Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Occupy Your Education: The Best Classrooms in America

by Corey Dolgon, Editor, This Week in Sociology
Professor of SociologyStonehill College

A few weeks ago we had an “Occupy Stonehill” teach-in at Stonehill College, a relatively small, liberal arts college South of Boston. Over 80 students and a handful of staff and faculty attended. The conversation was lively and informative and thoughtful and sincere. In some ways it was a model for serious scholarship and debate within the context of a compassionate and collegial space. It reminded me of the things I love best about teaching and, in particular, teaching at an institution of higher learning.

It also reminded me of an experience I had during my first professional teaching gig ever back in 1994. I had been teaching in a program at Long Island University—Southampton and the administration had outsourced the custodial unit claiming to cut costs and improve ‘cleanliness.” Very quickly, however, it became clear that the administration wanted to bust the union and to deflect criticism of overtly racist labor policies that had denied promotional opportunities for non-white workers. The custodial unit was the ONLY primarily non-white unit as 14 of 19 janitors were either African American or Native American (the College was across the street from a Native American (Shinnecock) reservation.
Over the next 16 months, custodians organized (along with students, some faculty and some community activists) to have the college rehire the custodians directly and get rid of the management company that had taken the new contract. Eventually, they succeeded in not only forcing the college to terminate the contract and hire back the custodians as Southampton College employees (restoring TIAA Cref benefits, free tuition benefits, etc.) but the movement resulted in two custodians of color getting promoted; the custodians themselves organizing to bring in a new more powerful union affiliation with the TEAMSTERS; students organizing to pressure administration to offer a course on activism; and even off campus, protests inspired the local community’s Ant-Bias Task Force becoming more militant and demanding changes in local schools and local government. As one faculty suggested during a demonstration, the custodians in particular and the “movement” in general had become some of the most effective educators on campus and in the community. (You can read more about this event in my book, The End of the Hamptons.) 
That may have been a nice rhetorical statement and certainly honored the custodians and their struggle with an appropriate and symbolic nod. But was it true? During a sit-in at the provost’s office, the provost himself defended himself against student demonstrators explaining how he wasn’t a racist and felt attached by people who were calling him a racist. One student replied that no one she knew had called the provost himself a racist, but that the group was arguing the college itself had practiced racism and job segregation and those policies and practices that resulted in racial discrimination were a form of institutional racism that the provost had a moral and legal obligation to address—not support.  The Provost was silent.
Topics ranging from local history and politics; social movement and collective behavior theory; race, ethnicity and other identity construction; organizational behavior, labor, and media studies; and on and on were all on the agenda of a movement that challenged campus and community power and privilege. Such struggles required a vast knowledge base and analytical set of tools in which the experts were those who had been struggling with such power dynamics and institutional forms of stratification and inequality for over 30 years. And t was in the struggle to change some of these dynamics that not only students but a whole community learned about the history and politics of race and class in the region. And they also learned some of the ways to change those dynamics and make a better world. How many of us can say our classrooms do THAT on a regular basis?
All this to say that I believe for those of us educators (and particularly sociologists) the current OCCUPY WALL STREET and related groups and movements offer a unique opportunity to teach about the ways in which a sociological imagination connects the lessons in our classroom to the world outside our classrooms— even if it’s only as far as the cafeteria across the quad or the rest rooms down the hall. In theory, occupy [fill in the blank] is at its very heart a movement about reclaiming space to rethink basic questions, motives and intentions to understand the conditions we live in, how did we get here, and how might we rethink the future of our surrounding institutions, policies, and knowledge production to improve all people’s lives as opposed to benefitting just the few who have the lionshare of power. If this be the philosophical message of the movement, then I would argue we should OCCUPY Everything!—that would be a kind of sociological imagination for everyone I think.


  1. Within society there are numerous social problems that many just accept as social norms. Bias incidents, racial slurs, sexism, ageism, and countless others poison our culture but only a few times have some ever been directly confronted. This article speaks of the students at the University of Long Island’s protest and eventual success in the repositioning of the janitorial staff once fired and replaced by a small business janitorial company. Due to the efforts of the students and members of faculty who participated in the protest, a large contribution to society was made along with the beginnings of the solution to a social problem. The message is simple. Social problems within society are omnipresent and any protest to aid in any of such removal is necessary. The small changes will eventually and hopefully create a world with fewer problems. We must not be bystanders, but problem solvers.

  2. Throughout the first few paragraphs of this article, I found myself comparing the movement at the University of Long Island with the Occupy protests. The one thought on my mind was "If this small group of custodians, students, faculty, and citizens can have such a significant impact with immediate results, why are the thousands of Occupiers across the nation having such a hard time?" And i think that I found my answer in Professor Dolgon's last paragraph, where he mentions the movement. The clear difference between the two (Long Island and Occupy) is that Long Island had a clear initiative, agenda, and action plan. Occupy simply had numbers and media coverage. I think, like you said, we can learn from the Occupy movement. But I think that their failure is more powerful than any of its questionable successes, as we now see exactly what a movement truly needs to bring about the change it desires.

  3. Clearly the Occupy movement and the movement at LIU Southampton can be directly correlated. However the movement at the University actually got something accomplished. I feel as though the Occupy movement is a great idea, but they haven't had a set agenda so they cannot fully put their thoughts into action. It is a very interesting idea that we can Occupy everything and I think that it could be done at some point. However, there are many social problems that need to be occupied. Someone needs to start it as they did with the Occupy movement and the movement at LIU