Apr 28, 2015

I'll wear blue for you

I've posted before about the successful campaign against fracking in the finger lakes of New York state in the US, where the 'We are Seneca Lake' activists took direct action wearing blue to symbolize their struggle to keep their water clean. 

Last week people around the world were asked to wear blue shirts in solidarity with Burma's political prisoners. As the US Campaign for Burma put it in their email to me:

"In Burma today, hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars and over 300 activists await trial. The number of political prisoners has risen by almost 600 percent since the start of 2014.

U Win Tin, a journalist and, with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a founding member of the National League for Democracy, was one of Burma’s longest serving political prisoners from 1989 until 2008. He described his time in prison as that of a living hell. Once released he refused to hand over his blue prisonshirt, and pledged to wear a blue shirt every day until all political prisoners were released. He carried on wearing ablue shirt until his death on April 21, 2014.

Stand in solidarity with political prisoners alongside fellow activists around the world next week and share your photo on social media. On Twitter and Facebook, please use the hashtag #BlueShirt4Burma, and on Instagram tag the photo to @BlueShirt4Burma. "

It's too late to wear a blue shirt (though it will be repeated next year) but tomorrow, April 29th, is being promoted as 'denim day' by the organization Peace over Violence. They would like you to wear blue jeans to express your support for sexual assault survivors and educate about sexual violence.  

Why jeans? Well, as the website puts it "There is no excuse #1: she was wearing tight jeans."  So, um, am I supposed to wear tight jeans tomorrow? That is not specified on the site - nor are there any instructions for how to make it clear that I am wearing jeans for this purpose and not just because I tend to.  

It seems like so many people wear jeans regularly that it would be hard to notice if more people are wearing them tomorrow, but then, maybe asking you to wear your normal clothes in solidarity is a way of highlight how normalized and common sexual assault is? The website does not frame it that way however. 

Now, obviously, I am against sexual assault and in solidarity with survivors, but this campaign seems truly odd to me.  As readers of this blog will know, I am wary of solidarity actions and empathy experiments where you, in some way, try to be (or play at being) the one you're with. I have posted about many of these, like the day in Colombia for rolling up your pant leg in solidarity with land mine victims, or living on what you would get on welfare, etc.

I know that these campaigns are well meaning, and there is absolutely something powerful about embodying our solidarity this way, with actual corporeal markers - but it seems to me that these markers aren't necessarily easy for others to read.  What worries me more is that these actions run the risk of being appropriative, and of over-simplifying the lives and struggles of others. This seems more true of the blue jeans action than the blue shirt one, particularly since it seems to play with the idea that we could all be victims.

I don't think sameness, or even similarity, is required for solidarity. I can be quite different from you and still see your wellbeing as tied to my own. Our differences are a strength - we can work from our different positions for a better world for all of us.  

I am much more comfortable with the anti-fracking activists wearing blue and "being" water - maybe because it's not human? But then again, some huge percent of our body is made up of water, so in a sense it's a way of highlighting who we already are.  

#denimday #solidarity #fracking #blue 

Apr 14, 2015

Gracias Galeano

Yesterday we lost one of the great thinkers and writers on solidarity.  I feel blessed to have discovered him early in life and to have had a chance to meet and talk with him. 

You have probably read Galeano's great quote on solidarity, widely repeated in movements if all too often shortened.  The full quote is:

“I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”

My ongoing quest is for how to do solidarity that is in some sense horizontal even when in fact there are gulfs of privilege between you.  Rather than ignore those differences and just say solidarity must be horizontal, I'm interested in how we can each leverage our positions for the larger struggle - including positions of privilege. Ideally we could do so in ways that break down the systems that give some more privilege than others, rather than reinforcing those systems. 

That said, I really appreciate Galeano's inspiring us to think about the difference between solidarity and charity - a conversation worth having again and again when working together across gulfs of privilege. 

Below is a video with a montage of him saying some of his most famous lines - including several great bits on solidarity. Thanks to Fiona Jeffries for pointing me to it!

Apr 6, 2015

Inspiring solidarious academic strike win report

I am thrilled to report that after a month on the line, last week workers/students won the strike at my university (York U in Toronto, Canada). They won basically all that they asked for, which, as I described in a previous post, were very solidarious asks.

Yes, I know that the word solidarious doesn't exist in English - I'm importing it from the Spanish solidario because it's useful to have a way to describe strong solidarity like that shown in this strike, where the 'an injury to one is an injury to all' slogan was really taken to heart and folks walked out largely for issues that either affected only a few (people with kids, LGBT folks, international students), or only affected future students, not themselves.

As someone not on strike but who showed solidarity by not crossing the picket line, I was also inspired by the impact that our solidarity had.  At first classes were cancelled, but after a few weeks faculty were ordered to cross the line and start teaching again, or risk our jobs.  I wish that more of had stayed out, but enough of us did that it had an impact. I'm sure we were not the only reason, but it was shortly after many of us ignored the final order to cross that the administration started bargaining again.  I'm sure that various construction worker unions and the bus drivers union not crossing the line also helped pressure the administration.  I was impressed to learn that those unions have negotiated into their contracts the right not to cross a picket line - since by Canadian law you can lose your job for not crossing if ordered.

This is an important victory that I'm sure will inspire the academic workers and students that are rising up at other universities across Canada and across the world to defend quality, accessible public education.  Sessional instructors and TAs at Simon Fraser, one of the other large universities in Canada, just voted 92% in favor of strike authorization, with a record turnout.

I hope that it will also inspire students to be more supportive of unions in the future.  In our first week back I opened discussions with students in all three of my classes about what they learned from the strike. I was heartened by how many of them took away the power we all have to create change when we come together and stick together. They were also impressed by the idea that grad students were on strike so that it would be more possible for undergrads to go to grad school themselves in the future.

I personally also learned a lot about how the ratio of administrators to faculty is growing at universities across the US and Canada, how the pay of administrators has been growing at a much higher rate, and how the contracts of university president's are increasingly looking like those of CEOs (with chauffeurs, personal entertainment budgets, and bonuses). I learned to see this as part of a growing stealth privatization of public education.
me on the left, YUFA is our faculty union

I also gained a growing sense of being part of not only a national but a global movement fighting the neoliberalization of the university. It was exciting to be in a city with two of its three universities on strike (one of my favorite chants was "On strike! Shut it down! Toronto is a union town!), while a third major academic strike happened at the same time at a university across the country (UNBC).  It was also fantastic to read all of the strike solidarity statements sent in from far and wide, and to feel connected to the sit-in and free school in Amsterdam, a one day walk out by adjuncts around the US, and student actions across the UK.

Many geographers from around the world stepped up and signed an open letter pressuring the president of the University of Toronto, himself a geographer, to negotiate.  That strike ended by both sides agreeing to binding arbitration.  Hopefully they built some of the organizing capacity to win next time.  Even when there is not a clear win, strikes build organizational capacity- and people make all sorts of connections with each other on the picket line that make not only the union and the struggle for quality accessible public education stronger, but it also, since many of those activists are or go on to be involved in other social change projects, helps to build connections across various social movements.

photo courtesy of Alex Felipe
I am left believing even more deeply that public education should be considered a right and a public good all the way through graduate school. This is true in some countries, and some, like Argentina and Germany, even offer free tuition to international students. The wikipedia entry on this is sorely lacking if anyone is inspired to add to it, or make a map for it. I am left wishing there were a wikipedia entry on academic strikes where we could collate and connect with all of these actions around the world.  I would appreciate any recommendations (in the comments) of recent academic work that draws lines of connections between our struggles and the similar dynamics that we face as academic workers and students fighting for accessible quality public education.

(fantastic photos of the strike by Alex here)