School Is In Session: How one history professor is modeling the future of labor education

by Douglas Williams

Douglas Williams

Douglas Williams

Sometimes, the greatest ideas and innovations begin unintentionally. So it was with #SaturdaySchool, the weekly Twitter social justice teach-in hosted by Rhonda Ragsdale, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice and Associate Professor of history at Lone Star College:

“On Saturday mornings, my children would be asleep and I decided to make that space a time for myself. But I didn’t want to really get out of bed or do any work, and seeing as I always had a technological device in my hand, I would always do these teaching rants on some article I had read. And some of my followers started calling this ‘Saturday School’, and tweeting ‘Hey look, @profragsdale is doing Saturday School again.’”

#SaturdaySchool has become a weekly get-together for progressive and leftist activists on Twitter to share information and gain a greater understanding of the issues that affect our communities. It is a fun way to engage those who work both in and out of various progressive causes. But as Ragsdale pointed out in my interview with her, she is simply following a long-held tradition in American social movement activism.

Teach-ins are large forums where people can gain understanding about sociopolitical issues. They are mixtures of education and activism where the participants are expected to take the information they learn and use it to engage in direct action. Though teach-ins on topics like lynching had been occurring since the early 20th century, this social movement tactic first entered the public consciousness this week in 1965. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a majority of the faculty had agreed to go on a one-day strike against the war, which earned them the opposition of the Governor (George Romney, not ironically), the Chancellor, and their fellow faculty, who threatened to censure those who refused to teach their classes. At a meeting designed to come up with alternative actions that professors could still use to show their disapproval with the war, a professor in the Anthropology department came up with an idea: the faculty would teach their classes. But instead of letting students out at the normal time, they would continue teaching. All night. And so it was: the teach-ins of March 24-25 drew over 200 faculty and 3,000 students. The teach-in swept through college campuses in 1965, with a teach-in at the University of California at Berkeley being the largest. That one attracted 30,000 students from May 21-23.

Teach-ins, Ragsdale says, are effective because “they have a high potential to mobilize, and you create group solidarity and consciousness through hashtags and linking community groups to one another.” As any organizer can tell you, this is important: so often we see organizations seeking to reinvent the wheel, especially when it is a national progressive organization that is entering a battle that local activists have already been fighting in for a while. When a forum like #SaturdaySchool addresses a topic that gets people discussing the struggles that they have faced in organizing around a particular issue in a particular place, it can act as a signpost to make folks aware of ongoing activism in a particular community. This small bit of information makes movements stronger and builds the sort of intramovemental trust that we see precious little of nowadays. Ragsdale has connected with folks through #SaturdaySchool who have engaged in offline research projects with her; not only is this great for movement-building, it is also beneficial for the research that undergirds progressive activism.

The power of social media as a teaching tool is not limited to hashtags on Twitter, according to Ragsdale. She also singles out Pinterest (yes, that Pinterest) as a medium that social justice-minded folks can use to inform and teach people, discussing how one of the participants in Saturday School has a great social justice collection on the medium. “It’s another digital archive that could be used in classrooms….Sociological Images is another one that has just great collections on Pinterest.”

The effectiveness of digital teach-ins like #SaturdaySchool are so apparent, it is a wonder why the labor movement has not sought to engage in a similar kind of activity. Outside of the AFL-CIO Digital Training Series that took place last summer, I have not seen many efforts to engage the labor community on Twitter in labor education. That is a mistake: Twitter users are likely to be younger and highly educated on the whole, and they are also more mobile. And given that those demographics are more likely to support the labor movement, engaging in accessible labor education with Twitter denizens seems like a no-brainer.

The great thing about utilizing the progressive and social justice networks on Twitter to do digital teach-ins is that there are a lot of people out there with all kinds of specializations in research and praxis. It is no different within the labor community: we have amazing journalistsacademicsorganizersstrategists, and engaged leadership that are one click away. Ragsdale advises labor to utilize those assets, stating that “…most are willing to participate in online teach-ins for free or little more than a thank you tweet.” Social media gives us unprecedented access to the folks who shape the way the labor movement; we must use that proximity to educate the public about the challenges and struggles workers face on the workplace, as well as what individuals can do about it

Growing up in the South, moving to the Midwest, and then moving back South again has given me a lot of perspective on the ways in which the labor movement is simply invisible down here. That invisibility has consequences. There are people who are genuinely opposed to the labor movement on ideological or personal grounds in places like Alabama; that much is obvious. You will never reach those folks no matter how good your organizing plan or labor education apparatus is.

But there are also a lot of folks who are simply following the prevailing opinion in their community, and have little information on the impact of a labor union. There are also folks who are aware that unions are needed, but not necessarily up on the why or how. It is these groups of people that are most affected when the battle between labor and management is constantly framed from the latter’s point of view, and they can make the difference between a unionized workplace and a company victory.

For them, teach-ins on labor are needed, both offline and on Twitter. Rhonda Ragsdale is modeling the future of labor education for us all to see; we would do well to heed her example.

BR>

Douglas Williams  is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alabama, where his research centers around public policy as it relates to disadvantaged communities and the labor movement.  He regularly posts on the excellent new group blog The South Lawn. This piece originally appeared at Hack The Union.

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