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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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'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.

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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.”

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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.

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What It's Really Like to Be a Black Student at an Elite Private School

How do race and class affect education in the United States? That’s the question at the heart of American Promise, a documentary that follows two African American boys from their middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood to the prestigious Dalton School, one of Manhattan’s top-tier private academies.

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The Huge Growth of MOOCs Threatens America's Great Public University System

In a college-level course about social justice issues, you can often find students sitting in a circle discussing society’s inequalities with one another. But in Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s JusticeX class, a massive open online course (MOOC), tens of thousands of students watch Sandel lecturing on, among other things, affirmative action, income distribution, same-sex marriage and property rights all from their laptops.

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A Disappointing Daughter? Interview with Acclaimed Comic Shazia Mirza

Shazia Mirza was raised in a strict Muslim household in Birmingham, UK, by Pakistani parents, who wanted her to be a doctor or a lawyer. Her dream was to write or act, but she reluctantly got a degree in biochemistry and became a science teacher at a school in London. She took comedy-writing classes at night and began performing at small clubs in London, and, a few weeks after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, she got on stage wearing her hijab, and started off her act: “My name is Shazia Mirza . . . at least that’s what it says on my pilot’s license.”

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How Compulsive Hoarding Can Threaten Your Health and Take Over Your Life

For some people, it’s Civil War memorabilia, for others old newspapers and magazines, and for some old yogurt containers and plastic bags. Some of us might have a drawer or a closet filled with things we have been meaning to sort through, but for compulsive hoarders, getting rid of objects that seem worthless to others can be agonizing, and their stuff ends up taking over their lives.

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Will Cities Soon Be Able to Feed Themselves?

Skyrocketing food costs, worries about food security and an urge to do things ourselves have led to a huge surge in urban farming -- gardens in backyards, on roofs, in abandoned lots and even, in the dream of a Columbia professor and his students, in high-rise buildings in the middle of cities.

During World Wars I and II, victory gardens were considered a patriotic effort to take the pressure off the food supply and to boost morale by having people see their labor translated into produce.

An urban farmer in Oakland, Esperanza Pallana, doesn't necessarily garden as a patriotic effort, but she does enjoy what her work in the garden gives her.

"There are so many things I like about it, besides just having a food supply, though it is like magic to go out in backyard and get eggs that are fresh and delicious and to have a source of honey," she says. "It's so satisfying when I sit down to a meal and 75 percent is straight out of the backyard."

Pallana didn't start her garden with the thought of growing anything edible -- she merely wanted to fix up her front yard, which was so messy that people routinely threw trash in it. A peach tree in the yard inspired her to plant more food, but she says she just bought things at the nursery and put them in the ground; she had no idea about harvesting the food. After birds ate the broccoli she had planted, she determined to learn what she was doing and started again. Now her garden, along with produce, includes bees, turkeys and chickens.

Pallana's interest in soil and food systems has taken over her life. She now works at Urban Sprouts, a nonprofit school gardens organization, and she says she has seen the interest in urban farming grow in the four years she has been doing it.

"When we built our chicken coop, we had to design it ourselves -- I couldn't find anything about how to do it," she says. "Now there are all these books and designs online. I just see a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about this."

Barbara Finnin, the executive director of Oakland's City Slicker Farm, also sees that excitement with the people she works with in the organization's Backyard Garden Program, which helps low-income people start their own gardens.

"They tell us they didn't think it was possible to get this from a dirt patch full of weeds," Finnin says. "People feel like they have access in their backyard and they can go to pick some lettuce and collards and cook. They are really engaged with, literally, the fruits of their labor."

Having accessible healthy food is particularly important in West Oakland, where City Slicker Farm is located, Finnin says. The 21,000 residents have to leave their neighborhood to get to a grocery store, and many of them, she adds, don't have a car. To meet that immediate need for fresh food, City Slicker started in 2001 by setting up a stand and giving away food; now the organization has six lots that produce about 10,000 pounds of produce, which is sold on a sliding scale.

More and more urban agriculture projects are springing up throughout the country. When Taja Sevelle moved to Detroit in 2005 and saw the hunger, vacant lots and health problems associated with lack of fresh food, she decided that growing food on unused land was the answer. Her organization, Urban Farming, now has about 600 community gardens, many of them in Detroit, but throughout the United States and the world as well. Its lofty mission is to "eradicate hunger."

This may seem daunting, but Executive Director Sevelle, who studied to be a botanist before signing a record contract with Prince, thinks this is a reachable goal. She points to the success of the victory gardens and says her organization fed about a quarter of a million people in Detroit last year.

"This is absolutely doable. It needs to be solved and can be solved," she says. "More and more I'm seeing and hearing people making bold statements. Look at the amazing things we've done as humans. If we're able to go to the moon, certainly we can solve the problem of hunger."

Sevelle says a standard size garden of 20 feet by 20 feet will produce a quarter to a third of a ton of food and that food banks define a meal as one pound of food. Savelle sees opportunity to grow that food everywhere: Her organization plants school and rooftop gardens, and works with corporations to do edible landscaping.

But we don't live by produce alone. Kristin Reynolds, from the Small Farm Program at the University of California, applauds people's efforts to grow food for themselves, but she thinks people wouldn't be able to really feed themselves without growing grains.

"I think it would be very difficult to be self-sufficient," she says. "And I question whether that is the best use of space."

Urban farming the way Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier envisions it includes grains. Despommier and his graduate students in a medical ecology class came up with a plan they call vertical farming, which would allow farming in high-rises. It's estimated that by 2050, the population will grow by at least 3 billion and about 80 percent of the world will live in urban centers. That means we need to find a new way to produce more food, Despommier says. And corn, wheat and rice are easy to grow indoors, says the professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology.

There would be no soil in a vertical farm -- things would be grown using in the air with a method called aeroponics; or hydroponically, where plants are grown in a mineral nutrient. The energy would come from a variety of sources, including geothermal, wind, solar and incinerated sewage, and the water would be recycled.

Despommier says there are all sorts of reasons why his plan is the way to go. He cites the advantages of growing food indoors: no weather-related disasters, no plant diseases, no chemical sprays, lower water usage and lower food miles. All that is needed to make it happen is money and political will, he says. And Despommier is confident that we'll see vertical farming within the next decade, as governments get more concerned about food.

"I can guarantee you there are city councils meeting right now about this," Dickson says. "Dubai is very interested, and Shanghai and Las Vegas. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is pursuing this idea, and the Department of the Environment in San Francisco is interested."

Kevin Drew, the special projects coordinator at that department, says he and his colleagues are intrigued by the possibilities, particularly Despommier's projection of the land now used for farming going back to nature.

"His notion that you could replace a lot or all farming on the land is one of the most radical," he says. "Then you'd let the earth go back to forests and wetlands, which are some of the most efficient climate drivers in the right direction."

Drew says San Francisco already has community and school gardens that grow food, but vertical farming would increase the amount of food the city could produce. He admits to being slightly skeptical at the thought of a 30-story building supplying enough food for 50,000, as Despommier suggests, but says it's an idea he wants to explore.

"Given state of pot farming in California, there is ample evidence extremely effective farming can be done inside, not growing in soil," he says.

Drew says the agency is looking at trying to retrofit existing buildings or perhaps putting a vertical farming building in some of the more toxic areas of San Francisco.

"You could spend umpty-umph million trying to get the toxicity out of soil, or you could pour six feet of concrete over it and call it done," he says.

Sadhu Johnston, the chief environmental officer for the city of Chicago, says city officials there are committed to urban agricultural and locally produced food. And with the constraints of weather and land in the city, Johnston says he would like to see food grown in high-rises -- he believes doing so could revitalize neighborhoods and employ people. Vertical farming would also cut down on water use by not spraying and save transportation costs of food being shipped in, Johnston says.

Growing food locally would undoubtedly save on transportation, says Bruce Bugbee, a professor of crop physiology at Utah State University. But he scoffs at the rice-in-the-sky idea because he believes the energy costs of growing food indoors are far too great.

"It can't work. That's the quick answer," Bugbee says. "The electric bill will make it far more expensive than what you can buy in the stores, and the produce is of lesser quality. And I'm saying that from 25 years of working with NASA, growing food in controlled environments."

Bugbee argues that we won't, as Despommier suggests, run out of land to grow food on.

"China has five times the population of the U.S., and they feed themselves," he says. "This is a horrible ecological idea because it takes such massive amounts of energy to run it whereas sunlight is free. It looks good to somebody who's never tried it."

But Despommier is undaunted by criticism. He says there are all kinds of alternative sources of energy to be tried, such as sun and wind. Despommier also wants to recycle waste, the way he says cities in Europe do.

"We're not behaving very ecologically," he says. "Today, Germany incinerates everything. Why don't we do that? Because we're living in the 19th century."

Despommier cheerfully admits that at first vertical farming will need to be subsidized -- the way farms are now, he says.

"At first nobody is going to make any money whatsoever doing vertical farming," he says. "But what you will make is food, and tell me you don't need that."

Are Men Threatened by Funny Women?

"Comedy is so unfeminine," says comedian Judy Gold. "It's so powerful. I mean if you think about it, it's you and a microphone and a bunch of people listening to you."

Gold thinks society is still not accustomed to women having that power. "For a woman, it's like, 'That's interesting, keep it to yourself, shut up,'" she says.

Having done standup for 20 years, Gold has spent a lot of time thinking about the role of women in comedy. She shares some of her observations in a new documentary, Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, which she introduced at the Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco.

The six comedians featured in the film are Yiddish actress Molly Picon, Fanny Brice of the Ziegfield Follies, vaudeville star Sophie Tucker, Gilda Radner of Saturday Night Live, Joan Rivers, who went from the comedy club circuit in New York City to the red carpet for E!, and playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Gold says these comedians opened doors for her and her colleagues.

"These women were so amazing," she says. "I mean, here it is 2007 and the only real barriers I have are George Bush and the people who like him, but with Sophie Tucker and Molly Picon, look what they did during those times when there were such prescribed roles for women. When women were just supposed to have kids and maybe drink martinis because they were so miserable."

It's important to tell those women's stories, says Lauren Antler, a program manager with the Jewish Women's Archive, which produced the film. "The comedians in the movie show women it's OK to be funny, and you don't have to be a supermodel to be on stage."

A stand-up comic herself, Antler says most people don't expect women to make them laugh, and when she was growing up, boys at school thought her sense of humor just made her weird.

"People think it's an anomaly to be funny and female," she said.

Stand-up comic Beck Krefting, who is working on a dissertation about women and comedy at the University of Maryland, says it's not socially sanctioned for girls to be funny.

"It's OK for guys to crack jokes and be the class clown, but if a girl did it, she was marked the strange one," she says. "That was true in elementary school and high school and then on the stage."

And, Krefting adds, Women comics constantly have to prove they can do their job.

"I feel like I have to work a lot harder to get my audience's respect," she says. "When a guy comes up, there's this assumption that he's funny, but when a woman comes on, there's a very slight but very present skepticism, like, 'Are you sure you're funny?'"

Krefting agrees with Gold that men are uncomfortable with women having the power associated with humor. "When you're the one cracking the joke, you're in control of the conversation," she says. "Men are the ones supposed to be in control."

Rather than being in charge, society gives girls the message that they need to be quiet and well-behaved, says Andi Zeisler, a co-founder and editor at Bitch, a magazine about feminism and pop culture.

"A lot of people are threatened by funny women," she says. "Women are just not socialized to use comedy as power. We're socialized to play nice. It seems weird that comedy should be so subversive in these times, but it still really is."

Zeisler says we need to look at who is defining what is funny. "I always say it's like a Zen koan," she says. "If a woman makes a joke and a man doesn't laugh, is it funny? I think women are said to have a great sense of humor when they laugh at men's jokes, not when they make jokes themselves."

Sense of humor is defined differently for men and women, says Gina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut.

"If you say to a man, 'I know a woman who has a great sense of humor and you've got to meet her,' they think she weighs 300 pounds and has an eye in the middle of her forehead," Barreca says. "If you say to a woman, 'This guy has a great sense of humor; you have to meet him,' she immediately thinks he's cute and will be a great lover and fun to be around. People think the girls who are desirable don't speak, so the syllogism is don't speak to be desirable."

Barreca, who has written several books on humor, including They Used to Call Me Snow White ... but I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor, says that means just speaking up can be a subversive act for women.

"Every time a woman gets up and says something besides 'Oh I love how you parallel park,' we are making strides for feminism," she says.

According to Krefting, the subversive nature of comedy makes it powerful. "You're laughing the whole time, but you're still getting it," she says. "It's not didactic or beating you over the head, but it's a way of saying what you want to say and hav[ing] people hear you and maybe even start[ing] to change their minds."