Students can use academic research to promote the interests of marginalized groups and the working poor, according to panelists at the “Work, Organize, Struggle: Student Perspectives” conference hosted in Pedro Arrupe, S.J. Hall on April 24.

“Scholarship can intersect with activism,” Director of African and African American Studies Program at Towson University Donn Worgs said in a keynote address. “I think as scholars we ought to be engaged in thinking about what people actually do but also thinking about having a practical impact — our ideas being relevant to what people are doing on the ground.”

Undergraduate students presented their research on issues of systemic violence, social justice, community organizing and radicalism at the conference, which was organized by Vincent DeLaurentis (SFS ’17)  in conjunction with the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. The conference included four panels, each with a focus on different aspects of working struggles.

Besides serving as a platform for students to display their academic work, the conference sought to inspire attendees to take part in the liberation of oppressed peoples, according to DeLaurentis.

DeLaurentis stressed the importance of the students’ work in his opening remarks.

“I hope this conference will spark an expansion in the number of students doing social justice-oriented academic work on campus,” DeLaurentis said. “I believe the types of scholarly interventions you will hear today are important now more so than ever.”

DeLaurentis also emphasized the importance of bringing conversations about labor and the working poor to college campuses, as mainstream liberal thought tends to align with capitalist class politics.
“Students and professors must be willing to defend the university from this right word in neo-liberal trend,” DeLaurentis said. “We must also work together to build a university that produces thought capable of supporting community solidarity and collective liberation.”

Worgs further contextualized the students’ scholarship as a form of productive engagement, which he defined as people providing their own resources and efforts to produce a public good or service for a community. He said through productive engagement, scholars could transcend the academic value of their work and make important political statements.

Worgs also discussed the importance of performing social research for altruistic motives rather than solely for career advancement.

“There is a struggle to not be exploitative. We can be rewarded when people tell us their sob stories,” Worgs said. “Are we there because we really want to help folks and we want to transform the world, or is it just an activism tourism? Just a training ground for our careers, testing ground for our theories?”

The first panel, titled “Community Solidarity, Popular Struggle,” included presentations on marginalized groups around the world and how they have come together throughout history to achieve recognition of their rights.

Obed Ventura (SFS ’19), who moderated the panel, highlighted the overarching theme of struggle by the oppressed.

“In all these cases, struggle means fighting the existing structure in order to create a better world for the marginalized among us and at times, ourselves,” Ventura said. “It also means demanding space in a world that often denies or distorts narratives of the oppressed.”

Barbara Anne Kozee (SFS ’17), who presented her research on the challenges, successes and conditions of community organizing in urban Latin America, said she intended to identify useful strategies for mobilization.

“I tried to use the different struggles and successes to create a larger framework of how we can view community organizing — what worked, what didn’t work and what we can take into the future,” Kozee said.

In a final reflection on the role of academia in the struggle against oppression, Worgs quoted Spanish poet Antonio Machado’s “We Make the Road by Walking,” saying it encompassed the function of scholarship in activism.

“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking,” Worgs quoted. “By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again.”

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