The Democratizing Knowledge Project (DK), a Syracuse University interdisciplinary collective of faculty and graduate students, has been awarded a four-year, $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund a series of summer institutes titled Just Academic Spaces: Creating New Publics through Radical Literacies. Co-directed by Professors Linda Carty and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, the institutes will bring together faculty, advanced doctoral students and activist-scholars from the Humanities and Social Sciences across the US to understand the current state of US higher education, explore productive dialogues between community organizations and activists, and scholar-activists in the academy and build collaborations and strategies to create a more just academy.
“For a number of decades now, higher education in the United States has been shifting under the influence of market principles, focusing on cutting costs and increasing profits, while distancing itself from communities who do not have access to its resources,” says Carty, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Sociology. “Correspondingly, the humanities and humanistic social sciences, which are often viewed as less profitable than STEM or industry-specific fields, have been devalued. Our goal is to figure out how collaborations among diverse publics may be used to forge strategies to create a just academy.”
15-20 scholars from across the country will participate in five days of workshops and site visits. The institutes will begin with an intellectual, pedagogical and curricular orientation using humanistic readings to situate the current state of higher education institutions and the communities in which they are located. Participants will partake in skills-building workshops along with visiting different community centers and sites with the goal of producing a final project that will create pedagogical and curricular responses to challenges at other institutions. The institutes will culminate in a two-day conference that will bring in community members to dialogue with participants and allow participants to reflect on bringing their new knowledge to their home institutions and communities.
“We will bring together activists—academic and non-academic, alike—to articulate how these collaborations can build new, sometimes unexpected, kinds of publics in the borderlands between critical academic scholarship and community-based knowledges and organizations,” says Mohanty, Distinguished Professor of Women & Gender Studies (WGS), and Dean’s Professor of the Humanities, “In the process, we’ll seek to identify the ‘radical literacies’ that are generated in these borderlands, understanding them as place-based ways of reading power relations and generating alternative possibilities for making knowledge, history, and community.”
After a year of planning and preparation, the first Institute will be hosted by Syracuse University in 2016. The 2017 Institute will be hosted by Rutgers University at Newark and the 2018 Institute by Spelman College. Syracuse participants in 2016 will likely visit La Casita Cultural Center, the New Dunbar Center, and Art Rage – projects that produce social justice interventions, validate marginalized experiences, and create radical literacies to empower their communities. “These centers have faculty ties to the DK Project and, thus, share our mission and vision,” says Carty, whose activism encompasses labor and HIV/AIDS issues.
Movements to democratize American institutions of higher education in the 1950s and 1960s led to open admissions policies that admitted more poor and minority students and helped create many ethnic and gender studies departments. However, the rise of neoliberal policies of privatization, corporatization and commercialization created the current neoliberal, profit-driven university that values STEM over the Humanities and that excludes its neighboring community, which stands to benefit most from the university. Syracuse—one of the nation’s poorest cities, with a poverty rate of more than 33 percent—will serve as a natural laboratory for the DK Summer Institute.
“This neoliberal restructuring [of higher education] has created an exclusionary, unequal environment where everyone competes for resources and political power. Thus, only knowledge with a guaranteed quantifiable outcome is deemed to have value. For instance, humanities and social justice oriented curricula are being increasingly devalued, and seen as economically irrelevant, thus alienating neighboring communities and further marginalizing poor minority students and faculty of color” adds Mohanty, an expert in antiracist and transnational feminist theory.
Carty hopes that the DK Summer Institute will inspire participants to return to their home institutions and organizations and implement similar programs. “We want them to use the DK Collective as a model of collective, sustained community engagement that can be shared with different publics who are interested in community and academic knowledges and activism,” she says.
An expert in antiracism, Black feminisms, and Marxism, Carty is an advocate of Black women’s labor in the Americas and of Black women’s health care in the United States and the Caribbean. Carty has contributed essays to books and journals all over the world mostly on the topics related to her activism.
Carty enjoys a close association with Mohanty, whose work encompasses anti-capitalist praxis, anti-racist education, and the politics of knowledge. Mohanty is the author and editor of five books, including Feminism
Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Duke University Press, 2003), and is series editor of Comparative Feminist Studies (Palgrave/Macmillan). She has published more than three dozen essays, including “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” which has been used in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies courses worldwide for more than two decades. She works with various grassroots organizations, including the Municipal Services Project, a transnational research and advocacy group seeking alternatives to privatization in the Global South.
Conceived as a Chancellor’s Leadership Project, DK prides itself on fostering a more open, inclusive, democratic culture in higher education. Since its inception in 2009, the collective has become a space for faculty members and students to showcase scholar-activism and to hold conversations about how to create a just academy, how to ensure recognition and respect for various bodies of knowledge, how to build awareness of and interrogate the hierarchical structure of knowledge production, and how to make knowledge production accessible to all.
In addition to Mohanty and Carty, the collective is made up of Hayley Cavino, a Ph.D. candidate in Education; Carol Fadda-Conrey, Associate Professor of English; Marcelle Haddix, Dean’s Associate Professor of English Education; Silvio Torres-Saillant, Professor of English and Latino/Latin-American Studies; Paula Johnson, Professor of Law; Dana Olwan, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies; Jackie Orr, Associate Professor of Sociology; Mario Rios-Perez, Assistant Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education; Stephanie Fetta, Assistant Professor of Spanish, and Mary Rose Go, DK program assistant. The late Sari K. Biklen, Professor Emerita in the School of Education was a key member of the DK Collective for many years—she is sorely missed.