New York Liberation School: Study and Movement for the People’s University

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    Conor Tomás Reed

    Publisher: Common Notions

    Year: 2023

    Format: Paperback

    Size: 256 pages

    ISBN: 9781942173687

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In the 1960s and ’70s—when Toni Cade Bambara, Samuel Delany, David Henderson, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Guillermo Morales, Adrienne Rich, and Assata Shakur all studied and taught at CUNY—New York City’s classrooms and streets radiated as epicenters of Black, Puerto Rican, queer, and women’s liberation.

Conor Tomás Reed is part of the next generation of insurgent CUNY thinkers nourished by these legacies. Highlighting the decolonial feminist metamorphosis that transformed our educational landscape, New York Liberation School explores how study and movement coalesced across classrooms and neighborhoods. Reed’s immersive and wide-ranging narrative brings us into the archives and up close to the stories of its main participants in order to reactivate these vibrant histories. The result is a radiant reclamation of collective history that charts a vision for liberating education and society today.

About the Author

Conor ‘Coco’ Tomás Reed is a Puerto Rican/Irish gender-fluid scholar-organizer of radical cultural movements at the City University of New York. Conor is codeveloping the quadrilingual anthology Black Feminist Studies in the Americas and the Caribbean, and is the current comanaging editor of LÁPIZ Journal and a contributing editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. Conor is a cofounding participant in Free CUNY, Rank and File Action, and Reclaim the Commons, and a member of CUNY for Abortion Rights.


What People Are Saying

“City University of New York has a very long history of making revolutionaries. It was a magnet for students and some faculty who recognized the indivisibility of the campus and the street, study and struggle. New York Liberation School turns to CUNY’s insurgent history to offer lessons for how we might remake higher education and the world.”—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

“This exciting telling of the City University of New York's radical history inspires us to imagine its future. Despite endless givebacks by administration and pushbacks from the state, CUNY professors and students contribute to and are influenced by the larger popular movements at home and around the world. By centering such crucial professors as Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, Tony Cade Bambara; and students like  Samuel Delaney, Assatta Shakur; and many grassroots activists in movements from Puerto Rican Independence to Palestine Liberation; Conor Tomás Reed makes record of what a university for poor and working-class people can give to the world. New York Liberation School is a necessary study that enriches our understanding and imagining.”—Sarah Schulman, former CUNY student and faculty and author of Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York

New York Liberation School recovers the political organizing led by coalitions of students and educators to decolonize CUNY, the heart of NYC public education. Moving seamlessly between campus and streets, and foregrounding CUNY leaders like June Jordan and Audre Lorde, this book offers a rich archive of radical experimentation, creativity, and institution-building to a new generation fighting for justice.”—Robyn C. Spencer, professor of history at Lehman College, CUNY, and author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party

“Conor Tomás Reed has gifted us with words that narrate the meaning of struggle of and for the university. Ranging from early twentieth movements around the university and militarism, to student and faculty struggles for Black and Puerto Rican Studies, to the most recent assaults against the neoliberal turn and Occupy, the story of the many reimaginations of City College, New York are not only a reminder of what the people’s university might be, this book arranges itself as a demand for what it must be. This is a book for students and organizers, for committed scholars, and for our surrounding communities. Reed shows us that these are the people who must determine the future of these spaces. This book listens to the past for instruction, for these forebears have much to offer. We must thank Reed for allowing their voices space to be heard again. Now our choices for the future, the future of the university, will be conscious ones.”—Joshua Myers, author of Of Black Study

"If you don't want to join CUNY in heart and mind after reading this book, check your pulse. The university re-visioned here as a site of coalitional struggle is, simultaneously, our world in the act of being re-made. To use the author's metaphor, New York Liberation School is a boomerang. Hold on tight to this living history."—Matt Brim, professor of queer studies at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York and author of Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University

“An electrifying account of social ferment and educational experimentation. Reed constructs a living archive of the campus and street insurgencies that aimed to fulfill the democratic promise of a people’s university. From antiracist, feminist, and queer student mobilizations to the emancipatory pedagogies of Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, and Adrienne Rich, New York Liberation School illuminates the visions of City College radicals who strove to democratize both the production of knowledge and the organization of society. In the age of neoliberal education, we desperately need this history of grassroots efforts to revolutionize learning. New York Liberation School is a gift to current and future campus rebels who wish to resist conformity and corporatization, reconstruct social relations, and reimagine what it means to be human.”—Russell Rickford, author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination

“Reed delivers an excellent guidebook for resisting the university from within. This is a story about how we create, with each other, the new worlds we seek; how we write, discuss, teach, and dream collectively in the service of our liberation. By sitting with the groundbreaking written work of intellectuals, cultural workers, students, and activists, and contextualizing it within the movements and political struggles that they were engaged in, Reed illustrates how the production of community organizing and artistic compositions go hand-in-hand to fuel the creation of new social and political possibilities. A must-read for those inside the academy, disillusioned with its limitations, as well as those outside of the academy, curious about its possibilities. Reed makes clear that a learning process occurs through political struggle and that it can transform people, communities, and institutions.”—Amaka Okechukwu, author of To Fulfill These Rights: Political Struggle Over Affirmative Action and Open Admissions

“If you want to make a more liberatory university, city, and world, you need to read this book! New York Liberation School dives into the oceanic depths of social upheaval at CUNY, inviting us to ride the waves of struggles with intersecting movements that rippled across generations and between the campus and wider city. Rather than abandoning the university as a site of power, students and educators built coalitional power to transform the institution while grappling with counter-insurgencies and recomposing themselves.”—Eli Meyerhoff, author of Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World

“This is a book about the City University of New York, which is to say that it is about the students and the streets of the city writ large; it is a book about struggles for Black Studies, which is to say, as June Jordan does, ‘Life Studies’; it is a book about poetry, which is to say that it is about collective dreaming: ‘To realize this dream, a Black University required a physical space of becoming.’ Reed engages in powerful world-building here—mapping experiments, new classes and pedagogies, the development of counter-institutions within the university, and the ways in which each and everyone who participated evolved in their thinking, being, and connecting with others along the way. What renders this mapping an impressive act of counter-cartography is how Reed accomplishes this through lecture notes, syllabi, student newsletters, poems, interviews, and communiqués, rather than the history publicized by those in power. This book has profound implications for activists pondering movement strategy and struggling with questions of legitimation, co-optation, and repression, for those of us thinking about liberatory practices and spaces for learning in universities, and for all of us engaged in the work of building meaningful solidarities. It is a galvanizing joy.”  —Celina Su, professor of urban studies and political science at the City University of New York, and author of Landia and Streetwise for Book Smarts: Grassroots Organizing and Education Reform in the Bronx.


By Fall 1970, when the CUNY Board of Higher Education accelerated and expanded the admissions demand for the creation of “Open Admissions,” Jordan converted these conditions into an immensely fruitful period of creativity. Not only did she travel all over the New York area to speak to a wide range of audiences; she also went to Mississippi to research voting rights and land reform with activist Fannie Lou Hamer and writer Alice Walker, and visited Rome as the winner of the Prix de Rome in environmental design. Jordan also wrote a young adult novel in Black vernacular English, His Own Where, and published soulscript, a collection of African American poetry featuring the work of some of her students.

Jordan’s innovative public writings made specific demands on anti-poverty legislation, neighborhood safety, language apartheid in schooling, the limits of respectability politics, and beyond. Together with her colleagues and students, she worked to convey the possibilities of opening up Life Studies to entire cities. The SEEK practice of publishing popular anthologies of poetry and prose—featuring CUNY faculty and student writing—allowed people to access their work nationwide in a democratizing exchange of educational resources.This Black feminist effort to slowly decolonize the publishing industry’s materials was a complex process that sometimes also saw the elision of class distinctions across lines of race and gender, causing some writers who didn’t fit the new paradigms to fall through the cracks.

Meanwhile, the struggle in CUNY to maintain Open Admissions and establish a form of community control that could account for Bambara’s “Black University,” Henderson’s “Black City,” and Jordan’s “Life Studies” intensified and continued, despite considerable backlash. From 1970 onwards, conservative CUNY faculty and mainstream media crafted a racist elitist discourse on “The Death of the University”—in which Open Admissions allegedly only benefited poor Black and Puerto Rican students, and thus CUNY’s standards were in a downward spiral—which detracted attention away from the deep retrenchment of fewer resources for larger classes. As Jordan understood from her housing advocacy days, the long-practiced urban policy of maintaining overcrowded and under-resourced slums in the Bronx, Harlem, Lower East Side, and other impoverished areas became a model for forcibly overcrowding and underfunding CUNY after Open Admissions.

On a daily interpersonal level, the impact of these policies exhausted teachers, students, and staff at City College, even as they became nationally recognized as a site of transformative admissions and writing pedagogies. Nevertheless, these colleagues tenderly looked after each other, their families, and their related creative projects. For example, after receiving Audre Lorde’s 1971 poem “Dear Toni Instead of a Letter of Congratulations Upon Your Book and Your Daughter Whom You Are Raising To Be A Correct Little Sister” which recounts their time at City College together, Bambara’s response still beams from the archives. She writes,

tryin to think of a really balanced way to say thank you for the stunning poem… I mean stunning. So just wow, Audre, it’s a fantastic poem.

And in a November 1973 letter from Jordan to Lorde, after reading her friend’s poem “Movement Song,” she writes,

I have to report that I am spending these days... in the cleaning of my house, and myself, I guess; trying to get ready for winter—a rotten winter like the one last year, when I ran out of everything— food, health—but this time I figure I'd better get the novel written—hell or high water, and then move on. So I am mostly calm, during the day. And gesturing closer and closer to my real work. Maybe god has intervened—to stop all this "teaching" stuff and "travelling" stuff so I can/must concentrate on the dream unwritten still, and still a longing for the people of my heart. You keep well, please, and keep in touch, and keep the poem alive.

After a few years of teaching stints at Connecticut College, Sarah Lawrence College, and Yale University, Jordan returned to City College in 1975. At this moment, university austerity measures became a national issue by the end of the war in Vietnam and the imposition of domestic structural readjustment that, in New York City, took on the form of a fiscal crisis that demanded an end to free higher education via the imposition of tuition for all CUNY students.

In a May 5, 1976, City University of New York board hearing to impose universal tuition for the first time in its 129-year history, Jordan expressed outrage as one of thirteen City College professors on hunger strike to demand that CUNY remain free. Applying her arguments from a decade earlier in “Brief History of the Lower East Side” and “The Determining Slum,” she lauds CUNY’s historic access to poor European immigrant students, but notes that once Black and Puerto Rican students began to enter the university in larger numbers, free education was suddenly imperiled. Jordan frames the imposition of tuition in the terms of survival, in which, implicitly, Life Studies is endangered. She warns that ending free tuition and, therefore, truly Open Admissions would bear grave consequences for the city.

We cannot accept the death of this great, free University because we cannot accept the death of the spirit, the death of aspirations, the death of the future, that will surely follow for our children, the students… We will fast. We will take a cut in salary. We will fight. The possibility that we may lose is not a possibility: we have to win… We speak on behalf of our children, and our students; we call upon all of the people of the City of New York to join with us on behalf of all the children and all of the students of the City of New York, to resist this death.

A wildcat strike committee formed within Jordan’s union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), urging workers to reject tuition costs alongside an austerity job contract that the PSC leadership argued was the best it could do. As these union organizers feared, the Fall 1976 tuition policy

coincided with almost 5,000 layoffs of faculty and staff (many of whom had helped to usher in Open Admissions, including all adjuncts), the erasure of recently won ethnic studies classes, and threats to close new CUNY colleges like Hostos and Medgar Evers.

Jordan herself would be laid off from City College for one semester, and then return for a final year to mentor and teach poetry to future luminous writers like Sekou Sundiata. Even in this tumultuous period, Jordan nurtured living room with her students to create “useful, that is, the usable, criticism of poems” towards communal goals of creative expression. In contrast, these aggressive economic structural readjustments would pave the way for a significant reversal of 1960s-70s social movements’ aspirations. The subsequent “retrenchment period” at CUNY resulted in massive city and state budget cuts, skyrocketing tuition fees, and expanded adjunct faculty ratios whose exploitation was enshrined by multiple PSC-CUNY contract agreements. CUNY and New York City suffered economic shock therapy that would soon bend the nation’s cities and colleges towards privatization and sharpened inequalities.

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