Academic Advocates

May 2, 2013On the Move: Migration, Labor, and Rights is not a typical anthropology course. Taught by Associate Professor Denise Brennan, the course asks students to combine academics and advocacy in their daily lives.

Brennan, who also serves as the chair of the anthropology department, began teaching the course when she joined the Georgetown community in 1998.

“From its very beginnings, the class has attracted students who consider themselves first-generation migrants or one-point-five-generation migrants,” Brennan said. The 1.5 generation includes those people who immigrated to the Unites States before adolescence. “It has always been this really dynamic and diverse space where students in some ways are leading the class,” she continued.

“What’s exciting about the class is that I meet young people who end up working—either in their professional lives or in their activism—on the treatment of migrants as sort of second-class citizens,” she continued. “In my classes over the years, I’ve had a number of undocumented students or students in mixed-status families. A student in my class last year had a deported parent. These are issues very close to home, so I learn a great deal from the students.”

On the Move is a community-based learning course through the university’s Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service. In the course, students analyze novels, ethnographies, policy reports, and other cultural and anthropological scholarship on migration issues. In addition to their work in the classroom, students volunteer with local organizations that are fighting for the rights of migrants.

Brennan believes that the combination of traditional academic work and hands-on field research has helped her students learn, regardless of how familiar they are with advocacy work or civil rights issues.

“For those who come to the class already having been activists on the issue, [the course] allows them to read deeply and analytically, and to think critically about things that are either embodied experiences, have been around their kitchen table, or are in their communities every day,” she said. “For others who are new to the issues, it’s just an exhilarating experience to roll up your sleeves and make a difference.”

This semester, students in Brennan’s course have tackled a broad range of topics and projects, with the goal of highlighting social, economic, or political issues in local communities.

Janine Duffy (C’14) is studying how strictly cab companies and other businesses adhere to the municipal taxicab code in Alexandria, Virginia. She is focusing her research on the current cab driver campaign by Tenants and Workers United, which works to empower vulnerable social groups in Northern Virginia, including women, low-wage workers, and multinational immigrants.

“Many of the drivers are immigrants and racial minorities [who] are working on developing their own [businesses] within a society that tends to marginalize them,” said Duffy, who discovered that a lack of driver-owned cab companies has resulted in dubious business practices that rob drivers of income.

“Most of my advocacy experiences had focused on telling others about an issue, but not investigating the ramifications of policies and helping propose solutions,” she said. “As a young adult, this is the first time I’ve taken the next step of working on tangible solutions without fear of being dismissed.”

Susana Gonzalez (C’15) works as a legal assistant with the Capital Area for Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition to help immigrant detainees in Virginia and Maryland learn their rights and obtain legal counsel. She has not only honed practical skills with the CAIR Coalition by collecting contact information from those who’ve been jailed and translating documents from Spanish to English, but she has also come to appreciate the challenges that immigrants face in the U.S. justice system.

“Because detainees lack documentation, they lose their rights to speedy trials and can be transferred to facilities where loved ones have a hard time contacting them,” Gonzalez said. “I have become more conscious about news stories that affect immigrant families, and I plan to stay committed to CAIR even after the semester is over. I’m interested in immigration law as a career path.”

—Brittany Coombs