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Community and technical college students organize for political change. Coordinated steps in the right direction

Putting an end to passivity

The Washington Community and Technical College Student Association (WACTCSA) has been busy, and they are about to get busier as the legislative season picks up.

At first glance, developing a common legislative platform representing the needs and interests of three hundred and forty thousand students spread over thirty-four community and technical colleges might seem to be a daunting task. In reality, however, that’s exactly the work that WACTCSA has been doing.

In the last few years WACTCSA has successfully asserted itself as a legitimate student organization able to delineate and identify a set of priorities related to the conditions of its members. WACTCSA’s growing strength as a political organization has the potential to significantly re-structure key elements of higher education in Washington state.

To better understand the work being done by WACTCSA, Works In Progress conducted a combined written and face-to-face interview with Andy Gonzales, a Grays Harbor College student actively involved in this work.

Strategic Goals

WACTCSA has developed two complementary sets of goals, strategic goals and tactical goals. WACTCSA’s legislative agenda for 2017-2018 focuses on four strategic goals:

K-AA: A Redefinition of Basic Education in the Washington State Constitution: According to our state constitution, all residents in the state are guaranteed access to a basic education. Washington State currently defines ‘basic education’ as a K-12 education. Yet a high school diploma is no longer enough to give a person equal access to quality jobs, with studies showing that by 2020, 65% of all jobs in the US will require post-secondary education. To meet this demand, every resident of Washington should have access to higher education as promised in the Washington State Constitution. Therefore, WACTCSA urges our state legislators to amend the definition of “basic education” to guarantee education from kindergarten to an associate’s degree. All students who are Washington residents would be able to obtain a technical certificate or associate degree, which in turn would make our workforce more competitive and strengthen our state’s economy.

Ban the Box: Fair Chance Employment and Housing for the Justice-Involved: All of our students and graduates deserve equal opportunity and access to employment and housing regardless of criminal background. In light of recent legislation to support higher education in correctional facilities, the state should focus on supporting these students who are looking toward reintegration after serving their sentence. To increase employment and housing opportunities, and to reduce recidivism and racial disparity in the criminal justice system, we support legislation that will limit disclosure of criminal history on job and housing applications. There should be no “check boxes” that ask on screening applications if individuals have ever committed a crime: ban the box!

Textbooks and Open Educational Resources (O.E.R.s) Affordability and Accessibility: CTC students continue to have concerns about the prohibitive cost of educational resources for courses offered in the CTC system. We want to ensure that CTC students have equitable access to affordable content to support their education. We appreciate former legislative action supporting  the development of OERs. We support even more development of OERs in our CTC system. The legislature should establish greater incentives and funding for specific staff members on each campus to facilitate OER development.

Higher Education for Undocumented Students: Washington residents are guaranteed education regardless of documentation status and we feel the legislature should lead efforts to pursue widespread access to affordable higher education. Many undocumented students are unaware of existing resources and scholarship funding. We believe public and private resources that are available should be communicated effectively. Ensuring applications are available in each student’s preferred language is a component of this. We feel training should be mandated and implemented for faculty and staff so they are better prepared to handle undocumented students.

Tactical goals

For Andy Gonzales, a business student and Executive Officer of Government Relations for Associated Students at Grays Harbor College, the strategic priorities are not simply a theoretical exercise; they are connected to tactical goals. For Andy, strategic goals risk being illusory in the absence of specific, tactical actions planned to achieve the ends envisioned.

According to Andy, central to the tactics of WACTCSA are legislative academies: “The Council for Unions and Student Programs (CUSP) offers four legislative academies. These four academies comprise a system-wide leadership initiative focused on elevating students’ concerns regarding their and peers’ college experience. CUSP works in coordination with the WACTC State Board to help continue a tradition between students and college governance.”  

Each of these academies has a specific purpose with expected outcomes.  According to Andy, the following academies are in place:

Legislative Voice Academy: Provides a recap and reflection on work done by WACTCSA during the legislative session, and the development of the WACTCSA Legislative Agenda.

WACTCSA Summer Training: A one-day conference to build relationships with various legislative components, to increase understanding of legislative processes, and to build partnerships and plans for initiating legislation.

WACTCSA Legislative Track and Officer Voting: This academy seeks to bring new and continuing students together to receive training on WACTCSA and engage in leadership development. 

Legislative Academy: This academy focuses on legislative messaging and communicating with legislators in conjunction with other CTC constituents.

Students as social instruments of change

Much has been written about the role of student movements in society. In essence, the debate gravitates around the following questions: a) do student movements have the potential to become “the single spark that can start a prairie fire”—to borrow an old Maoist phrase—or, b) given the overall middle-class condition of its members, and the transient status of their identity as students, do students constitute a progressive force per se?

There is not a yes or no answer to either question. It all depends on the specific historical conditions of a given society. Though this is not the place to discuss the conditions that make possible the political radicalization of groups or classes, it suffices here to point out a historical fact. Student movements have confronted modern dictatorships and authoritarian governments in all continents:  from Chile to Mexico and the US; from Japan to Korea and the Philippines; from Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal, to Germany and the UK; from Egypt to Liberia and South Africa, etc., etc.  All over the world, students have been present in the struggle for a better and more just society. All over the world they have encountered opposition, and sometimes, violent repression costing many of them their lives.

Within this context, it is not fortuitous —to provide a classic example — that at the same time that Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco imposed right-wing curricula in all education institutions, he relocated the main universities’ campuses far from the main cities or urban centers. The intent was to ‘sanitize’ and make physically difficult political collaboration between students and the rest of the population.

Beauty may be produced, but under command

Noam Chomsky points to a similar action, not in form but in content, that took place in the United States as a response to the 60’s student movement.  The students had organized against the Viet Nam war, and in favor of the struggle for people of color deprived of Civil Rights after two hundred years of living the fictitious narrative that the nation was a democracy. According to Chomsky, the elites and right-wing ideologues of this country realized that “the institutions in charge of the indoctrination of the young [had] failed.” Consequently they implemented a series of restrictions seeking to eliminate the options that enabled students to engage in activism.

Some of these restrictions involved a re-organization of curricula, making them more regimentally organized and even more dependent on the interests of the market, while at the same time limiting the possibilities of academic critique within campuses. In other words, the US went through a massive process of standardizing students in an effort to inculcate passivity and socially contemplative behavior. To illustrate his point, Chomsky quotes Humboldt, who observed that the restriction of democracy and individual freedom in academic institutions “may occasionally produce some beauty but always under command.”  

Back to the future?

A kind of historical irony was present as I interviewed Andy Gonzales.  Almost exactly to the date, 100 years ago in Cordoba, Argentina, students of the University of Cordova occupied the campus and launched a series of demands that has served as a source of inspiration for most universities in Latin America and other countries until today.

Here are some of the most important features of the Cordoba Manifesto:

a) Institutionalization of student participation in university councils, joining professors and alumni in a three-party system known as co-governance.

b) A linkage between student politics and national politics in order to mobilize the university toward the solution of economic, social and political problems.

c) An emphasis on university extension, particularly courses for workers that would lead to the development of fraternal bonds with the proletariat.

d) Tuition-free education and open admission for all academically qualified applicants, replacing the elitist and archaic 19th century university with a democratic, modern and mass university.

e) A defense of institutional autonomy with respect to the state.

f) Institutionalization of mechanisms to protect academic freedom, including the implementation of “free teaching” (docencia libre) to ensure academic pluralism and to break the monopoly of teaching enjoyed by senior professors (catedráticos).

g) Promotion of new ideas, innovative methods of teaching, changes in exam systems, optional classroom attendance, original research, and a rejection of dogmatism, all leading to the replacement of theology by positivist disciplines.

h) Selection of faculty through open, competitive examinations in order to counteract nepotism and patronage, and promotion of professors on the basis of merit and achievement rather than seniority.

i) Enlargement and diversification of professional training through the establishment of new professional schools.

j) An understanding of university life as a truly communitarian experience, encouraging the development of a population of full-time professors and full- time students.

I shared the demands of the Argentinian youth of a century ago with Andy. He took his time reading them, and after a short silence he said “Wow!” I sense he is too polite to say what he appears to be thinking, along the lines of “this is hard to believe.” We talked about his views on how to link WACTCSA with what’s going on with national politics. “DACA”, he says without hesitation. I think he is on the right path.

Enrique Quintero lives and writes in Washington. Andy Gonzalez is a student at Grays Harbor College.


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