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02 tender musings: education as emancipation
These tender musings will come monthly-ish as I think out loud with you. Scroll to the bottom for a roundup of grassroots movements to learn about and support, arts and culture that has saved me at my lowest, and experienced in the pockets of the world I call home in its multitude of definitions because culture is the soul of a people and heart of revolution. If anything here resonated with you, let me know, send to a friend, and reshare on social media.
Source: TriContinental: Institute for Social Research, "The PAIGC’s Political Education for Liberation in Guinea-Bissau, 1963–74"
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Graduation season passed in May in New York City, and the caps and gowns were out in full force – the sea of purple in downtown Manhattan, the red up in the Bronx. I sweat just looking at them. September means a return to school, and the crisp air reminds me of the nervous anticipation and fear going into every school year growing up. I recognize the limitations of a formal, bourgeois educational institution – its roots in replicating colonial structures of learning, in multiplying the number of middle management workers for corporations, in indebting us further.
I recognize the way institutions make me feel absolutely inadequate, small, and incapable; forced to talk, study, write, learn a certain way. After attending a meritocratic, challenging public high school in downtown Manhattan, traveling from one end of the E train in Queens to the other in TriBeCa (strategically placing myself in front of the suited white man because I knew they would get off in midtown for their investment banks and I could sit), I was only eighteen years old and already demoralized and burnt.
New York City’s tale of two cities and reincarnated Gilded Age is real and something about going to school next to a Whole Foods and SoulCycle really helps you come into your class consciousness. An arbitrary exam taken in the eighth grade leading to receiving all the resources needed in a high school churning out Ivy League graduates, I realized quickly the power and need for true liberatory education; from equitable access to physical materials to the mental unshackling of youth from dominant ideology. In the decade-plus since, I’ve taught social studies to 9th graders in my hood trying to dismantle in curriculum the idealization of the Industrial Revolution, organized alongside parents and students for culturally responsive curriculum to reflect our diverse student population in texts, studied worker cooperatives and Freirean education models in Buenos Aires, and most recently develop political and popular educational programming to literally understand and counteract the hegemonic, capitalist education we are fed and demoralized by.
It is a shame that institutions and their often toxic structures, curriculum, and agenda have left us so wary of continued education. I see it in students in our classes at The People’s Forum – absolutely traumatized to approach long texts, in my middle school students in the Bronx – eyes rolling at any teacher at the front of a room. However, we can dramatically shift what education looks like for us, if we see it as a liberatory practice, and see one another and our communities, as our teachers.
I say all this, because I’ve taken a hiatus in the last few months from sending out this newsletter and major projects, and changed my lifestyle so that I could study and pursue something that absolutely terrifies me to the core. After a decade in social justice and movement spaces, it became clear to me that the gap of knowledge I felt gate kept by in order to tangibly show up for the movement, is the law, the code of our imperial society. I want to understand it, learn it, and wield it to protect and build with our people. I’m myself a victim of toxic institutional schooling and why so many wounds surfaced while studying for the law school entrance exam. I cried, shut down, battled imposter syndrome, and questioned my abilities. It’s a multiple year long journey to admittance and completion, while working and pursuing creative passions that spiritually nourish, and while it makes me uncomfortable to share out loud an in-progress path, in a true practice of vulnerability, imperfection, and an ask of community to keep me grounded, I put this into the ether. The journey to getting there is expensive, mentally challenging, emotionally laborious, and requires long stretches of solitude to study and write. I’m not sure I have the discipline to do this and the institutions make me want to curl up into a ball, but we need more grassroots organizers and cultural workers in spaces like that, learning and then bringing that technical expertise to the ground.
And yet, sometimes I do ask myself, as I think we might all do in existential bouts of confusion – where will all this lead to? When it is so much easier to succumb to a comfortable 9-5 job on something we don’t care about, wait patiently until the next prescribed vacation days, use disposable income to pursue leisure, return to work and grind, rinse and repeat? It is fed to us as the marker of success, the afforded stability a salve to the uncontrollable chaos of destructive world we live in. And when I’m hit with these moments of passing cynicism or dread, I simply remind myself of the power that the people build, of organization, from Bangladeshi tea workers striking in Sylhet right now, to mutual aid in Jackson, Mississippi as infrastructural failure has left water undrinkable. We have a duty to one another, and we can get there if we all wholeheartedly believe that a new world is possible and put in ten percent more.
Yes, I am pursuing a technical tool, but ultimately we all need to work to develop the working class intellectual. If we are to build towards socialism, we need strong studies on the left, a firm grounding in theory, an unabashed desire to read and learn history so that we can forge a future ahead for our liberation. We need to learn, and then we need to teach, create, write. This means all of us– across all fields, disciplines, reading styles, learning preferences. That without a historical grounding, we will find ourselves continually churning our wheels meeting material needs, getting burnt out, becoming cynical without a grander analysis and method of understanding the current moment. There is no doubt the working class has practice on our side. Those of us organizing, fighting for housing and healthcare for all, coordinating to get food on our table, filling community fridges, writing and making art of and for the marginalized, see everyday the struggle and the inequities facing our people. But how do we continue the work without getting burnt out? How do we see news such as the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and not fall into a jaded panic?
Bask in the histories of liberation struggles from Guinea Bissau to Vietnam, explore art and culture made from the Black Panthers to Palestinian youth to build political consciousness, read writing of revolutionary thinkers who moved minds from Claudia Jones to Malcolm X, watch films on the 1961 literacy campaign in Cuba and 1970s Bengali activists in London’s Brick Lane fighting white fascism, discuss political contexts with your friends here and internationally, share on social media, and inspire one another. It’s all been written for us, many paths have been tried, and it’s on us to study the past, analyze the current moment, do, and forge ahead. Every single one of us is, can, and should be an educator and organizer.
With these tender musings aside, I’m eager to share another round of grassroots people’s movements, political education resources, and the vibrant arts & culture I am fortunate to be held by. P.S. I’m currently in London for a month, learning from the streets and songs of another imperial core, so find below links from both cities. I learn and grow through conversation and dialogue, so drop me a note, direct message, comment and let’s chat!!
With much love and solidarity,
Let the grassroots movements lead us and inspire us…
#SaveBrickLane! Part of the reason I’m in London for an extended amount of time is to learn from the adept organizing and legal battle of Nijjor Manush and the coalition fighting to protect the spirit of historically Bengali Brick Lane in East London in the face of major corporate development. The anti-gentrification and displacement struggle here is a mirror to what we see happening in Queens, Bed Stuy, lower Manhattan as unaffordable high rise buildings and offices replace communities and make our city uninhabitable. We just saw the people win in Astoria, Queens as organizers built local power to shut down the $2 billion development, Innovation Queens. Here in London, Brick Lane has been a refuge for centuries, from the 17th century Huguenot silk weavers fleeing religious persecution in France, Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, and most recently Bangladeshi Muslims following Bangladesh’s independence in the 1970s. It is an area with a deep history of working class solidarity between Asian, Caribbean, and Jewish communities fighting racism and fascism. There is a lot to learn from one another’s strategies and history and I’m eager to share more – stay tuned!
Tea garden workers in Sylhet, Bangladesh strike! They’ve staged rallies, withheld work, and demand a living daily wage.
This summer, the people of Colombia signalled a break to the political neoliberal status quo and elected their first leftist president, Gustavo Petro, and first Black Vice President, activist Francia Marquez. The win shifts the tide on US hegemony in the continent! Colombia holds 8 US military bases and has historically served as a point to attempt the destabilization of countries like Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti. It holds one of the highest rates of assassinations of activists, and one of the largest economies in Latin America. …Peru, Honduras, Chile and now Colombia… Next is Brazil! [SEE: A conversation between Francia Marquez and Angela Davis, hosted by The People’s Forum]
“Water is dignity. Water is life.” As infrastructural failure has left Jackson, Mississippi residents with undrinkable water, residents distribute water to one another. I didn’t think I’d have to say these words in 2022 - it is water mutual aid. The goal is to work towards a state and society where this is not considered normal nor necessary.
For your bookshelf…
Be Not Afraid of Love - Mimi Zhu
What a special experience to hold your dear friend’s book in your hands and understand them more intimately through the gift of their words. Be Not Afraid of Love is a collection of interconnected essays and affirmations that follow Mimi Zhu’s journey toward embodying and re-learning love after a violent relationship. They write powerfully on anger, grief, and the vulnerability of allowing yourself to be intimate again after experiencing pain. Mimi has a strong grasp on how capitalist and racist structures magnify the tribulations of these journeys. A powerful, thoughtful, and provoking collection and every page has been a hug while I’ve been living by myself here in London.
Other books I’ve been reading and enjoying…
Sultana’s Dream - Begum Rokeya. A classic, short 1905 Bengali feminist utopian novel where women rule and innovate, patriarchal roles are reversed, and war does not exist. (English PDF available). I picked up a version in Bangla when I was in Bangladesh in January (no, I can’t read it but it’s a relic!).
Time is a Mother - Ocean Vuong
Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 - Susan Sontag
“Artists of Puerto Rico” DJ Raqx for Refuge Worldwide, aired live in Berlin, July 2022. Dedicated Proxy explores identity, creative work and lives of people around the world. On this episode proxy_404 invites New York based, German and Puerto Rican DJ Raqx who went to Puerto Rico and interviewed Puerto Rican artists about their identity, creative work and the vibrant music scene on the island. This mix is a sonic exploration of stories, experiences and music selections from Puerto Rican DJs and musicians Ibn Itaka, Payola, Diego Hauz and Rafa Pabon. Raquel is also my sister, roommate, and confidant and watching her navigate bicultural identity through music is irrevocably special.
“From Fumiya To The Jacking Zone” - DJ Wawa’s mix for Mixtape Club has been on repeat for its funky and varied jumpy tunes accompanying me on breaks between studying. In particular, I can’t stop thinking about how the second track on the mix, “Shed - Well Done My Son” has the same chords and beat of classic 1982 Bengali disco song, “Aaj Shanibar” by Rupa!
London - Angel Bat Dawid
I Love Music - Ahmad Jamal Trio
Hotel Amour - Tara Lily
Rain - Sunday Service Choir
September 22, Reference Point, London, UK | “The Road to Nowhere presents; The Commodification of Culture” Do diaspora creatives always have to create work relating to their culture in order to be marketable in today’s creative industry?
September 23, Phonox, London, UK | DJs Yung Singh, Anu, Riva, Talvin Singh
Until September 23, Moma PS1, Queens, NY | Queensbridge Photo Collective: Still Like Air, I Rise
September 24 and 25, Mood Ring, Brooklyn, NY | 5 year anniversary party! feat. DJs Kfeelz, Riobamba, Haruka, and more
Until September 29, V.O Curations, London, UK | “Guardian Angel” a film exhibition by Olukemi Lijadu. Told through the personal lens of the artist’s relationship with her late grandmother, Guardian Angel explores how Nigerian and western belief systems form relationships to religion and spirituality of post-colonial societies.
Sending all the love to the communities I’m surrounded by. Drop me a note on your thoughts!
Tahia Islam is a cultural and community organizer, political activist, stylist, and educator from New York City.
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