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.