A Space for Social Justice Education

A Space for Social Justice Education

A Space for Social Justice Education

As an adjunct professor and social justice advocate, I am constantly aware those two paths can come into conflict. I have never been more aware of that than during the Occupy movement, where I was the first arrested and most arrested member of the Albany branch of the movement. In doing media interviews, I was regularly asked about what I did for a living. As one knee jerk reaction to organized protest is frequently “Get a job,” I was always happy to answer that I was an adjunct professor at both the College of Saint Rose and the University at Albany (where I had completed my master’s and doctoral studies). I didn’t give it much thought until local media outlets began calling my employers for comment on the string of arrests. Despite the fact that all of the arrests were dismissed because our local district attorney refused to prosecute peaceful protesters for engaging in their First Amendment rights, I also knew the schools were averse to negative publicity. So, I waited to see if it would impact my job status. Both schools refused comment. Nonetheless, rumor was they were pretty unhappy about the attention. I fully expected—given my lack of job security and semester to semester status—that I would soon not be offered the courses I had been teaching for several years. Much to my surprise, I was contacted by my department chair and offered a new and additional course, creating social justice, which is part of our sociology curriculum.

The course had been offered in the past, but had been discontinued because no one wanted to teach it. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to combine my teaching and social justice work. The course focuses on reviewing major social justice movements in American history with a particular emphasis on tactics used by activists, those that worked and those that failed. While the content has varied over the several years I have been teaching the class, topics typically include the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the American Indian movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement and the fight for LGBT rights. I always make a point to bring regular updates about ongoing movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the current indigenous fight to stop construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. This semester has been a particularly interesting time to teach the course since we have an election that has featured the reactionary, racist and misogynistic rhetoric of Donald Trump.

The skills needed to be an organizer are often developed through trial and error as members of various movements, with older activists passing on their years of knowledge to younger members. That certainly works, but it requires that younger activists have already overcome the impediments to such action, debt, fear of reprisals, normalization of injustice, fear of social rejection, etc. Those are large hurdles for many. By offering these skills in the classroom, those issues are taken off of the table.

My students come from a wide range of backgrounds from those already active to those who have never considered engaging in these actions. Since our criminal justice program requires a certain number of sociology credits, many of my students are looking to careers in law enforcement. Those who are already experienced with movement work have a chance to build on those experiences, learn new approaches and get informed about how they can expand their work and show solidarity by supporting new causes. Those who are entirely new to social justice activism gain an appreciation of how such work has made our society increasingly fair, equitable and just while encountering a wide array of areas that still need our concerted attention if we are going to become “a more perfect union.” Along the way, I often learn a great deal from them; hearing perspectives that are not my own; hearing about struggles I have little experience with; and engaging in open-ended discussions about the merits of and objections to various struggles that are shaping our world today.

I always make a point of bringing in a series of guest speakers throughout the semester, usually one a week after our initial introductory classes. It has been my pleasure to host a variety of local activists, politicians, lawyers, filmmakers and artists whose social justice work stands out as exemplary. Being a state capital, Albany is blessed to have a very robust network of activists working a wide range of issues. My students and I have learned a great deal from these talented and driven folks. The students get the opportunity to hear and engage very experienced speakers active in a diverse set of social justice movements. Everyone seems to benefit greatly from the experience.

Being a straight, cis, white, well-educated male with a middle-class existence, I have tried to be a good ally and accomplice to those that did not enjoy the same privileges. My energies rarely focused on my personal struggles. As I teach my students, the best thing you can do with whatever privilege you have is to use it to help others. That is in fact one of my main motivations for teaching in the first place, giving something back. My social justice work rarely benefitted me directly. That changed somewhat in my first semester teaching the course when a local labor activist Dan Kelly came to speak in my class. To date, I saw my adjunct struggles (low pay, lack of raises, no benefits, lack of office space, etc.) had been something I had tried to solve by building a solid curriculum vitae, getting grants, publishing and then taking those results to my department chair and dean to argue for individual improvements. Each such attempt was met with a similar response: “We know it is very difficult to be an adjunct. We would like to see you get better working conditions. But, our hands are tied by the administration who will never consider such changes. So sorry.”

As I sat there listening to Dan Kelly asking my students about their work lives and their struggles to find good employment, it dawned on me the same organizing skills that I was teaching could be the answer to the corporatization of higher education and my personal resulting adjunct battle. Shortly thereafter, I reached out to a friend that I knew worked for SEIU Local 200United. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had been tasked with organizing adjunct faculty in our region. We moved quickly to organize my college’s hundreds of adjuncts into a collective bargaining unit and have since secured our first contract which among other things provides 34% raises over its three years, guarantees us all office space and significantly provides us academic freedom protections under the AAUP 1940 statement. We have worked to expand that movement and have seen two more local colleges establish their own adjunct unions.

In the past few years, those same skills have been critical to fighting the College of St. Rose’s administration and board, which have engaged in a rapid corporate restructuring of the school including deep cuts to benefits, firing 23 staff, eliminating another 23 full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty and dismantling 28 programs, predominantly in the liberal arts and education programs. As these changes led by our newly arrived President Carolyn Stefanco have direct impacts on our students, they have been an ongoing topic of discussion in the course as well (sure glad we have those academic freedom protections in writing now). We have organized an informal faculty association which brings together both our full-time and contingent colleagues, started an advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and engaged in a various protests, petitions, media campaigns, etc., demanding the cuts be rescinded. Last May, the national conference of the AAUP passed a motion censuring our board and administration for their actions and the damage they have done to tenure, shared governance and academic freedom. That struggle continues. As I teach in my class, change is often times slow in coming and requires ongoing, sometimes lifetime, work to achieve. It is my sincere hope and belief that my students are going to take these lessons into the real world, emboldened by the examples of crucial social justice movements of the past and present, and make their own change. As I tell them regularly, society’s rules are ours to write. We just have to take up the challenge to do it.

Bradley Russell holds a PhD in anthropology, with a concentration in archeology. He has taught as an adjunct professor at the College of Saint Rose and the University at Albany.

[Photo courtesy of Angela Ledford]


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