Emily Wilson

Days of Protest: What the Summer of '68 Has to Teach Us About Organizing on Campus Today

This past spring, students at San Francisco State University took to the streets to protest severe cutbacks to the renowned College of Ethnic Studies, a first-of-its-kind program of its kind when it was established in 1968. Up to 40 percent of the school’s operating budget was on the chopping block, according to the San Francisco Examiner, and students and faculty were eager to push back against what one department chair described as “a backhanded way of dismantling the college.”

At the same time students and teachers were rallying to protect the school’s future, a documentary that looks at its past opened at San Francisco’s Castro Theater. Agents of Change, co-produced and directed by Frank Dawson and Abby Ginzberg, examines the student-led protest movements against the Vietnam War and for civil rights that took hold on campuses across the country in the late 1960s. In the case of SFSU, those struggles led, in part, to the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies, a response to the call for racial justice and “more relevant and meaningful education” for the university’s students.

Agents of Change shows footage of the original protests, the response by the San Francisco Police Department and the four-month student strike. The filmmakers also interviewed activists involved in those original protests, including Jimmy Garrett, who came to SFSU as a recent organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee(SNCC), and eventually became the creator of the Black Studies curriculum at San Francisco State.

Garrett, now a lawyer and retired dean of instruction at Berkeley City College, spoke with AlterNet about his involvement with the film, and his days of protest. He shared his memories of Gov. Ronald Reagan’s attempts to suppress the movement, and how those actions ended up galvanizing support for the strikers instead. Garrett also highlighted the importance of the students’ connection to various labor, faith and community organizations, and the notion of how, as an organizer, one can work oneself out of a job by supporting others to speak out (a good thing). The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Emily Wilson: In the movie, you explain that you wanted to take the skills you’d acquired as an organizer and use them in the struggle at San Francisco State. What skills did you mean?

Jimmy Garrett: I’d been trained as a community organizer with the Congress on Racial Equality first and then the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. So I tried to use those skills when I was tasked with trying to replicate the black students organization that had fostered much of the sit-in movement and the Freedom Rider movement in the Deep South to see if we could build that on a predominately white college campus. A great deal of my efforts were around helping to build and pull together the on and off campus community. I saw myself as a fairly well trained organizer, and that’s what I went on the campus to do.

What I learned while doing that organizing was that as you build organizations, a great many things you come into contact with are not global — they’re day-to-day problem solving. The difference between operating from a client’s perspective and an organizer’s perspective is that if you have clients, your job is to take the lead in solving the client’s problem. If you’re doing organizing, your job is to aid people to develop their own voices, so they can solve their own problems. So I learned that rather than being the spokesperson all the time, you need to put people in position where they have to test their mettle. They’ll learn over time that they can stand alone — and then you can work your way out of a job.

EW: What was the biggest obstacle to organizing at San Francisco State?

Keep reading... Show less

How Ethnic Studies Programs Boost Academic Performance of At-Risk Youth

What does it take to keep at-risk teenagers engaged in school? Sometimes it can be as straightforward as offering programs that reflect a more diverse, inclusive world back at them.

Keep reading... Show less

The Problem with the 'Failing' Schools Label

With the implementation of state standards and assessments to measure student and school performance under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), many public schools have wound up with their curricula painfully narrowed. In too many schools, the focus on testing in language arts and math has led to the erasure of art, physical education and music programs, as schools, particularly in poorer districts, scramble to keep their heads above water to avoid being labeled “failing,” which puts them at risk of incurring devastating sanctions.

The stated goal of NCLB was to bring accountability and additional resources to low-income schools. But a growing list of critics argue that the legislation has instead forced teachers to spend too much of their time teaching to the tests, instead of imparting essential skills to their students — like collaborative and critical thinking — or being able to foster true joy in learning. When standardized tests are one of the only metrics used to assess whether students are learning, schools can often wind up deemed failing, with little regard for what’s actually taking place in the classroom.

Keep reading... Show less

New Program Takes Rare Approach of Treating Homeless People Like Human Beings - And It Works

Alan Nethe, who spent 15 years on the street, answers succinctly when asked what he likes about the new Navigation Center in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Keep reading... Show less

Why There Are High Rates of PTSD In This Teacher's Classroom

In his 22 years of teaching high school English to East Oakland’s teenagers, Jeff Duncan-Andrade has witnessed kids and their families struggle through all kinds of trauma. He has seen how the constant, unrelenting stress – what researchers are now calling toxic stress – that comes from housing, employment and food insecurity, as well as continued violence in the neighborhood, visits a punishing impact on students and how they learn. 

Keep reading... Show less

Actress Anna Deveare Smith Gives a Crash Course in the School-to-Prison Pipeline

In her latest solo show, “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Aug. 2, Anna Deavere Smith looks at the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The term refers to how kids—mostly poor and nonwhite—are being pushed out of school into the criminal justice system through such means as expulsions or suspensions for minor infractions, more police presence in schools, and school-based arrests.

Keep reading... Show less

Why This Man Left His Hip Hop Group to Become a Cop

On Jan. 1, 2009, a white transit officer, Johannes Mehserle, shot a 22-year-old black man, Oscar Grant, at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, CA. Mehserle claims he mistook his gun for his Taser when he killed Grant, who was handcuffed and lying on the ground at the time. Grant’s story rose to national prominence in 2013, with the release of East Bay filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s critically acclaimed movie, Fruitvale Station, starring Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer.

Keep reading... Show less

'Pretty Much a Catastrophe': Anna Deavere Smith and the Disaster of the School-to-Prison Pipeline

In the last 20 years, there has been a shocking rise in the number of schools that embrace zero tolerance policies that regularly leave students suspended, expelled or arrested for the kinds of infractions that once would have meant a trip to the principal’s office. Over the same period of time, police presence in schools has increased dramatically, making it more probable that these same kids will be sucked out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.

Keep reading... Show less

What Made the Chicago Teachers' Strike a Success? Their Commitment to the Community

In a newly published book, Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, Micah Uetricht offers a gripping profile of what has been called, "the most important domestic labor struggle so far this century.”

Keep reading... Show less

Educators at Rural School Suspected of Targeting Native American Students for Harassment

California’s Humboldt County, a mostly rural forested area that sits on the state’s coastline about 100 miles from the Oregon border, has one of the highest populations of Native Americans in the state—about 6 percent. It is also home to Loleta Elementary School, which sits at the center of contentious litigation regarding the treatment of its Native American students; specifically, whether those students are subjected to harassment based on their race.

Keep reading... Show less
BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.