A couple of weeks ago I prepared a class presentation on an article “Putting Inequality in its Place: Rural Consciousness and the Power of Perspective” by the sociologist Katherine CramerWalsh. Walsh draws upon qualitative research to claim that place-based group consciousness she calls “rural consciousness” is central to how rural people form political beliefs including anti-government attitudes, resentment of urban elites and the perception that “rural communities are not given their fair share of resources or respect.” I chose the article to engage students on the variety of influences on political consciousness, including geographic settings far removed from the urban context that we share, and to link to the midterm elections that had just taken place in which large numbers of rural residents voted to support a right populist agenda. The Democrats’ strong election showing enabled them to retake the House of Representatives but the stark urban-rural political divide discussed in the article persists.
Thinking about my presentation brought me back to the rapid, effective mobilization among CUNY educators in the aftermath of the 2016 elections catapulting Trump to the presidency amid campaign threats to build a wall, enact a Muslim ban and institute widespread policies detrimental to our students and their communities. Within a week of the elections the Futures Initiative, Humanities Alliance, Teaching Learning Center, Graduate Center chapter of the PSC and others sponsored a teach-in/learn-into discuss issues of relevance to CUNY students. Participants collaboratively pulled together relevant readings, lists of resources and tools for vulnerable students and communities, an Election Clapback Syllabus and other materials to facilitate class discussion and integrate into future curriculum. These materials were disseminated widely online and physically though our labor as graduate teaching fellows and adjuncts responding to a mandate to make space for these crucial conversations within our courses throughout CUNY.
Two years havepassed. During this time we’ve witnessed,and many have participated in, an upsurge of social movement resistance determined to stop the whirlwind of anti-immigrant, xenophobic, anti-democratic and neoliberal policies; with partial success in some cases like efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, protections for Dreamers, delay and partial blunting of the Muslim Ban. In spite of an enormous array of movement activity other measures could not be prevented: family separations targeting immigrant children and further escalation of deportations, the Republican Tax Bill, the steamrolling of two Supreme Court appointments, to name a few.
Like many others as the midterm elections drew near I balanced the tension between inspiration from grassroots social movements transitioning into unprecedented political mobilization and pervasive anxiety and foreboding of a repeat of 2016. These were certainly normal emotional responses in the midst of three sets of hate-inspired mass murders during the weeks before the elections and mainstream media op-eds validating fears of creeping fascism. The election results left me relieved and hopeful that there are now political checks as well as movement checks for the next two years, even knowing dangers and enormity of the obstacles ahead.
These have been my responses as a social movement activist. How are we responding as educators at CUNY? Two years on we like our students are living with the momentous political impacts of the Trump era. Did our students also feel anxiety as the midterm elections approached or were they not really paying attention? Has the gravity of the times faded into the backdrop within our classes if not our activist lives? Not that we want a permanent atmosphere of crisis. Yet, is it still important to open space for dialogue, provide resources and help connect the dots about national elections and similar political events? We can start by providing space for topical class discussion if we aren’t already doing so. What are your thoughts and how have you been approaching this issue?