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!