What is Grassroots Learning?

I am thinking about learning as a form of grassroots organizing: change at the root, within a person and thus, necessarily, between people.  It can also start with change between people that creates change within them.  It works both ways!

Learning links people up, anew, within and around themselves. In Donna Haraway’s words, “We become accountable for what we learn how to see.”  And learning breaks links that do not serve growth, justice, or peace.  Learning is change. 

At Bryn Mawr College, where I have been on the faculty for 25 years, I am part of a grassroots group, the Campaign for Antiracist Literacy at BMC (CARLA-BMC). CARLA is working to change an opt-in culture around DEI/antiracist work on campus to one grounded in accountability.  The push for an antiracist literacy is a push to stop this work’s being centered by discourse and practice that lets, even encourages, white people to remain beginners in gaining knowledge and skills to dismantle racism, and to ensure that BIPOC students and colleagues aren’t exclusively positioned to do the work of educating and healing as invisible (uncompensated, unrelenting) labor.

CARLA’s goal is to be at the table whenever the College needs to act where racism is concerned.  For example, CARLA proposed a new question currently under review for course evaluations about the inclusive and accessible character of a course’s learning environment.  CARLA meetings also provide a forum for members to support each other’s antiracist work, which, even on a small campus, is not always coordinated.

CARLA has been meeting monthly since 2018, with about 15 people (not always the same 15) out of a collective of almost 70 gathering in a self-directed, egalitarian assembly of faculty, staff, and students, thanks to the work of one colleague who volunteered to convene the group.  CARLA first formed after a Posse Plus retreat (for those who don’t know, this is an annual weekend-long DEI workshop led by a scholarship foundation the college partners with) following a coalition discussion of race on campus.

Recently we have been meeting much more often.

Last spring, CARLA wrote a letter to our College’s President calling for the development of an antiracist framework to guide the College’s DEI priorities, commitments, and assessments of impact — in a word, accountability. Since late August, at the President’s invitation, CARLA has been writing that framework, using a powerfully participatory and iterative drafting process in which to date over 65 people campus community members have participated.

In a new edited volume called The Future is Black: Afropessimism, Fugitivity, and Radical Hope in Education, Dancy and Edwards write, “Frankly stated, for historically white colleges and universities to continue to exist as they do, the must enact anti-Black violence” (2021, p. 42).  They then map “two possible pathways for Black resistance.”  The first, intra-institutional action, would “target the creation of policy that acknowledged and maintained the health of Black life . . . and dismantle whiteness” (p. 42).  The work of CARLA is recognizable here.  The second, in recognition that “white supremacy has a long history of denying the ontology of Black resistance,” is divestment.  Dancy and Edwards conclude by encouraging “readers to begin envisaging strategies that un-suture Black life from white frames towards an Afrocentric future. The Black future awaits these possibilities” (p. 43).  Is the work of CARLA visible here, as well?

To “un-suture Black life from white frames,” CARLA has sought to voice the antiracist framework truthfully.  While we began by trying to speak as or for the institution, the text sounded bureaucratic, bloodless, and muffled.  We realized that defaulting to a familiar institutional voice easily encodes, sometimes even without meaning to, writing with or to the white gaze (see https://questionthis.net/what-is-understood-from-white-gaze-to-black-study-ies/).  We then decided to write the text from CARLA, not as the College, and this way found much more scope to express truth with the depth, passion, and long experience of many people struggling for a better way of being in this place.  Later this month, we will ask all community members and campus units, many of whom are already beginning to use it, to endorse the framework.  The President has already done so, having shared in the iterative revision process, and is starting to use it to anchor a College action plan.  We will roll out the two together, Framework and plan, as a living document, capable of changing while at the same time serving as a platform, and a standard, for action.

In these ways, CARLA works to nurture the possibilities of the Black future through grassroots learning. And through grassroots learning, Carla works on the ground at two colleges: the one currently in existence, and the one ahead.