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Teach-in explores issues behind student protest
STANFORD -- Is a hunger strike a "gimmick," or a "gun to the head," or an "alternative tactic to the armed man" for producing change?
Is the decision to show a film to an audience not expecting to see it a Nazi-style propaganda tactic? Was the loud reaction to its showing white racism?
Stanford faculty helped student strikers and other students grapple with these definitions of last week's campus events at Aztlan University - a teach-in on Friday, May 6, that was organized to accompany the hunger strike that Chicano/a students began Wednesday, May 4, and ended early Saturday, May 7.
Teach-ins are an important accompaniment to campus protests because "they insist that the political action is part of a university education," said Lora Romero, an assistant professor of English. Sheltered from the rain under the Memorial Church arches, she taught a class Friday morning on the use of metaphors, and language in general, to describe the Flicks incident that helped trigger the strike.
"There's a tendency in U.S. culture as a whole and on campuses to interpret political action as being juvenile, coming out of emotion rather than intellect, and as being extraneous to the university. What you are doing," she told about 40 students involved in the action, "is an intellectual act and don't let anybody tell you otherwise."
Dan Contreras, a graduate student in modern thought and literature who recruited the teachers, said that "the students wanted to continue their education during the strike." The classes were all related to the issues raised by the students but dealt with the faculty members' research as well, including work by linguist Guadalupe Valdes and psychologist Fernando Soriano in East Palo Alto, where the students said they want Stanford to establish a center to make the university's varied work there of more immediate usefulness to the city's growing Latino immigrant population. The strike itself, however, dominated most of the teach-in discussion.
Activist tactics dissected
Several students asked anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, why Stanford's 16 Latino faculty members had sent a letter to President Gerhard Casper and Provost Condoleezza Rice that said the faculty joined the students in supporting all of their demands, except the one to offer a high-level position to Cecilia Burciaga, a long-time staff member who was recently laid off when her position was eliminated in the last round of budget cuts.
"I think we probably made a mistake," Rosaldo said. Burciaga "had made it clear she didn't want to remain here. We felt [the students' asking for a job for her] was a symbolic issue, and we mistakenly felt you were focusing on the other [issues]."
Mistakes are always made in politics, he warned the students, and it is important for everyone involved to focus on how to recover from mistakes, rather than just on avoiding them.
Did he think the students had made a mistake in choosing a hunger strike as the method to express their views, one student asked.
"I think this came out of a long period of frustration," Rosaldo said, but added that he would view the strike as a mistake if someone's health is damaged. "I care about the well-being and health of the students more than anything else."
Pressed on whom he would blame if that happened, Rosaldo said it would depend on who missed an opportunity to prevent it.
Rosaldo also urged the students to reach out more broadly to faculty, staff and students for support. "There are many people I've spoken to who are extremely supportive but don't know how to show their support," he said, suggesting that the strikers circulate a petition or keep a guest book at their encampment on the Quad that people could sign, and consider attending discussions being held in residence halls.
He also suggested that students be sure that President Casper understood their concerns about recent administrative decisions, for example, the "difference between the intention and the effect" of the president's decision to have Stanford oppose the inclusion of diversity criteria in the accreditation process for colleges.
"People opposed to diversity feel empowered by [Stanford's position], and we're seeing differences in behavior," he said, but Casper "can't be expected to know that unless somebody tells him."
One student worried that the administration might agree to the students' demands without understanding them.
Talking must continue after the confrontation ends, Rosaldo said.
"Remember that in any complex organization, there are many entry points. What I think these kinds of moments do is create opportunities in which more people are interested in listening."
Flicks rhetoric analyzed
The campus atmosphere of racial "tolerance" was dissected in a class discussion led by Romero, the assistant professor of English. She first analyzed the language used by some students who attended the Flicks screening Sunday night, at which audience members objected loudly to the screening of a short film on grapes and pesticides preceding the comedy film Mrs. Doubtfire.
In letters to the student newspaper after the incident, several students admitted the film audience had been rude but denied that audience reactions, such as yelling "Beaners, go home," were racist. Chicano students who arranged the showing were also accused of using Nazi propaganda tactics, Romero said, because the film was financed by the United Farm Workers union and shown to a "captive" audience.
The Nazi analogy must be taken seriously by all students of color, Romero said, "because it tells us how gestures of multiculturalism are being perceived on campus."
"The people who planned to show it were thinking of it instead as an opportunity to expose the campus to issues of importance to our community. . . . But 10 minutes of power on the part of the Chicano community on this campus makes us comparable to Nazis in Germany."
Romero suggested that the reaction to the incident is part of a national backlash to gains made by ethnic minorities nationally and on the Stanford campus in recent years.
Nicole Sanchez, a senior who was part of the group that arranged for the showing, said, however, that the students who planned it were not unaware that the mostly white audience might object to seeing the film.
Sanchez said she warned younger students that there would be a negative reaction from the Flicks audience but went along with the plan anyway . "I couldn't leave this campus without confronting [racism] because no one wants to use the 'R' word."
"Every single Chicano student has an individual story of being beaten down" on campus, she said, and the students who make insulting remarks do not voluntarily attend the programs that ethnic student organizations host on their cultural perspectives.
"We knew we had a captive audience," at the Flicks, Sanchez said, "but we're a captive audience every single day . . . for what I consider lies, propaganda and distortions of history."
The teach-in discussion then shifted its focus to analyzing what one student characterized as an atmosphere of racial tolerance rather than acceptance of diversity.
As long as Chicano students don't drive a "customized car," speak Spanish or wear clothes different from their peers, Romero agreed, they are tolerated. The message many Chicano undergraduates get from this, she said, is that "you can be accepted as long as you have the same values as we have and don't make a big deal about who you are and where you come from.
"People of color, white feminists, gays and lesbians are no longer happy with being just tolerated. They want to actually affect their environment."
One student asked whether the darkness of the movie theater freed people to express racism and if the incident made others who weren't there uncomfortable because they were asking themselves, "What would I have done in the dark?"
"The scariest part about racism, even for us, is that it's deep inside of you and you cannot predict how it will come out," Romero said. "Dealing with it requires introspection."
East Palo Alto issues
Two of the teach-in classes focused on Stanford research that has a direct bearing on East Palo Alto, where approximately 60 percent of public school students are Latino.
"For students saying you want to work in East Palo Alto, it becomes important to understand some of the constraints," said Valdes, whose research involves Chicano immigrant children.
A linguist who is on the faculties of the School of Education and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Valdes said she studies "issues of language and power." One of her goals, she said, is to better understand why "non-mainstream children" do less well in schools throughout the world than the socially dominant group of their countries.
For example, Oriental Jews do not do as well in Israeli schools, and children of a pure Indian background do not do as well as lighter-skinned Mexicans who are on the top of the socio-economic culture in Mexico, she said. With 4,000 ethnic groups living in 167 nation states, she said, there are very few mono-ethnic or mono-lingual nations that do not face this issue.
U.S. research suggests that students' self-image can be easily destroyed by English submersion programs that emphasize teaching students English over the skills the mainstream students are learning, she said. Many Stanford Latino students probably survived English-only submersion programs, she said, because they are exceptionally bright, the minority for whom that system works.
But the language in which children are educated is not the only factor influencing performance, she said, pointing to an unsuccessful experiment in East Palo Alto in which the local school district hired teachers from Spain to teach growing numbers of immigrants from Mexico.
Some theorists propose, she said, that "schools are defined to reproduce the interests already there." This class analysis suggests that they are "sorting structures" to limit opportunity for the lowest-ranking social classes. Such an analysis, she said, can be depressing, but there are also theories that suggest it is possible for humans to intercede in the process, especially by finding ways to involve and empower the community in the education of its children.
Soriano, a social psychologist on the faculty of the University of Missouri and a Chicano Fellow at Stanford, told students why he feels strongly that researchers must ask open-ended questions of the communities they research and give something useful in return. However, he warned students who may be considering academic careers, university social science departments often value theory over application of theory to real problems.
"One of the biggest demands on us is to link what we do to what is going on in the communities," Soriano said of Latinos who are faculty and students of the university. For Chicano faculty, he said, that burden is expanded by the fact that so many undergraduates, including white students, are also seeking mentors to help them work on real-world problems.
There is some hostility to the university research in East Palo Alto, Soriano said after his lecture. Workers in community agencies there and in Redwood City were initially cool to his idea of sending students in his classes to their agencies, he said, because they perceived that the university used their agencies to conduct research without giving much in return.
The students in his "social psychology of social problems" class did volunteer work in these agencies, he said, and conducted a formal research project on social problems in the Latino communities.
"But the students wanted to do more," he said. They solicited offices and organizations on campus until they raised $400 to cover the cost of printing copies of their 120-page study for distribution in the community.
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