, or home, or her child’s school, or her next class? Not to mention that her tuition just almost doubled. For all intents and purposes, we have closed another door in her face. “But, most of all,” said Carrie Nepstad, Associate Professor of Child Development at HWC, addressing the CCC Board in August, after learning in a 15 minute meeting that the program she worked tirelessly to develop over 13 years would be moving, “the colleges will lose Child Development students who, despite the bone-crushing odds against them, work hard to better themselves so they can give back to their communities by teaching our youngest children under often very difficult circumstances.”
A closer look at other CCC consolidations /closings, especially of professional programs, reveals further ways in which the sweeping segregation of our programs mirrors the expected professions of Chicago’s racial/class segregations: Hospitality is now only at Kennedy-King College in Englewood, Transportation Science is now at Olive Harvey College on the far South Side, Nursing is at Malcolm X College on the near West, Business is centralizing at Harold Washington College in the Loop, Computer Information Systems is up in the air, Youth and Social Work at Harold Washington College has closed, Criminal Justice is currently on the chopping block, while sections of general education courses are dwindling at most colleges. As a result, CCC is barring access to a diversity of academic and professional options, thus violating the essential mission of community colleges to serve Chicago’s communities.
“Neo-liberal Democrats are very busy hard wiring racism and many other oppressions into new policies for the Community College system in Chicago,” says Dr. Michael Heathfield, Coordinator of HWC’s Social Work and Youth Work Programs, which have been entirely shut down in this recent wave of fixing what was far from broken. “Just like their Republican counterparts, they are terrified by public discourse and debate about their actions. They deceive, dissemble and disappear the moment someone calls them to account for their numerous deeds of dismissal.”
Add to this the continued failure to pay our adjunct faculty a living wage much less a fair one, while almost doubling tuition for part-time students (our majority), and we begin to see the systemic nature of the problem.
Broken alliances, why academic elitism obstructs the great potential for solidarity
While this front is volatile, we are also battling constantly to justify the value of CCs and the status of CC educators within the elitist/colonizing forces of mainstream academia, even in seemingly “destabilizing” disciplines like Women’s and Gender Studies. We are often disconnected from our colleagues at four year institutions. It is a culture of hierarchy and marginalization, despite all of the theory-making around human rights and social justice vibrantly occurring in more mainstream academia/activism.
CC faculty are often rendered invisible, since, in the academic hierarchies so painfully solidified in our disciplines, not having a doctorate (62% teaching with Master’s; 18% with PhD’s) makes one irrelevant, no matter how many years of transformative teaching, excellent scholarship, community activism, and profound commitment to students. It is also assumed that “real scholarship” only happens at the university, while all our students – whether they are taking developmental education courses (a.k.a “remedial”) or not – are referred to as studying “at the community college level,” which ignores the fact that we provide parallel course offerings rather than precursors.
In addition, there is a public misunderstanding of community colleges in the mainstream, exacerbated by media, that often leads communities, families, high school guidance counselors and others to devalue and shame students for their attendance at “just a community college,” even when students themselves express the incalculable value of their CC education. At HWC the average student age ranges around 30 years old, 82% are non-white, 63% female, more than half are parents, and 96% are eligible for income-based aid. Given the demographics of CC students this undervaluing of their education often translates into – or comes out of – broader systems of racism, sexism, and classism.
Community Colleges as sites of liberation – worth saving, worth rallying around
It doesn’t have to be this way – in fact, just the opposite. By meeting a basic right of access to education and, by extension, earning power, critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills – CC’s can be a space where students become more aware of their own agency and empowered to resist systemic oppressions.
The potential for social justice extends far beyond personal/individual goal-attainment. The lived experiences of our students and our “othered” location within academia inherently decenter our classrooms, destabilizing hegemonic theory-making. M. Jacqui Alexander, in Pedagogies of Crossing, beautifully counters the misassumption that those who are marginalized do not theorize.
When women say, “no tenemos hambre de comida, tenemos hambre de justicia,” [we are not hungry for food; we are hungry for justice] they reconcile this fictive split between the struggle for survival and the search for justice. When dignity and daily bread are brought together so that justice overtakes the (not unimportant) struggle for wages, in contexts where they are minuscule to begin with, women give voice to a deeper, existential yearning: the desire to make themselves intelligible to themselves and to each another, to make domination transparent, and to practice new and different ways of being… the very force of existential necessity propels the desire to know, the desire to make sense of existence. Theorizing, therefore, becomes an existential necessity (105-106)
I too have observed this intense “desire to make sense of existence” in my work with HWC students. Surviving Chicago’s painful marginalizing structures empowers students to see, voice, and dismantle systemic injustice. Those of us who teach – whatever we teach – with social justice pedagogies: decentered classrooms, peace circles, relational curriculum, interconnectedness, and especially storytelling (see Keating, Levins-Morales, hooks, Alexander, Okun), maintain spaces for transformation, especially for students of color, in what bell hooks has referred to as a “decolonizing” process.
Living theory – “Social Issues” through “lived” realities
My students bring their own deeply personal stories of the “social issues” so often relegated to theory: screening and discussing Documented (Jose Antonio Vargas, 2011) reveals that a third of my class, many of whom are themselves “Dreamers,” has intimate experiences with family deportation. Viewing Feminist/Black Feminist Art from the 1960’s draws out the shared experience of rape and sexual assault among women students and the continued criminalization of black and brown mothering bodies by the prison and medical industrial complexes (see Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body). Reading eco-feminist texts and art inspires personal stories of neighborhood food deserts. Listening to spoken word coming out of Black Lives Matter reveals that almost every male student of color in the room (almost half the class) has had their own rights violated by police, prompting a mother, Dychea Johnson, to share a story of how her son, Martese Johnson, was brutalized by police officers on his own college campus at the University of Virginia. Here, Dychea reflects on her experience in my class, embodying a hunger for justice:
When the discussion of police brutality came up in the classroom, hearing all these young men and women describe different incidents in which they were harassed or assaulted angered me and saddened me. While I didn’t want to talk about my son’s assault in class, I felt compelled to share his story, and also explain why I’d run out the room crying. To hear that so many of these young people go through these things on a daily basis by the very people that are supposed to protect them breaks my heart. Made me think of the call I received from my son after he was released from jail after his assault….So every time I hear one of these stories, which seems to be often in the classes I’ve taken, I just have to take a minute and walk out of class, compose myself then return. Then I’m able to talk more about the situation, and share some things that my son tells me on a constant basis to remind me that he will be o.k., and that he will continue to fight for justice…
Dychea’s own political activism was charged by her son’s traumatic experience, but it continues to be fueled by her connection to other students in a social justice community college classroom. “I continue to advocate for my son in hopes that some changes will be made within the agency that refused to prosecute the officers who assaulted him.”
Students who live at the margins of Chicago converse easily with social justice theory, providing “testimonio” (Levins-Morales) in the classroom. Theoretical readings on “white supremacist capitalist imperialist (hetero)patriarchy” (bell hooks) do not operate in a vacuum for my white-raced students, either – nor for me as a white middle class woman sitting in circle with my students of color. My women’s studies students are inherently intersectional in their feminism; we all learn from and grow through the re-centered and re-privileged “margins.” Together we heal from and resist mass incarceration, community isolation, economic disparity, police brutality/state violence, gang warfare, political disenfranchisement, sexual violation, family violence, deportation, racism, white supremacy, classism, sexism, and homo/transphobia. It is no accident that some of the most dynamic social changes occur when the classrooms and the streets intersect.
As many of my activist-academic colleagues attest, my job is not to “teach” social justice content to my students, nor is my job solely to “prepare students for transfer.” As hooks has beautifully written, teaching to assimilate to the mainstream is silencing (“Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.”) Rather /additionally, I must bring Alexander’s concept of “dignity and daily bread” together in a practical/pedagogical sense, to embolden my students’ “hambre de justicia,” while deeply caring for them as they seek their own revolutions.
A Call to Action: Re-Asserting the Profound Promise of Community Colleges
While I am still dreaming up exactly what this should look like, I urge academics, activists, artists, and communities working toward social justice not to dismiss the profound promise of community college teaching and learning as sites of resistance to marginalizing systems of intersecting oppressions. This is ever-more urgent when CC administrations behave badly and fail to be accountable. (also see Praxis piece Ciminalizing Blackness: A Mississippi Community College’s School-to-Jail Pipeline by Dara Cooper). It is also not enough to blindly support efforts to make community colleges free for all students as President Obama’s much celebrated America’s College Promise Plan outlines, without looking critically at how these funds are applied and in whose best interest. Are these “initiatives” creating systems of liberation or perpetuating a factory mentality that prepares students to serve (in) the status quo? We need more public discourse – by all those committed to social justice – about what CCs are and what they should be for students, communities, the nation.
Right now, corporate interests and business models dominate this conversation. But I envision a time when the larger social justice community works much more in solidarity with CC educators, students, and communities – especially when the rubber hits the road or the programs hit the chopping block, as they are now. Not to dismiss the beautiful exceptions to this critique, we need more voices calling out the injustices students and faculty at CC’s experience both internally and externally.
I urge you to get in touch with any colleague or student you know at a CC to “check in”- today: how are they holding up under the pressure of “reinvention” or whatever the equivalent is at their institution? Beyond that most basic human action, talk about these concerns to the press, include CC’s in your scholarship and activist radar, and otherwise hold CC administrations and the city/state bodies governing them accountable for corporatizing education at the expense of students and justice in their communities.
With true administrative support for their original social justice vision and mission, CC’s could be tremendous. With alliances and bonds between CC’s and academics at 4 year universities, CC faculty could feel refreshed and students could be deeply valued in their revolution-building. With a culture shift, students might feel more liberated to use their CC experience as a true tool of liberation.
If you are in Chicago, come to the Community Town Hall Meeting on CCC’s on Monday March 28th 2016.
Alexander, M. Jacqui. Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.
hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” in The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader, ed. Sandra Harding. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Keating, AnaLouise. Teaching Transformation: Transcultural Classroom Dialogues. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.
Levins-Morales, Aurora. Medicine Stories. South End Press, 1998.
Okun, Tema. The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2010.
Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.