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CAS faculty explores justice movements in the Americas

USF Professor Harry Vanden began his professional life as a Spanish-speaking social worker in Philadelphia in the turbulent days of 1968 before his academic interests led him to the mountains of Ecuador to meet struggling peasants, to the highlands of Chiapas to encounter the Zapatistas and to Venezuela as a member of the Carter Center’s observation team monitoring the election that swept Hugo Chávez to power.

The two-time Fulbright grant recipient has witnessed social movements in the Americas up-close in the face of neo-liberalism, long-existing inequities and development challenges in the region. As a professor in the Department of Government and International Affairs at USF, Vanden has introduced a new generation of students to social activism by taking them to such gatherings as the World Social Forum.

As an academic and an activist, he treads a social and political landscape that will be the subject of this week’s inaugural conference at the new Patel Center for Global Solutions: Social Movement Governance, the Poor and the New Politics of the Americas. The event runs Wednesday, Feb. 2, to Friday, Feb. 4.

“You have always had social movements, you have always had uprisings, but they were local,” Vanden said. “People literally didn’t know what was happening on the other side of the mountain. Now you do something and you can broadcast it around the world immediately.

“It’s a tremendous advantage to people who don’t have wealth or power or access to main sources of information. Having an academic write about them and study them -- it legitimizes them. They want to tell their story; they want to get it out there.”

Vanden will be joined by a number of USF colleagues who have undertaken similar projects in the Americas and here in Florida, as well as 100 other scholars, students and activists whose work takes them to the poor, the powerless and the marginalized.

During three days of presentations and discussions, leading scholars will explore the new social movements, the challenges and successes of various efforts and how those grassroots movements affect social and political activism in the United States. A complete schedule of panels and speakers can be found here. Registration information can be found at the conference website.

"The beauty of the conference is that it is gathering academics and activists to talk about on-the-ground issues that really make a difference in the lives of the poor,” said Rebecca Harris, the Patel Center’s assistant academic director. “It is structured to be highly interactive and participatory so that participants can learn from one another and, we hope, improve research and activism in the field."

The conference opens at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday with a panel discussion on research and advocacy featuring USF faculty members who have studied social justice movements and projects in Latin America and Florida. The discussion will be moderated by Rob Lorei, news and public affairs director from WMNF.

USF researchers working directly on some of the region’s most challenging problems include Federico Cintron, a visiting instructor in USF’s Department of Anthropology who studies the student movement in Puerto Rico where young activists fight for greater access to public higher education and trade policies that affect the working class, and Lynn McBrien of USF Sarasota-Manatee’s College of Education who works with resettled refugees in the United States.

Bernd Reiter from USF’s Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean has worked in Brazil with urban children and helped build a vocational school in a city slum. Ann Cranston-Gingras, a professor of special education and director of USF’s Center for Migrant Education, works locally in developing programs for children from migrant backgrounds who have dropped out of school -- supporting them socially and academically as they go on to college or vocational education.

And Nancy Romero-Daza and David Himmelgreen, also from the Department of Anthropology, for eight years have led a community health field school in the remote highlands of northwestern Costa Rica, taking students along muddy roads and deep into a cloud forest into villages that seemingly would be untouched by modern globalization, but where people are struggling to preserve their small farms and cultural identities.

Cranston-Gingras said the opportunity to take the roles of both activist and academic -- and translate work with individuals who are marginalized into meaningful research that helps others -- is the great advantage of engaged research. She traces her interest in advocacy work to growing up with a brother with physical disabilities who was told he wouldn’t be allowed to attend school with other children. Their parents advocated for her brother’s right to an education, and today he is a successful professional because of their support for him and other children with disabilities.

“When you grow up in that environment you see the power of advocacy and education in people’s life,” she said. “It can make a difference.”

Now, some of the children who were early beneficiaries of services through the Center for Migrant Education are now teachers in the very same classrooms in which they were students and in which a new generation of migrant children are attempting to find their way.

“You see where the challenges are and you think what more do we need to know about these circumstances and how we can best address them to make a difference,” Cranston-Gingras said. “That’s where the research comes. Unless you are immersed in the situation and working with the community and the students, to me you don’t really get a feel for what is needed.

“You can make a difference and we see it every day in the things that we do.”


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Anthropology Government and International Affairs Events  
Author: Vickie Chachere