Free Speech Movement Legacies and the Promise of Community Engaged Scholarship


By Sean Burns

While the 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley focused on one central demand—the freedom of students to openly speak about and engage in political advocacy and organizing on campus—the many months that students dedicated to winning this struggle was nourished by much broader discussions about the nature of higher education and the role of the university in a democracy. This week’s 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley marks an opportunity to reflect on these broader discussions and their legacy. Specifically, as a student advisor and faculty member affiliated with the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice Minor, I want to offer a few thoughts on the meaning and challenge of “community engaged scholarship” in higher education today.

For those of you new to the phrase, community engaged scholarship is a set of educational practices and principles that fits within a much larger civic engagement movement in higher education. While community engaged scholarship has many roots (some of which go back to the 19th century), it’s fair to say that the Sixties’ era student appeals for political relevance in their education was a historical milestone. Certainly here at UC Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement must be seen as the fountainhead for contemporary social justice struggles faced by students today.

In the fall of 1964, through countless meetings, rallies, and protests, the students of the Free Speech Movement built a culture of social transformation. At the heart of this culture was a dedicated passion for dialogue and debate on the pressing issues of the era—most notably, the persistence of white supremacy in 1960s America. As students shared their concerns on the steps of Sproul Plaza, in dorm rooms, dining halls, and occupied administrative buildings, they began to increasingly ask why their college courses were not taking up such issues. In short, they began to ask fundamental questions about the relevance of their schooling to the urgent social issues of their day. Today, those of us committed to community engaged scholarship—students, faculty, and citizens in general—continue to ask these questions.

At the most basic level, community engaged scholarship is about invigorating the public and democratic character of education by linking up classroom learning with the efforts of communities (both local and international) to address the social problems they face. While this might sound a lot like the popular, educational practice known as “service-learning,” community engaged scholarship projects are often conceived as efforts to remedy some common, problematic features of service-learning. Rather than discuss these problems abstractly, I want to talk a bit about two, complementary programs I am involved at UC Berkeley and how these programs approach community engagement.

Founded in 2007, the Global Poverty & Practice Minor aims to support students from all disciplinary majors who seek to understand why high levels of poverty persist throughout the world. Born at a moment when the “Millennials” began arriving on campus, the Minor sets out to examine and complicate a number of contradictory features of the era. On one hand, the 21st century has seen a proliferation of concern for injustice. It is no longer the task of a small collection of international agencies to solve famines, mitigate sprawling urban slums, and tackle new epidemiological crises.  Rather, all of us are called to take action. Well, at least certain kinds of action: to run races to support the homeless, to shop to fund education, to party to reduce infection. Sound familiar? Students are especially recruited into this alluring logic. An enormous industry exists through which they can “make a difference” during their education, be it through volunteer-centered spring breaks, semesters abroad, summer trips, or co-curricular programs like ours.

So how does our program try to navigate this climate of what might be thought of as the neoliberalization of social action—where efforts to change the world are so often channeled into individualized and monetized activities that more or less reproduce social inequalities (or, at worst, aggravate them).

To start with, the Global Poverty & Practice Minor aims to work with students in understanding global problems through historical and critical examination. Critical here means: rigorously investigating the assumptions through which we see problems. When we ask a specific question about poverty, we also ask what are the political ingredients of that question? If we find ourselves desiring to take up action in specific ways in specific communities, we ask what are the ingredients of those desires? (Many examples of faculty demonstrating this kind of thinking can be found in our #GlobalPOV social media project.) Our program, as such, isn’t framed in terms of impact, but instead is focused on the kind of study and reflection that we feel is requisite for making any meaningful, long-term impact.  We see this humility as vital in light of the long history of Western higher education’s implication in colonialism, empire, and environmental destruction. Our intentions are not to stifle student action; the world itself provides enough obstacles in this regard. Rather, we aim to inspire a certain kind of reflective action that can guide them throughout the course of their lives. As GPP founding professor Ananya Roy eloquently states, we seek to open up a space for students “between the hubris of benevolence and the paralysis of cynicism.”

Crucial to this space is a vision of working with communities rather than serving them, as “service” is often heard as a paternalistic term—expressive of the attitude that when university students engage with communities, the student is there to give, while the community is there to receive. In our time of such profound poverty and inequality, certain kinds of service provision are undoubtedly necessary. My point is: they are insufficient. Food pantries are not a substitute for food justice. Homeless shelters are not a substitute for establishing housing as a right. Tutoring in prisons must be seen as one node in a web of activity to dismantle mass incarceration of poor communities in the United States. A primary learning objective for our program is that students gain tools for thinking, strategizing, and innovating at this systemic scale, and, in terms of how we seek to relate to community efforts, solidarity has become a cornerstone concept in our program.

Now, even if we set out to partner with communities in their work in a spirit of solidarity, that doesn’t end the challenges. In fact, it really just begins them. Students and faculty who aspire to engage with communities in a manner that is reciprocal and mutually beneficial have to grapple with a range of tensions. First, we all know that systemic social change takes a long time—certainly beyond the time frame of a student’s college years. So an important question we are sitting with (along with many others engaged in community engaged scholarship) is: how to build community partnerships that last and that can incrementally build a more just society? Second, the framework of partnership is an ideal. Contained within this ideal are the realities of building relationships across space—from campus to community, from community to campus—when these relationships are mediated through complex, historical issues of power, knowledge, and representation. The points of encounter between powerful research universities and marginalized communities are not innocent spaces. Precisely for this reason, the transformative possibility for all involved is immense. Free Speech Movement students like Mario Savio who participated in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer knew this edge of peril and promise, and so do, perhaps better than anyone, today’s first generation college students who often arrive at Berkeley from these marginalized communities.

To speak to these challenges and possibilities of partnering, I want to reflect a bit on a course I teach through the American Cultures Engaged Scholarship program called “Social Movements, Urban History, and the Politics of Memory.” The motivation for the course stems from two basic observations I’ve made in my 20 years of social justice education in the San Francisco Bay Area. One: students have little awareness of, let alone contact with, the dynamic and diverse population of social justice activists in our area. Two: these community organizers so often have insufficient time to document their work; the immediate struggles are too pressing. Therefore, the course trains students in methods of community history and social movement scholarship and links them up with community members to document important social histories of the Bay Area. We do this in collaboration with a respected community history organization called Shaping San Francisco and make the collaborative research available through an online wiki-based archive “Addressing Injustice: Bay Area Social Movement Histories.” Because the course foregrounds the analysis and experience of community activists, it illuminates the benefits of what might be thought of as an important form of “public education.” The impact on students is profound. Intellectually, it makes all the difference when the questions that shape the class are not emanating solely from the professor or “the academy” but rather from dialogue with communities. This makes deep impressions on the students about what voices matter, who speaks with legitimacy on what topics, and what democratic education can mean. On a personal level, the results are even more telling. Students have told me (and community members) time and time again how their visions for their future are altered by building relationships with these activists and the movements they are committed to.

The key word here is relationships. Nothing meaningful in the development of community engaged scholarship can happen without committing significant time and energy to building campus-community relationships. If we at Cal want to truly honor the legacy of Free Speech Movement on this 50th Anniversary, we have to recognize the need to embolden our commitment to this public purpose. Many other research universities are doing just this, and the results are significant: in terms of the quality of student learning, the direction and scope of faculty research, and, in the most fundamental sense, the blossoming of our commitment to a just and democratic society.

Dr. Sean Burns, who serves as the Blum Center’s Director of Student Programs and lectures in International & Areas Studies and Peace & Conflict Studies, has recently been awarded an Impact Award for his Bay Area focused course on “Social Movements, Urban History, and the Politics of Memory.” Awarded by UC Berkeley’s American Cultures Program and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, this honor recognizes Burns’ efforts to deeply engage Cal students with regional community members around issues of social movement history in a way that publicly disseminates student work. In spring 2014, he received the Chancellor’s Public Service Award for Faculty Civic Engagement. Burns’ course is offered each spring as IAS 158AC / PACS 148AC.