Thank you to the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities for inviting me to talk about my research. We had a fun, far-ranging conversation about how public schools anchor neighborhoods, how today’s crises of social reproduction play out for teachers, and why CUNY should be free:
Author Archives: Claire Cahen
Labor geography has developed in fits and starts (Peck, 2018). The subfield had its genesis in Andrew Herod’s incitement (2001) to balance capital-centric accounts of geographic restructuring with explorations of labor’s agency in producing place and space. But the U.S. labor movement has weakened since this initial call, and scholars, like myself, interested in how workers create their own spatial fixes in the face of capital flight have fewer possible case studies to draw from. As Mitchell (2011) observes, any inquiry into labor’s geography today must consider the spaces workers fail to create or transform. Peck (2016) adds that, with union density so low, it is more important than ever to understand worker’s agency as relational, exercised in specific environmental contexts, through iterative response to constraint and opportunity.
The thrust of these arguments is easy enough to digest. I take them as guiding principles in my research on teacher unions and resistance to austerity. Still though, I have often had my doubts that my work truly has a spatial dimension. While financial industries are busy buying and selling public school buildings, remaking the places in which we live and reproduce ourselves, are workers and teacher unions having any impact at all? Moreover, while teacher unions need to adapt their organizing strategies to fit the particularities of each place, is location in this kind of analysis anything more than a canvas against which workers band and disband? Is place just a backdrop against which more “sociological” phenomena unfold?
Only recently have I felt on surer footing as I call my research labor geography. It has become increasingly clear to me that spatial organization impacts and is impacted by union activity, even in the context of labor movement decline.
In Newark, a city one of my informants termed “anti-colonial,” residential segregation comes up routinely as an obstacle to teacher organizing. Most educators who teach in Newark do not live in the city. I’ve yet to come across an official statistic, though I’ve heard estimates that about 75% of teachers live outside city borders. One informant laughed as we talked about this: “my colleagues get the hell out at 2:50 pm.” This seems to be the general consensus. I ask in interviews whether and how it matters that most teachers live in “the suburbs,” which is also, of course, code for “most teachers are white, most students are not.” Interviewees temper their words as they answer, invariably beginning by defending educators: “it’s not that they don’t care about the issues impacting Newark (e.g. lead poisoning).” It is, however, that the geographies between which teachers commute are so uneven, so different in terms of stability and racial and class make-up, that sustaining buy-in to Newark-based activism is difficult. Teachers, however well-meaning, are outsiders; activists I’ve spoken with argue that most teachers can dissociate from Newark’s poverty when they drive back to their (presumed) single-family suburban homes. Convincing them to stay to organize with a social justice caucus devoted to creating a more egalitarian Newark is difficult.
The notion of privileged and disconnected suburban teachers is also deeply imprinted in the imaginary of Newark parents and students. It is the image that Newark’s political class has often invoked to discredit teacher activism–why are outsiders agitating? What do they know about how Newarkers live? This compounds a whole host of issues impacting education, and as teacher activists reach out to parents, they recognize that–as a whole–they are sometimes seen as representatives of a racist school system, not necessarily members of “the community.”
I’m still sorting through my thoughts about this. Social justice caucuses have made it a priority to fight for the public interest, writ large. They have demands for affordable housing, for an end to ICE in schools, for public green space, etc. Because no public is pre-formed, their organizing actually takes on the work of building an engaged polity. There is a question though of whether a public can constitute itself when it is so geographically dispersed across uneven terrain?
The challenges that Newark unionists face in engaging teachers who live elsewhere add to the reasons segregation and suburbanization has harmed class struggle. It is not just that suburbanization promotes fiscal gating, the hoarding and uneven distribution of public tax money. It is not just that suburbanizations syphons a section of workers into the gates of a nebulous middle class, all the while stoking racialized fears of the “city.” It is that this segregation undermines social justice unionism.
Herod, A. (2001). Labor geographies: Workers and the landscapes of capitalism. New York : Guilford Press.
Mitchell, D. (2011). Labor’s Geography: Capital, Violence, Guest Workers and the Post-World War II Landscape. Antipode, 43(2), 563.
Peck, J. (2016). The Right to Work, and the Right at Work. Economic Geography, 92(1), 4–30.
Peck, J. (2018). Pluralizing Labour Geography. In The New Oxford Handbook of Economic Geography. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
Thoughts on Philipe Levine, Poetry, Geography, and Capital Flight
I began reading poet Philip Levine my senior year of college. I was unionizing the school cafeteria workers at the time, and though, improbably, I was still enrolled in classes, I struggled to produce for my poetry workshop. I penned a few lines about the workers–not about the indignities of the workplace per se, but about their home lives and the steady re-creation of a familiar existence in a foreign country. (Most of the workers were from central Mexico.) I wrote of the large backyard weddings I was sometimes invited to, of the trips to the junkyard to fix our cars, and of the languid afternoons spent listening to Mexican (but oh so Californian) radio and drinking cheap beers on the stoops of mobile homes. I wrote of the desolate post-industrial landscape of the Inland Empire of California, this place to which we had all relocated, I from France, they from much closer and, somehow, much farther. I tried to capture my long drives back to my apartment through the foothills when, having been immersed in Spanish for hours, I could almost forget I was in the U.S. I also wrote of how these workers—my camarades and compañeros–scraped together a domestic even when ends did not meet.
This poetry was overly sentimental. Embarrassed, I turned it in anyway: my commitment was no longer to my schoolwork. It was to this campaign, to the fight for a union and, more fundamentally, a work life that could match the poise and generosity of the workers themselves. My energy was dedicated to the struggle for a work life that could redeem—to whatever extent possible—the gut-wrenching immigration journey north.
My professor, Claudia Rankine, was quite generous herself. The mess of lyric prose I’d drafted could well have been left alone, but, instead, she pushed, pointing me to Philip Levine, “a poet,” she emphasized, “who writes about working people and does it well.” The more I read, the more I understood what she meant: Levine is a poet sensitive to the textures of working class lives; he is after the dignity of his subjects, whom he never pities.
A decade later, Levine continues to provide me with inspiration as I reread a remarkable essay of his called Nobody’s Detroit. The piece contemplates the reversal of fortunes of the Motor City, Levine’s hometown. He asks: is Detroit a city in which people’s “life work” is “only a footnote to the history of American idiocy and hubris?” (Levine, 2018, p.51). Is it a city that has “stepped out of history and simply begun to disappear block by block?” (Levine, 2018, p.50). No, he asserts, bringing to life the grandeur of “the isolated and inconsequential, of all that refuses to not be” (Levine, 2018, p.50). By the end of the essay, I am brushing away tears.
What is it about the story of capital flight—of workers and work left behind—that moves me so? This is not the story of any place I might call home. Paris, L.A., and New York are unjust cities, but they are unjust and overdeveloped. So why does this narrative grip me, so much so that it forms the backdrop of my current dissertation research on Newark?
Partly, I am haunted by the recognition that capital disinvestment from place prompts mass migration. When jobs leave, people leave: this is extraordinarily painful for those who stay and those who depart. My pain sharpens when I think of the fights of previous generations of workers to have a little bit of control over their lives, the sacrifices they made that carried them to victories which today, in the boarded auto factories of Detroit, more closely resemble defeats. Are residents of entire towns and countries to accept that they are so at the mercy of the flows of capital that they must become “indifferent to the geography of home”? (Levine, 2018, p.41). Was that not one of the lessons I learned in my very first worker organizing drive in the Inland Empire?
Maybe. But I had just made a momentous move from France to California at the time, searching a place to lay roots and, had this been my sole conclusion, it would have been rather devastating.
Actually, this was not what I learned. I was awakened much more vividly to the possibilities of recreating a home elsewhere, of the dignity of that task, which can only be accomplished through collective struggle. Places, like work sites, have to be fought for, and gains—however partial—will be made along the way by virtue of camaraderie and solidarity. The thrust of my disposition was then and remains today optimistic. Rereading essays like Nobody’s Detroit provides occasion to grieve what needs to be grieved, all the while recognizing the richness of mundane moments of everyday life, which never quits. My research builds from there. I seek answers for why places evolve the way they do and how workers, myself included, will change that evolution.
 Implausibly, I would resurface some these poems years later and publish them in Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey’s Hard Crackers. I cannot begin to repay the debt I owe to Claudia for pushing me to write and introducing me to poetry that, to this day, keeps me going.
Levine, P. (2018). Nobody’s Detroit. In My Lost Poets (pp. 37–51). Alfred A. Knopf.
To Reopen Schools Safely, Reject Austerity
Just dropping in here to share an article I helped write on behalf of NEW Caucus. The message is simple–to reopen schools, reject austerity: https://www.nj.com/opinion/2020/07/what-if-we-did-things-differently-to-make-schools-safe-in-the-age-of-covid-opinion.html.
The Psychology of Global Crises
Back in May, I participated in a conference on the Psychology of Global Crises. The conference was international and brought together psychologists from different corners of the globe to discuss how to make sense of and intervene in a world in crisis. My academic training has been interdisciplinary, and only rarely do I find myself in a space like that conference, where scholars are grounded in one shared field. But I loved hearing their perspectives on the current conjuncture.
I presented on my dissertation research in Newark, relating the fieldwork I’ve done on the normalization and contestation of austerity to the Covid crisis. This was not a stretch. When public schools shut down in Newark in March and teachers were given less than a day to clear out their classrooms, one of the first questions they asked was whether the crisis and forthcoming 2020 recession would occasion further restructuring and disinvestment in schools. The wave of school closures and privatization that occurred post-2008 was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Teachers, community members and researchers like myself shared an apprehension of reforms to come.
I submitted the following abstract to the conference:
Urban Crisis and The Reaffirmation of the Public Good
This presentation explores how teacher unionism has recently revived in the U.S. I draw from a case study of Newark, New Jersey, where, in 2013, some teachers split from their union leadership and formed a social justice caucus focused on strengthening community ties and ending austerity in public schools. The caucus has now grown to engage educators, parents, and students in campaigns to bargain for the “common good,” including for smaller class sizes, the closure of the city’s jails and immigrant detention centers, and, perhaps most pressingly, the replacement of the city’s lead-contaminated pipes. The notion that unions could organize for more egalitarian cities very much animated the U.S. labor movement in the past. In the post-industrial era however, the scope of unionism has narrowed and, today, the kinds of claims we are hearing from teachers, not just in Newark but across the country, remain unique. This presentation asks three interrelated questions: why teachers? why unions? why now? I suggest the answer lies in contemporary experiences of urban crises, which confront both teachers and students to a devaluation of human life, and a vacuum of political leadership willing to defend basic public welfare.
Here is a recorded video of my presentation:
If you get a chance to take a look, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Covid, Confinement, and Public Writing
A year has come and gone and, though I have paid for a renewal of my WordPress subscription, I have hardly written in this blog. I aim to fix that now and hope my resolve will hold steady. I free-write often on other platforms, and really don’t quite know what’s stopping me from doing so here about my research, which, even in the midst of a global pandemic, continues to consume so much of my head-space. Surely, I think to myself, the matter is one of discipline. I pencil some weekly blogging sessions into my calendar.
But, truth be told, I suspect that something a bit more fundamental about my relationship to the digital world is at play. I am social-media averse. I gave up on Facebook after a year, and ignored other platforms altogether, even as they gained popularity and proved to be relatively important tools for things that are important to me, like political organizing. Sometimes I feared I lacked the wit to engage them with proper levity. Other times I felt shy, and unwilling to put myself on digital display. I did not know how to do so without some level of curation, which, to my mind, translated to artifice, something I rejected with every bone in my body.
I shunned the online for the past decade and now find myself giving in. Oh well. So things go.
In March of 2020, as the highly contagious Coronavirus leapt oceans and made its way across New York City, the northeast of the US went into lockdown. My level of social contact–much like that of most New Yorkers–has shrunk. My world is more confined than I ever remember it being, and I’ve had to admit to myself how important blogs have been to maintaining a connection to the lives and thoughts of others. I’ve indulged in blogs that read more like public diaries, as well as more serious, intellectual material. These public writings have helped keep me anchored, and I think it is time to move my free-writing about my academic work from the private confines of my Google Drive to this open sphere. Over the next weeks, I will be posting some of the work I have done throughout this lockdown, including virtual conference presentations, op-eds I have published, and some free-roaming thoughts about the current conjuncture and its impact on my research on austerity and privatization in Newark. I’m even looking forward to it. More soon!
Welcome to my personal blog
On this page you will find my personal blog posts. I use the word “personal” here to distinguish these posts from the blog series I help maintain for other university organizations/ platforms, and, notably, those I write for City Tech’s OpenLab. In the posts below, I am writing as myself–a PhD candidate, an urbanist, a researcher, and educator. These writings concern my research and teaching. They are often reflective, sometimes argumentative, and, above all, exploratory. I use categories and tags to help organize these posts: posts labeled “pedagogy” treat topics such as teaching and leading workshops at CUNY (City University of New York). Posts labeled “research” reflect on my (often ethnographic) fieldwork investigating urban austerity and social movements for public investment. As with all reflective writing, these posts provide a starting point to make sense of my thoughts and experiences. But I also hope they will be helpful for others–perhaps PhD students and academics researching similar topics, perhaps other educators in public universities. As much as possible, I aim to share resources here that I have found enhance my work. I also aim to write about things that I encounter that I hope will resonate with others working in urban studies, urban education, and more.
Feel free to comment, collaborate, share concern and free-roaming thoughts!