Nuggets From Laura Emiko Soltis's Call
Posted by David Bonbright on Jan 23, 2021
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis is Executive Director of Freedom University, an award-winning, modern-day freedom school for undocumented students banned from equal access to public higher education in Georgia. With the aim of “ending modern segregation in higher education,” Freedom University provides classes, assistance and social movement leadership development for undocumented students. Through nonviolent civil disobedience, policy and legal campaigns, Emiko seeks to change college admissions policies and transform the public debate on immigrant justice and undocumented student access to higher education. “We believe that radical, democratic change in education occurs through grassroots mobilization of teachers and students and the empowerment of those most directly impacted by injustice," Freedom U's theory of change says. Consciousness development is key to its liberatory education model, and the focus of Emiko's work.
Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me ...
- Loving childhood in biracial home: I was absolutely safe and I was loved. And of course, I didn't mean that things were hard that my parents didn't have to work extremely hard or make a lot of sacrifices for me as a kid. But, you know, I was loved by really caring parents that made sure that my safety and security and well-being were their priority. I'm a first generation American on my mom's side. She's a Japanese immigrant who came to the US in her mid 20s to marry my dad and I'm a first generation college bound student on my dad's side and he's Slovak and Danish but honestly ethnically Minnesotan through and through. He speaks fluent Minnesotan. So, you know, I grew up in a biracial household in a predominantly Scandinavian town. ... In Japanese if you are biracial you're called half full or half. And I think this is very telling of how we were brought up, sometimes thinking of ourselves in these divided parts -- half this, half that, quarter. It can leave you feeling fragmented.
- Roots of her commitment to education as a human right: In my role working with immigrant rights and as a teacher, I think a lot of folks might assume that having a mom who was and who still is a non US citizen who is an immigrant woman of color shaped my commitment to immigrant rights, but it was my dad, who grew up in a town I think of like 58 people in northern Minnesota. He didn't have a good experience in education. I think he was one of five boys, each a year apart, and a sister who came much later. And he had rheumatic fever when I think he was in first or second grade and had to spend a lot of time away from school -- and he reflects that when he went back, he never really caught up and he didn't have a teacher who cared. ... He was one of 16 graduating students in high school class and seeing his photograph with his, you know, brown glasses and his really stoic face, the quote underneath his photograph in the high school yearbook, he says what he most wants to get out of school is himself. And in a way, I think it's supposed to be funny. But honestly, looking back, it's a little heart-breaking. I think his experience and the emotional and physical and financial toll it took on him for the rest of his life to go through life with a second grade reading level -- I think more than anything it shaped my desire to be a teacher and to make sure that everyone had access to a good education.
- Finding her calling in immigration issues: Sometimes I wish I had a warm flowery or inspirational story of how I got involved in this issue. But mainly I got involved because I was just angry. I didn't see undocumented students as "others", or criminals. They were kids just like me. Just by chance of where they were born, they were being segregated and prevented from even attending school. ... I was in university, and I didn’t know it, but I was searching for human rights that wasn't just legal documents, but people who were using human rights as a force to mobilize to reclaim human dignity. This group of migrant farm workers, Coalition of Imakole Workers, was using a human rights framework to garner international attention. Transcending citizenship-based civil rights by using a wider human rights framing they pressurized the multinational food corporations that are buying the tomatoes that they picked. There was a role for everyone. If you eat, you are connected to this issue. If you are a student, you especially have power because these fast food corporations that they were targeting were often in their high schools on the college campuses. This was vibrant direct action and mass mobilizing, and I wanted to get involved. Looking back, it was a crossroads, and it completely shifted the path for the rest of my life. My experience working with the Student Farmworkers Alliance brought my human rights education home. It was no longer going elsewhere to help people and save people. It was about being held accountable in your own community and finding solidarity with people who are fighting for their rights. In so doing, you were also liberating yourself.
- On losing fear: Working with the Coalition of Imakole Workers was formative for me. It taught me that I'm an organizer, and that is different from an activist in the sense that it is not limited to actions. It is daily work, and you are accountable to a community. You have a much larger skill set, including that you cannot unsee things, for example, injustices of different types, including worker exploitation around you. I saw worker exploitation when I was writing my dissertation at Emory, so, of course, I started organizing cafeteria workers. This eventually led to my unplanned arrest in civil disobedience in the spring of 2011. I lost my innocence then. Being arrested all the while just trying to uphold the university’s mission statement, which I came to realize was no more than a marketing tool.
- Music as meditation: Music is my meditation. When you are actively creating it, music requires you to be present, it requires you to be extremely measured in time, and very aware of the passage of time. My mom started me on violin around my third birthday. I played really seriously until my early 20s in college. It got to a point where it felt only competitive, and I lost the joy of it. It was with the CIW that began to use my music in a different way. I learned new forms of music, new instruments. We sang for 200 miles, or sang when we're all eating dinner. I think that for me music has become my sanctuary and how to connect with people beyond all the academic work stuff.
- Liberatory education: When people ask what is liberatory education, luckily, the answer is simple. It is education for the purpose of freedom. If I could break it down to its three basic components, it is first its education with rather than for students. When I was talking about the development of the curriculum in 2014 it was asking students what they wanted to learn and building from there. Instead of seeing them as empty receptacles where teachers could come in and fill it, they were leading their own education and my job was to then find the teachers to teach those classes that year. They wanted to honor Mexican history, human rights, music composition, and photography. We then developed the curriculum based on those themes.
Second component, education based on dialogue and love as an ethic, rather than domination and aggression, which is omnipresent in our education system, the use of punishment, police in schools, etc. The third component of liberatory education is education for action and transformation. Again, rather than, you know, passive obedience that is sometimes taught in schools and conformity to the world.
- Freedom from being defined by citizenship: As a result of the civil rights era, the black freedom movement, race became an illegitimate form of discrimination. And yet, 99% of undocumented people who are banned from college are black or brown or Asian. Without ever having to use the term race, we criminalize black and brown people as immigrants.
By being undocumented, they are freer than all of us. Right? They are not constrained to these ideas of citizenship as defining who we are and what we're entitled to. By reclaiming their human dignity and rights while being undocumented, they're reclaiming one's humanity and that rights can be given or taken away, or determined by a piece of paper. Why do you need this ID when the real person is right here?
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Can I please read from this just a little bit because I feel like summing it up doesn't do it justice? This passage was actually written by Richard Shawl as the introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I think that this really sums up liberatory education: “At its core, there is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it. Or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
- Joy as well as Trauma: I think when most people talk about undocumented young people, when they're in the news, It's about trauma. It's about border crossings and deportations. Yes that is absolutely a fundamental part about understanding the undocumented experience. But what I wish people would see at Freedom U is the laughter. I think the word resilience is used a lot, but it's, there's no better word to describe the students. And the importance of joy that we have.
- Seeing the universality of human rights: I think this last year of the pandemic is a profound opportunity for all of us to better understand the lives of undocumented people. I remember in March and April, those early months, when it was so confusing and social media was bursting with how people were talking about that they're afraid to leave the house, that they were really worried about their parents, and how devastating it was when people passed without being able to say goodbye. At Freedom U, we could not help but feel that is the documented experience every single day. These are constant fears for undocumented people. We read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Freedom U. As an exercise you read the 30 articles and circle the ones that are not realized in their lives. Article 26, of course, says everyone has the right to education, higher education, shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. They all circle that one, and also Article 24, the right to rest and leisure, which includes a reasonable limitation of working hours and holidays. These always hits the students in a profound way. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave basic rights to most workers, but excluded two classes of workers – farmworkers and domestic workers and nannies. It happened to be that black workers were predominantly farm workers and domestic workers. These exclusions from basic labor rights protections still exist today.
- The love ethic as fierce, not sentimental: As Dr King said, this work is to put the ethic of love to the center of our lives. I think in our culture, we think of a sentimental romantic love. That’s not the love King referred to. This love a fierce commitment to others. This love takes courage to constantly be present for the suffering of others. It requires, I think, a willingness to let the world break our hearts over and over and over and over again. In the immigrant rights community, it's blow after blow after blow after blow.
- Kintsugi -- the beauty of being heartbroken: There is this Japanese craft called kintsugi, an art form of repairing broken bowls with golden lacquer. You have these bowls with these cracks that have been filled with gold and most people recognize that these bowls are so much more beautiful after they've been broken and repaired with gold. I think that the same can be visualized with our hearts. If we are loving correctly, the heart of any organizer, of anyone committed to social change in the world, is also covered in and these cracks of gold.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!