Melissa: Welcome back to The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 3% of tenure track faculty in the United States are Latino. The numbers of tenured and tenure track Latino faculty at elite universities is even smaller. This despite the fact that Latinos compromised nearly 19% of the population and are the fastest-growing ethnicity here in the United States.
Afro Latina professor and scholar of Latinx studies, Lorgia Garcia-Peña, was among the most beloved teachers at Harvard University, where she served on faculty from 2013 to 2021. She often found that the simple act of teaching class subjected her and her students to scrutiny and surveillance by campus police.
Lorgia: While I was at Harvard, beginning my first year, I developed a course that I call Performing Latinidad. It's a performance class. It had an active component, a workshop if you will, where students were working groups building a performance together based on class material, I would usually invite a performance artist to train them and to work with them. Over the years, it became such an important thing for the Latinx Community on campus that people across campus would email me and look forward to when is the annual performance? When are your students doing this thing on the Yard?
Every single year, there was some incident. The first year, we were getting ready to have class outside and to practice our performance and someone called the Harvard Campus Police and reported us and said that there was a group of protestors on campus. The assumption was that a bunch of students of color couldn't possibly be students of color. That happened the first year, this is 2014. It continued to happen every single year of my teaching. I would take many steps.
I would reach out to the Dean of the College and to the staff person in charge of events and make sure that they knew that my students enrolling Performing Latinidad will be on the Harvard Yard and we will be doing this or that and give them a route and tell them what we're going, where we walking, what we're doing. No matter how many steps I took, somebody always call the police. The police will always come and harass my students and harass me, including my very last semester teaching. There were two moments that were particularly violent.
One was in 2016. This is right before the elections. My class decided that the theme for the performance would be tackle trucks in every corner of the Harvard Yard to think about the the politics of the moment. It ended up being a beautiful performance and students engaged even the tourists that were around join us in the procession. Sure enough, we had campus police show up and harassed some of my students who happened to be undocumented and it was very traumatic. Then, as I was walking home that day to my car, two guys threw a cup of hot coffee at me while yelling, "Build a wall."
This is happening on campus and I don't know that the university did enough to protect me or my students. My last year in 2019, again while teaching the same class before the performance even happened as we were setting up my students were harassed by the Harvard Police and they went to get me in my office. I ran. I was like, "I cannot believe this is happening again. How is this possible?" The police questioned whether I was a professor or not. I had to show ID. It was a really drawn-out and traumatic day for my students. This is a week before or so. I was denied tenure.
Melissa: Help folks understand who are not in the academy. It's funny I have a 20-year-old daughter who was born when I was an assistant professor. During her whole life, she's heard me talk about first trying to get tenure and then doing tenure reviews and all that. Apparently, her whole childhood, she thought I was saying the words 10-year. She was, "Oh, what? Tenure? That's a whole different--? What are you talking about here?" For folks who don't know the weird world that we live and work in, help people understand what tenure is and how it's used by institutions to convey who is and is not valuable to the institution.
Lorgia: Tenure in theory, it's a very unique system to academia, which basically means it guarantees employment for life. You cannot be fired from your job unless you break the law or you do something really terrible once you get tenure. The process to obtain tenure is lengthy. There are three stages. There's the assistant professor which is usually a new implemented PhD, and then associate professor which it's for most people is when they receive tenure, and then the holy grail, the full professor. In the process, tenure is meant to protect academic freedom.
It is meant to allow scholars to write, and to teach, and to speak about difficult subjects without fear of losing their job. Meaning, criticizing the state when necessary or corporations. In reality, the way that tenure operates at this time of age is as a reward system. It is something that is vested upon some faculty, the minority of people in the university who do the teaching. It is very much convoluted with political-economic at times ideas of what the university should be, how the university should operate.
Consistently, it is a process that is harder for scholars of color particularly women of color and for scholars who are in interdisciplinary less established fields.
Melissa: You were denied tenure by Harvard in 2019 in a denial that became extremely public because it did feel so shocking. Can you talk to me a bit about that experience and how you come to a place where you can describe it simultaneously as violent and edifying? I might have to say you better than me because I don't know that I would be in a place where I could use the word edifying to describe that.
Lorgia: What was edifying about the experience of being fired by Harvard via tenure denial was the way in which a community emerge out of that. A transnational very large community of people who think about the work that my work wants to do in the world as necessary and founded upon this violent result. It taught me a lot about what really matters in terms of the work that we do both out and in the classroom. I didn't ask students to protest. I didn't ask people to write for me and yet they did. They expressed their outrage.
In that process of their own outrage, I was held and it gave me strength. As hard as that was, I got up the next day and I said, "I'm going to write because this institution does not own me and does not own my work and I don't need them to tell me that my work is worth it." That was the lesson that was in there somewhere but that it became really visible for me in very tangible ways.
Melissa: We reached out to the Harvard University Police Department for comment but had not received a response by airtime. They get back to us. We'll post a statement on our website. When we come back Professor Garcia-Peña will talk about her new book Community As Rebellion. We're continuing our conversation with Professor Lorgia Garcia-Peña. After a high profile tenure denial from Harvard University, Professor Garcia-Peña accepted a tenured position at Tufts University. There, she's working to transform her classrooms into being what she calls communities of rebellion and she's authored a new book, Community As Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color.
Lorgia: We talk in academia so much about decolonizing the university about making changes that are structured and lasting for all of our students. I believe the most significant change that we can make and the most lasting and the one that as faculty and teachers, we have control over is the classroom, and that begins with what we teach and how we teach it.
I wanted to invite people to think about not only the things that we cannot do as faculty and the challenges that we face, particularly as faculty of color, but the changes that we can make for our students to create spaces of freedom within the classroom. To me, that begins with the syllabus and how we think structurally about what we're teaching.
Melissa: Like any good syllabus, your text opens with the course requirements. You see the course requirements are four, an open heart, a flexible mind, the desire to be part of the sum rather than a single part and patience. This is, on the one hand, exactly how a syllabus opens, course requirements, the readings that you will need, the aids you will need for learning, but you have framed them pretty differently. How is it that an open heart, flexible mind, the desire to be part of the sum, and patience can lead to this freedom-inducing academic space that you are building for us here?
Lorgia: The ability to think of ourselves, of our students, of the classroom, of the people that make up the community, in any kind of university or learning center, for me, it's really critical that we think of ourselves as whole people, think of not only what we're reading, what we're expecting students to write or to produce, but about the experiences, lived experiences that they're bringing into the classroom. For me, the most important thing I can do in the classroom for my students is to make them feel safe. Once they feel safe, then learning happens.
To feel safe, you have to feel like your person, your whole person is accounted for. In thinking about this book, this book is a very personal narrative that begins with my experience, with my with myself. I'm asking those of you who decide to enroll in this course to keep an open heart because I am opening mine for the readers.
Melissa: When you say it is personal begins with your own experience, it truly does, and in a place that I feel like, to borrow the phrase, that every colored girl will understand, you begin with your hair.
Lorgia: Yes, I do. I was trying to think about what rebellion has meant for me. I was talking to my mother and my aunt, and they were reminding me of how challenging I was as a girl when it came to my personal grooming and what they thought was acceptable for a Black girl's hair. I come from the Dominican Republic, a country that has become known for its hairdressers, hair making, and hair doing. The translation of that is mostly hair training and transforming beautiful kinks into straight here. As a child, I resisted that.
It didn't come from a place of political engagement, it came from a little bit of laziness and resistance to what was the process of tightening my kinks into these coils. I was remembering that as I was talking to my mom and my aunties about how that was my first sight of rebellion. Nobody touches my hair, nobody does anything to it. I walked around, this girl with this gigantic afro and thinking a lot of people uncomfortable. I thought that would be a fitting place to start talking about rebelling.
Melissa: How do we build as you describe them, communities of rebellion?
Lorgia: The first thing and the most important is to create spaces where people feel safe, feel safe to speak up. When it comes to teaching, that begins with a syllabus, that begins with who we are, including who we are choosing to live out. It also means bringing a lot of sincerity and openness to how you engage with students in the classroom in particular, or to people in a community you're trying to create. I start my classes by sharing how uncomfortable I am in the university and in academia, and how I have learned to embrace that discomfort as a barometer that tells me that I'm doing something right.
I allow students to create from their subject position, from where they come from. To begin to build communities and that means in the classroom, that means in the neighborhood, that means in the company that you work in, it's critical that you bring sincerity, and that you allow spaces where people feel safe, where they're not going to feel judged, where they're allowed to express themselves openly, and that means doing. We need to rethink how we define community. What I propose in the book is to think about community not as a noun, but as a verb, to commune.
When we think about it as a verb, then we are embracing the challenge of making community rather than finding community. That also comes with the privilege of figuring out what that means for you. That will be very simple, Melissa, it could be cooking for people and breaking bread together, and allowing yourselves to reminisce what it was like to deal with your hair as a child. Start from various simple places, but it really is about creating a making space for belonging and for being and for existing in all dimensions as human beings, not just one.
Melissa: Professor Garcia-Peña, author of Community As Rebellion. Thank you so much for joining The Takeaway today.
Lorgia: Thank you so much for having me.
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