Ananya Roy is a faculty member at Activist Graduate School where she co-teaches a course on Housing Justice Activism and Protest–Past, Present and Future with Occupy Wall Street’s Micah White (Team Human Ep. 04). Roy is a professor of Urban Planning and Social Welfare at UCLA, where she is also director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy.
In this conversation for Team Human, Roy and Douglas Rushkoff explore what it means to be a “double agent” as activists, educators, and instigators of social change.
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Here is a Partial Transcript
(may contain errors.)
Ananya Roy: Well, there's so much in what you've said that has been on my mind for a while, and as you know, this very much shaped our activism at UC Berkeley almost a decade ago when we faced severe budget cuts, tuition hikes, and other forms of neoliberal restructuring. So, one thing to think about is that universities have always been in the United States institutions of racial capitalism. Public or private. I think several universities are doing their own forms of reckoning with their histories that are entangled with slavery. I think land grant institutions are thinking very much about whose land we are on, such as UCLA. We like to think of ourselves as one of the country's most important public universities, and I'm so very proud of the work we do, and as you must've noticed, I've chosen to spend my entire academic career teaching at public universities in the UC system, but the land we're on is stolen from the Tongva people who do not even have recognition.
Ananya Roy: So, it is not that this moment of commodification and commercialization is new to universities, but it's apparent there are certain distinctive aspects of this, and one of these is of course the changing relationship between public resources and public universities while at the same time private universities continue to enjoy huge subsidies and are able to sit on massive endowments for which they are not held accountable. So there's that piece of it, and I think that those of us at public universities should insist on some of that accountability.
Ananya Roy: But in terms of the restructuring that we constantly face and fight, yes, I do think that students are repeatedly told that they are consumers of something called an education, and I think the college admissions scandal makes this visible. Wealthy parents who think they're buying an education, and the point of that is not an education, but it's the buying of a commodity.
Ananya Roy: But I also think that we are under constant pressure to find these private funds for important research and pedagogical endeavors, but I also think it's crucial to continue the battle for public resources, and we did that about a decade ago in the UC system, particularly at UC Berkeley, which in many ways felt like ground zero of that neoliberal restructuring, and there was tremendous activism by our students in particular. There was also tremendous collateral damage in terms of their careers, in terms of academic suspensions, probations, arrests. But ultimately I think that faculty, students and workers at UC Berkeley and more broadly in the UC system held the line, and we demonstrated to the state legislature that we will not be quiet; we will not stop fighting for public resources. So, while levels of state support are not what they once were, I don't think that in California at least we will continue to see the sorts of cuts that we once experienced about a decade ago.
Douglas Rushkoff: It's interesting, and I think it was in the New Yorker piece about those protests; there's a line when you're referring to student precarity and you say, "We have all become students of color now," and it was interesting to me because I was thinking about it in terms of the current moment, and could someone say that now, that in a sense we are all experiencing colonization, that we're all experiencing at least echoes of what it might've been like to be indigenous people. And I think about that in terms of the digital extraction and the colonization of the human mind or of all of us that in some sense even white privileged Westerners are understanding what does it mean to be on the other side of the colonial spread.
Ananya Roy: That line was not surprisingly controversial because right when commentators of course saw this as a set of broad claims to what they called welfare entitlements, that these were all public university students who wanted to make claims akin to welfare claims. And again, I think quite appropriately, students of color who've been fighting for a very long time for the decolonization of the university, for access to the public university were concerned about that line. And as you point out, I'm not sure I would frame the argument in those ways today because I think what Black Lives Matter has made abundantly evident is that we're not all black and brown bodies and that there are very particular forms of violence that continue to be enacted on black, brown, indigenous bodies that are not widely experienced.
Ananya Roy: The argument I was at that time was about a generalized condition of economic precarity, and it was about the undermining of what had been quite steady forms of white entitlement. And it cut through a range of entitlements. Everything from a sense of secure home ownership to access to universities and the capacity to pay for one's kids. All of that was shifting, and that was also then the potential to remake white privilege in solidarity with communities that have long faced marginalization. Those forms of solidarity undergirded the movement we tried to build though not unsuccessfully at UC Berkeley and across the UC system, and I think those forms of solidarity are not only tenuous but perhaps is simply not possible.
Douglas Rushkoff: Interesting. I want to provide service to our listeners beyond ... I mean, this has been serviced to me, but I keep thinking about the emails that I get from people asking about how to do their activism, how to justify what they're doing. One really poignant part of that New Yorker piece was where you described sometimes that you feel like a double agent, you know? Because in that case, you were both kind of part of the revolt but helping translate the student demands, or trying to, to the administration there.
Douglas Rushkoff: But I'm thinking a lot about how we are all double agents at this point; that everybody who's revolting against it, everybody's both part of neoliberalism and trying to push away from it. So yes, I'm at Occupy, and yes, I have an iPhone. Yes, I teach at a public university, and yes, I use a car to get home, and I've got my money in a TIAA-CREF university professor retirement account. There's a balance, but a lot of the students, particularly in a media studies program, they graduate and they have to get a job, and they'll ask me, "My only job offer came from an Omnicom advertising company or from Google or from Facebook. Can I take this job and still be a social activist?" Can they? Can they fight the system from within or are they just fooling them?
Ananya Roy: So I often think about a very famous line by Audre Lorde that the master's tools will not dismantle the master's house, and I agree with that, but I think the master's tools can occupy the master's house. And it's that occupation quite literally that has been an important part of my academic career. I don't see myself as an activist scholar. I don't do scholar activism. I'm a scholar and theorist. Unapologetically so. My terrain of activism is knowledge production, but that knowledge production takes place within what I think of as an institution of racial capitalism. That has all served me in the case of the UC system, one of the most important means of socioeconomic transformation and mobility in the state of California.
Ananya Roy: So, for me, the idea of double agency is about thinking about and acting in and through these contradictions and thinking about how those contradictions are often disabling and make us cynical but can also be a space of empowerment and can allow us to act in ways that we had not fully anticipated. So, like you, many of my students go on to jobs in institutions that they see to be currently compromised, but I think it is still very possible within those compromised institutions to think about change making. But it is also possible for us to think about participation in the important movements and struggles of our time that are not simply about our institutional goals.
Ananya Roy: And one of the striking things for me in the United States of course compared to the country I grew up in, India, is the ways in which mass protest is not necessarily something we do or do very well, and we don't necessarily shut it all down. And part of this has to do perhaps with the hesitation of well-meaning critical thinkers to get involved in that sort of struggle, which they often see to be struggles that they care about but that are not theirs or perhaps that it is not their prerogative to get involved in those struggles. And that doesn't have to be the case.
Douglas Rushkoff: Right. And whether it's personal risk on the one hand or that sense that, "Oh, this is another person's fight, and it's somehow presumptuous of me to participate in it," that those obstacles or hesitations really have to be dropped. If we're going to forge this solidarity, we need to really push this forward.
Ananya Roy: And the keyword is precisely solidarity. So, at the Institute on Inequality and Democracy ... We're a small institute, recently launched. We got started in 2016, but from the very start we said, "Well, if we are going to take on socio-spatial inequality in cities such as Los Angeles and if we are going to think about building power, we've got to think about how we journey with social movements and community organizations that are on the front lines of struggle." We are not on the front lines of struggle. A research institute at a public university is not a social movement, but how we build alliance and solidarity matters.
Ananya Roy: And that is a long and complicated and difficult process. It requires, as with all relationships, work on an everyday basis. And it is through that sort of careful work that I think we can begin to build up some of these structures of solidarity, and what that partly means is that we've got to take normative positions on some of the most difficult questions of social inequality of our day.
Douglas Rushkoff: And that's part of what the work that you're doing is about, in some sense training the next generation of activists or bringing rigor to their work. If you're not teaching them how to chain themselves to something exactly, but you're bringing your scholarship to inform their work, and so the Institute on Inequality and Democracy is kind of partnered in a sense so that the courses or some of the courses that you do there like the one on housing justice activism that was also then videotaped and offered as a course for the Activist Graduate School.
Ananya Roy: The Institute on Inequality and Democracy as part of its mandate to work in solidarity with social movements has from the very start had a program called Activist-in-Residence. So, we wanted to, as I put it, turn university inside out. We do quite a bit of our research in public scholarship in alliance with social movements and community organizations, and we also make available what I like to think of as sabbaticals for activists so that they can spend time at the university, do the intellectual work that they might not often get to do in the very difficult and busy work of activism, and in that process they also get to conceptualize a new project for their movement or organization, interact with our students in several.
Ananya Roy: So, Micah White was one of our Activist-in-Residence, and he had come up with this very interesting idea of Activist Graduate School, and we felt this was a pedagogical experiment that we wanted to participate in. So, yes, Micah and I co-taught a course on housing justice activism. The model that Activist Graduate School uses is that a course is taught at a university campus with university students participating in that course. The whole thing gets taped, edited, and then turned into an online course for students across the world who might be interested in that topic.
Douglas Rushkoff: And that was a really interesting course. I was looking at the syllabus, and it's a course where you're having students look to how housing activism in the US compares to global movements, but then you also have the students I guess as a capstone, they create either a strategy briefing for a high level analytical report that recommends and details a specific strategy or they create this narrative scenario, this fictional ... I just love this part: the fictional futurist account detailing how activists achieved some positive social change. And I'm particularly interested in that. How have you found that these visionary narrative-based projects help manifest real world activists' success?
Ananya Roy: Well, these assignments were Micah's brainchild, and I actually loved the idea of these assignments and have loved reading through them. And in particular, I think the narrative account format is fascinating. So, one particular student's assignment in that genre imagined the repeal of something called the Costa-Hawkins legislation in California. So, that legislation has been the big obstacle to achieving rent control in California's cities, and that was an effort to repeal Costa-Hawkins as part of Proposition 10 last year, and that ballot proposition was defeated by a huge influx of money from Wall Street landlords, notably the Blackstone group.
Ananya Roy: So, this particular student assignment, this was a student in public policy at UCLA, imagined a successful #EndCosta campaign, but as with all utopian scenarios, there was a dystopian thread that ran through it, and the dystopian thread was that there had been another Great Recession equal to the Great Recession of 2020, and that Great Recession and the huge housing losses and evictions that came about through that Great Recession then created the impetus for massive mobilizations around rent control and thus led to the repeal of Costa-Hawkins.
Douglas Rushkoff: That's nice. I love the ... I guess particularly because I'm a professor now, to think about the ways that what we do in the classroom with intellectual work, if you will, and scholarship, how it ends up actually translating, how it becomes actionable. But I think about that from the other end, too, and Micah White in The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, talked about this too, he is very concerned with how we move beyond the media spectacle about something like Occupy. From the demonstration to actual political power….
(Listen to the recording for the rest of this discussion)