Campus Highlight: Encuentros: The Obligation of the Academy and the Praxis of Intergenerational Oral Histories

By Li Adorno, Organizer, Movimiento Cosecha; Jennifer Ayala, Education Professor and Director of the Center for Undocumented Students, Saint Peter’s University (SPU); Karim Azzam, Youth Activist, Roxboro Middle School, Cleveland Heights; Maria Del Cielo Mendez, Youth Organizer, Make the Road New Jersey, and Student, SPU; Elsy Cruz, Graduate, SPU; Michelle Fine, Professor of Critical Psychology, City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center; Samuel Finesurrey, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Stella and Charles Guttman Community College (GCC); Anne Galletta, Professor of Education, Cleveland State University; Juan Carlos Garcia Rivera, Doctoral Student in Critical Psychology, CUNY Graduate Center; Katie Haas, Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union; Angelica Houston, Graduate Student in Education Policy, University of Pennsylvania; vanessa jones, Founder, Artivist InK; Viandry Mena, Student, GCC; Andrea Nikté Juarez Mendoza, Doctoral Student in Urban Education, CUNY Graduate Center; Dion Mungo, Student, Cleveland State University; Rosa Santana, Program Director, First Friends of New Jersey and New York; Hermanica Thelusca, Student, GCC; Ariadna Villeda, Student, GCC

After a year of conducting participatory action research, the authors of this article gathered at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey, just miles from a major immigrant detention center. The event, “Encuentros in the Borderlands: Activism, Critical Youth Research, and Obligations of the University,” was a one-day gathering that included panel discussions, performance art, and community dialogue. Collectively, our efforts sought to identify obstacles to justice for immigrants and other marginalized people and to offer scholarly tools to support each other in our respective struggles to combat persecution on the basis of race, ethnicity, or migration status.

Our work is situated in soil already tilled by Antonio Gramsci, who wrote in his Italian prison cell one hundred years ago about the “morbid symptoms” that appear in moments of crisis.[1] It is inspired by the passions of people like Oscar Romero and Ignacio Martín-Baró, two slain Jesuit martyrs whose legacy of fighting for human rights challenged dominant lies.[2] We lean on the inspiring words of the late Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa, who understood how all struggle in the borderlands resides among love, laughter, and resistance in a space where radical possibilities are borne.[3] We imagine our academic institutions—Saint Peter’s University (SPU), Stella and Charles Guttman Community College (GCC), Cleveland State University, and the City University of New York Graduate Center—as bold enough to bear witness, provide sanctuary, and build with students an archive of never-heard stories that reveal both structural violence and radical possibilities.

Through our Encuentros conference, we aimed to provoke a conversation about the responsibility of institutions of higher learning to engage students as scholars and activists in moments of national crisis. With particular attention to oral history, our work as students and faculty offers qualitative material for researchers and activists looking to revolutionize notions of race, nationality, and belonging. In this project and on our campuses, we take oral history seriously as a pedagogy to free buried stories of those like working-class students, immigrants, and students of color, and to spread forms of knowledge that augment or question what passes for hegemonic histories.

The Encuentros conference began with a panel of experts on the current immigration crisis in the United States. The discussants detailed their work, which exposed the trauma faced by immigrants attempting to seek asylum, those living with the fear and reality of state-sponsored family separation, those from Central America facing painful realities once they are deported, and those participating in grassroots resistance efforts that challenge current systems of power. Presenters included Li Adorno, an SPU alumnus and activist with immigrant justice group Movimiento Cosecha, who described his individual and collective journey as an organizer advocating for immigrant dignity and permanent protection. Katie Haas, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, offered an overview of the national picture on immigration. Liberation psychologist Juan Carlos Garcia Rivera detailed his work with “retornados”—those returned to El Salvador—sharing tales of humanity amidst crises of fear and belonging. Youth organizer and education scholar Andrea Nikté Juarez Mendoza, who has been working with and writing about the detention camps at the US-Mexico border, amplified the struggle of people whose freedom has been stolen and whose suffering has been silenced by the US government. The panel was moderated by Rosa Santana, an advocate working with First Friends of New Jersey and New York on behalf of those in detention, who also shared her experiences in this work.

The second panel explored oral history as a practice of theory braiding, critical student development, and movement building. Maria del Cielo Mendez, a student at SPU and youth leader at Make the Road New Jersey, described her work as an organizer and oral historian gathering narratives of those who risked their safety to accomplish the incredible final passage of the New Jersey Dream Act. As Maria noted in her comments about the role of community in achieving tuition equity and financial aid access for undocumented students in New Jersey, “The whole fight was based in community. If they cried, they cried together. If there was a setback, they came up with a solution together. If they won, they won together.”[4]

Guttman students Viandry Mena and Ariadna Villeda followed, speaking about their work as oral history instructors and mentors for immigrant ninth graders in New York to collaboratively document the trajectories of the ninth graders’ former classmates from School in the Square middle school in Manhattan. Mena and Villeda explained that these youth researchers were selected from the first graduating class to study ninety of their fellow students, mostly Latinx graduates, over a five-year longitudinal inquiry as they navigate high school in one of the most socioeconomically divided cities in the nation. This study will offer windows into communities targeted by anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy.

Researchers from Cleveland State University partnered with the Cleveland Public Library system to draw on archives and oral histories in the retelling of a school boycott against racial segregation in 1964. Project team member Karim Azzam spoke of connections between the structural violence experienced by black students and their families and the violence of anti-Islamic views he experienced while in elementary school. In his oral history project, Dion Mungo, a student at Cleveland State University, traced ties between himself and a youth he supported in the past, noting the intergenerational dimensions of oral history. Angelica Houston, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, outlined methods to recruit youth as oral historians and elders to narrate their experience of the school boycott. And vanessa jones, founder of Artivist InK, spoke of exploring forms of racial justice within the research space in a manner that “holds the academy accountable for bringing theory to practice” through the Crafting Radical Histories project.[5]

Guttman student Hermanica Thelusca led a conversation on the Texas-based HBCU Truth & Reconciliation Oral History Project. This project, piloted by black Christian organizations, HBCUs, and the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University, is dedicated to documenting experiences of African Americans and Chicanx who have been subjected to historic and modern manifestations of white supremacy. Thelusca recalled the testimony she collected of a black woman who, upon receiving news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death from a white woman on a bus, felt obligated to “contain her rage” and to engage in a public display of double consciousness[6] until she could find safe refuge to mourn.

Once the individual oral histories were presented, we gathered on stage—across institutions, generations, and projects—to contemplate on the delicate responsibility of oral history and what it means to carry stories of elders who fought so hard, only to see schools remain segregated today. We reflected on topics like learning to heal wounds that are still open, what it’s like to be so intimate with a grandfather that “told me what he never told anyone,” and how an oral historian “realized that my struggle is so different from, but related to the trauma” of those interviewed. The students spoke of their new-found strengths as interviewers and their deep responsibility to carry and curate stories that had been buried.

We have decided, together, to produce materials for the communities we work with, to write a collaboratively authored article on critical pedagogy in the neo-liberal academy, and to produce short documentaries for use by organizers, educators, youth, and immigration-justice workers. We are now editing four hours of video to create a series of short clips on the immigration struggle, the obligation of the academy, the intellectual and ethical power of oral history, and our collective responsibility to restorative justice.

We had many goals, but student voice was central to these projects. In Cleveland and Washington Heights, in Jersey City and at the US-Mexican border, in El Salvador and in our sweet Encuentros space, we designed a medley of cross-generational voices, engaged in intimate learning across generations, and ethically brought buried stories to light—perhaps our most sustaining accomplishment. Our work was enormously enriched by transgenerational dialogues building up to and planning Encuentros; our interviews with each other and others across time and space; the wisdom, dedication, and curiosity of the undergraduate researchers documenting struggles that came before, carving paths yet to be realized, and giving voice to elders who sacrificed and have never been recognized. As emergent historians, these young people are developing their own academic, cultural, and ethical voices. They, and we, now embody an ethical inheritance, an obligation to carry sacred stories of struggle to audiences.

With our rich audience and a panel of lawyers, scholars, teachers, and activists, we are friends and comrades brought together with two small grants from Bringing Theory to Practice and APA CODAPAR, who believe that the university campus—like areas along the Rio Grande River—is a borderland marked with blood, conquest, and elitism, but also of ideas, laughter, and social movements. Across campuses and projects, our intellectual passions brought us together by our beliefs that universities are places where we can weave tapestries of knowledge, solidarities, and perspectives that don’t usually fit together; where we can invite students to hear their own voices and produce knowledge that honors the voices of their elders; and where we can involve community members and academic partners like librarians in archiving the stories of who we have been, who we are, and who we will be.




[1]  Zygmunt Bauman, “Times of Interregnum,” Ethics & Global Politics 5, no. 1 (2012): 49–56, https://doi.org/10.3402/egp.v5i1.17200 .

[2]  Haydee Rodriguez, “El Salvador’s Martyrs Give Life to Ideas,” Baltimore Sun, November 19, 2000, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-2000-11-19-0011180214-story.html.

[3]  Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012).

[4]  Maria del Cielo Mendez, “Encuentros in the Borderlands: Activism, Critical Youth Research, and Obligations of the University” (presentation, Jersey City, New Jersey, September 26, 2019).

[5]  vanessa jones, “Encuentros in the Borderlands: Activism, Critical Youth Research, and Obligations of the University” (presentation, Jersey City, New Jersey, September 26, 2019).

[6]  W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People,” Atlantic, August 1897, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1897/08/strivings-of-the-ne....