If activism isn’t grounded in community, it will only hinder the growth of a movement.
Northwestern Students at an Anti-Vietnam War Protest in 1970. Photo courtesy of NU Archives.
Movements to abolish police and divest from weapons manufacturers and private prisons have spurred across the country. Universities like Northwestern have been alarmingly silent or condemnatory, but we cannot be surprised. As we rethink systems that perpetuate harm, it’s imperative that we consider the roadblock educational institutions pose in our path toward liberation and how to reimagine these spaces.
University investments in the prison-industrial complex
Universities are at fault for investing in the prison-industrial complex, or the rapid expansion of incarceration for the purpose of profiting off cheap prison labor. Two major corporations receive monetary endorsements from higher education: CoreCivic and the GEO Group, the two largest private prison operators in the U.S. According to Rolling Stone, the private prison industry has grown 784% at the federal level in 20 years, which is one of the reasons the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. CoreCivic has faced charges of medical neglect, understaffing of its facilities and abuse of inmates. Many universities, including Northwestern, have shares in these corporations and feed the rapid expansion of inmate populations across the country. Even as students across the country try to hold their universities accountable for these investments and call on them to reinvest in life-giving institutions, universities continue to ignore student demands. Therefore, merely attending the University is also an investment in the carceral state. Academia even puts on a mask of advocacy for the greater good.
Academia’s appropriation of activism
Some academics use their qualifications and epistemic authority to posit themselves at the forefront of social movements. They deem it necessary to use their privileged status to further “social justice,” or rather proclaim what they think is best. However, activism within the context of academia is antithetical, because activism often works within a horizontal structure—not by asserting whose ideas are more valid because of a degree. Some academic-activists aren’t aware that they shove aside people that don’t have a college education, and that their words can be inaccessible to communities that are important to reach.
Even thinking of the works of abolitionist scholars, it’s hard to avoid obtuse terminology in their texts, because that is what they know. If activism isn’t grounded in community, it will only hinder the growth of a movement. Of course, some academics champion some worthy causes, but others fail to acknowledge the harm they cause. The academic activist is self-selected for their job and does not seek approval from the communities that they are accountable to. Many academics are career academics and are more concerned with their curriculum vitae and how many citations they get in academic journals. As Avery Gordan, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, said in Ghostly Matters, academic disciplines are “mostly distracted by [their] own insular professional affairs and doomed to irrelevance or subservient collaborationism.”
What Resistance Looks Like
Institutions chastise educators and students alike for wanting more from them. Educators are told to write more articles for journals, to stop focusing on community organizing. Students are told to engage in their school work, to stop protesting. We are told to focus on our studies even though we know that liberation does not necessitate the University. Academia and elite institutions were not made for queer, low-income or BIPOC students, so why not do whatever we want? We can recognize the University as a space for radicalization, but we should credit the exceptional people in academia that push for revolution—not the institution. Some educators do want to engage students in liberatory practices, but the University is not meant for the cultivation of liberation. Academia would rather maintain its structures than be made anew. Instead of fixating on the University as the sole source of education, it’s important to acknowledge other sources of knowledge that have been decimated and devalued by academics, including grassroots organizing.
Academia seeks to create a different skill set and way of thinking, but that includes equipping academics with words and thoughts that are inherently elitist and inaccessible. If we don’t reexamine the conditions in which we exist, it will be impossible to reach collective liberation. While operating within the University, we can be accountable to the communities that we have and continue to disrupt academia together.