It has long been understood by those in power that education can be used as a tool of control.
What is learned in youth is hard to unlearn. Indoctrination happens fast, yet many go on to seek out subjugated knowledge (information that has been purposefully concealed and left untaught). Others are denied access outright.
In response to Georgia becoming the third state in the United States to restrict undocumented students from enrolling in public colleges, four University of Georgia (UGA) professors — Dr. Lorgia García-Peña, Dr. Pamela Voekel, Dr. Betina Kaplan, and Dr. Bethany Moreton — joined forces in October 2011 to launch Freedom University, a free school for undocumented students.
In the beginning, “The school’s exact location was secret, because Ku Klux Klansmen (KKK) had threatened to break up classes and alert immigration authorities,” reported The New Yorker.
Lorgia García-Peña and her colleagues believed so deeply that education is a fundamental human right, they taught for free in the face of overt threats from the KKK and covert threats from UGA. Dr. García-Peña did not think the ban would last, that Georgia’s Board of Eduction would cave, but nearly a decade later the law stands and Freedom University is still up and running.
After meeting Lorgia García-Peña at a symposium on her work in January 2020, I learned that her passion — Decolonizing the University — was as strong as ever. Lorgia also believes academia needs to be decoded in order to make the often incomprehensible jargon more accessible, so that people can take the theory into practice.
In what is the first episode of The Boycott Times‘ “Freedom School,” I asked Dr. Lorgia García-Peña (aka LGP) about boycotts, education reform, and whether or not Biden’s win was a victory over white supremacy. We also discussed what she boycotts in her life and her dream of one day moving to a farm, growing her own food, and starting a Freedom School “in the middle of nowhere.” I hope you enjoy our conversation.
–Mordecai Lyon, Editor in Chief
(interview conducted February 3, 2021 / edited for brevity)
Mordecai Lyon: The word boycott often gets thrown around. Merriam-Webster has its definition. Everyone has their own definition, and it’s used as a lightning rod. At The Boycott Times, we’re embodying this word, in our theory and in our praxis, as a refusal to accept the current system and the current conditions of humanity at large. We will no longer accept the way things are. Professor, what exactly is a boycott to you? And what makes a boycott successful and not merely symbolic?
Lorgia García-Peña: When I think about boycott, I’m immediately reminded of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez in their fight for farmworker’s rights in California in the 1960s, which led to one of the longest product boycotts in U.S. history. And this is a history — the history of the campesino fight, their strikes, and the consumer boycott of grapes — essential to Latinx history and to the larger history of the labor movement. It’s a great example of how little it takes for the average person to participate in actions that can lead to social change. I mean, it took people giving up grapes. That’s it. They could eat apples, they could eat oranges. It is not a huge sacrifice, but it sends a message. And that message was heard loud and clear by the farm owners exploiting the campesinos. It hit them where it hurts, and they had to compromise. They didn’t want to compromise, but they were forced to because at the end of the day, they need us as consumers more than we need their products.
So, boycott for me is an act of everyday life resistance through which we consciously decide to understand our participation and our complicity in sustaining the violent, oppressive and corrupt capitalist system that has plagued us since the colonization of the Americas and continues to do so — to plague people who are poor, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Migrant.
Our willingness to eat the grapes meant disenfranchisement, inhumanity, death to Mexican and Filipino campesinos working in California. So, boycott for me is an awakening. It is a conscious decision to stop eating the grapes. It is a collective decision that starts with the individual. For a boycott to be effective, numbers are needed. We all know that. But boycott as a praxis, the understanding of both our complicity and our power in the production and sustenance of systemic oppression, is very much an individual process. It comes from a place of personal responsibility to our society. So, to boycott, to answer your question, is to wake up. And it is time for us to wake up.
ML: Something that strikes me is the complicit nature of our being taxpayers and a part of this corrupt nation state. I think about what a tax strike would look like, or a tax boycott. Otherwise, we are financing all these wars that we are talking out against. What can we do as individuals and as a collective to combat that?
LGP: You know, I think often about how disempowered we tend to feel when we look at the big picture, or how exhausted and defeated we might feel when we think about national or even global problems. But the possibilities can be found in the micro, everyday lives, that we live. And by that I mean locally — and that local could be your neighborhood, it could be your building, it could be the institution that you are part of. In my case, that could be a university. And imagine if each of us took the time to, through a praxis of boycotting, create and enact small, local changes. Imagine the ripple effect that can have nationally and globally. So, while I think the goal would be, to have this massive, large revolution that would create national, and hopefully global changes, I think that what we do locally matters just as much. Those local moments of resistance, when multiplied, are revolutionary, and can do a lot. They’re less overwhelming and more concrete.
My invitation to boycott would be to start small — to start where you are. And that could include thinking large about taxes, but it might mean thinking about local taxes. What is happening in your city? What is happening in your county? What is happening in your state? While also thinking about structures, not just about your role as a consumer, but also what does your position as a citizen mean? And what does your privilege as a citizen imply for people who are perceived as non-citizens? How are they treated? And how are you benefiting from that?
There’s so many ways in which we are complicit of systemic exclusion and violence that we’re not aware of. The moment that we wake up, and we decide, “I’m not going to be part of that. Me, myself, Lorgia, I’m not going to participate in this, in this systemic violence that is affecting my neighbor, that is affecting my community,” it has immense, productive power. We need to start there.
ML: Speaking of systemic violence, the recent presidential election in the United States appeared to be a referendum on white supremacy. So, was a Biden win a victory over white supremacy or just a symbolic one?
LGP: You know, white supremacy has ruled our world for a very long time. And I want to be perfectly clear here that white supremacy, and its brother anti-Blackness, are not just U.S. problems. They are global problems plaguing the majority of our world’s population. White supremacy was both the justification and the legacy of colonialism. We know it engendered slavery, we all know that. We know that it leads and lead to massive destruction across the global south.
And for some — and I should emphasize that for some white people — white supremacy was something that they first saw or discovered during the Trump administration. And how lucky these people are, and how incredibly disconnected from reality they are. They truly believed that this was a temporary problem. That this was a problem of rhetoric. And that blatant ignorance about the prevalence and pervasiveness of white supremacy, in all aspects of our institutions and everyday life realities, is itself the result of white supremacy. It is a genius plan.
The Biden victory is not a victory over white supremacy. Let us also remember that the losing presidential candidate did receive an overwhelming number of votes. So while we can certainly hope that this change in administration would, at the very least, be a change in tone, we need to remember the long life and afterlife of white supremacy in this country. We need to stay vigilant and demand this president demonstrates that he truly is different, and will commit to the changes that he promised. Not just in rhetoric, but in legislation, in social programs, in his actions.
ML: During the campaign, Biden promised to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt to every individual that owes money to the federal government for their education. So far, we’re still waiting on that, while the Debt Collective is leading a student loan strike that is calling for Biden to cancel all $1.5 to $1.7 trillion (which he has the authority to do by executive order). So, how do we put pressure on Biden to make sure he comes through for at least that $10,000 each? And how does this tie into the commodification of education? Because if we abolish that debt, we also have to think about all the debt that’s still ready to be incurred by the people in school.
LGP: The question of the student debt and the question of education needs to be addressed systematically. We have a misunderstanding of what the role of education is in our society. Education is a human right. Just like health is a human right. So the fact that we are getting in debt, and that our kids are getting in debt, to this extent, is a violation of human rights. And we need to be addressing that in those terms. There is literally no reason why our educational system in this country needs to be for profit. No reason. And while I think that getting $10,000 off student loan debt, I’ll welcome that myself, it’s a great start. I think we need to also be pushing this administration to think about a better plan for the future.
This is not sustainable for our kids. This is not sustainable for the future. And this is creating more inequality. College education is unaffordable and people are having to make very hard choices. And that is recreating a segregation system in this country where some people, regardless of their qualities and regardless of their abilities, are simply not going to be able to afford college. And that is not okay. And I think we need to start really pushing for educational reforms beyond the student debt.
ML: That reminds me of the last time I interviewed you, we did an article called Decolonizing the University, and it’s making me think that maybe we need to abolish academia altogether and really start over from scratch. I know that’s a sentiment that you would get on board with. So, moving forward and looking into the future, I’ve learned a lot from you about the history of free schools and freedom schools. Let’s put our imagination hats on, where can we go from here?
LGP: The possibilities are not only endless, the models exist. It’s not like other countries have not managed to have public institutions, public universities that are actually public and functional. This is very common across the globe, north and south. But the way in which our world is working, or not working, what we’re trying to boycott, is reflected and sometimes expanded in explosive ways within the elite university. And that requires change. Major change. If we think about the elite university as a place where our leadership, whether it is in government, or in all the other areas of our world, are bred (scientists, businessmen, lawyers, and so on). And if we think about the way in which the future leaders of the world are being educated, through a white supremacist lens, through a lens that does not take into account the majority of the world, we have a really major problem on our hands.
I think that in an in an ideal world, the educational reform that I would envision will not only mean that students will have access to free education, it will also mean that the education that they receive will be inclusive and center subjugated knowledge. That will help us imagine a world that we want to be part of — not a continuation of the one that we have inherited. So, there’s a lot of work to be done in education. And it starts, not in college, but in kindergarten. It starts with the little kids and how they’re being taught about the world that they live in. And I think in all fairness, there’s been a lot of changes. And we have amazing teachers across the world that are doing the work in their classrooms, but they’re doing this work isolated. They’re doing it by themselves because of their own beliefs, sometimes even with their own resources.
It’s an uphill battle, because, of course, how can you tell an institution that is sustained through white supremacy to dismantle white supremacy? And that’s the challenge that we’re facing right now. We’re facing that in education, we’re facing that in academia, we’re facing that in government, and we’re facing that in the world. So, it’s going to take a lot of us coming together and saying no more. We’re not going to participate in things as they are.
ML: That’s why I look to boycotts, as you keep referring to, in praxis, to actually put pressure on the purse strings of the people who are inflicting the most damage in the moment and to demand change.
LGP: And these changes need to go beyond the symbolic, because representation and symbolism are important. I’m not going to say that they’re not, they have a function in our society, particularly for young people. It’s good for a little brown girl to see Kamala Harris in office. That’s good, but it is not enough by any stretch of the imagination.
We had a Black president. We all remember that, we all remember the hope that we had at that moment, right? But we should also remember that under that Black president, we had the largest number of people deported — even compared to Trump. And under that Black president, we watched the carceral system grow, and student debt rise, and police brutality against Black people continue.
We need to be very cautious about equating symbolism with social change. Because white supremacy, racial capitalism, immigration, voter suppression, inequality cannot be fixed with symbolism. Our problems are systemic. And when problems are systemic, they need systematic changes. They require abolition, boycotts, new ideas, new structures, the inversion of the order of things as they are. And they require conscious building for understanding, including the fact that people who are often affected by these systems, can also participate in sustaining them. And that’s hard to understand. It is hard to understand that having Black leadership doesn’t mean that white supremacy will end. The work is much harder than that. I really wish it was that simple. But it’s not.
ML: So what’s giving you hope these days?
LGP: My students give me hope. I mean that. Young people give me hope. The resilience that they’ve shown even amidst this global pandemic, which is a double pandemic, as this is also a pandemic of mental health. I see them creating, I see them building, and imagining a future.
I have a student, Camara Brown, who is writing about the power of friendship through Black women’s work and, as we talked about before, the idea of how local small changes can sustain us. She’s looking at the Combahee River Collective, and she’s looking at Audre Lorde and she’s looking at the ways in which women literally sitting on a kitchen table, changed their world, and enacted effective changes outside of it. Those stories, and that kind of work, gives me hope.
The important intellectual and cultural production that Black women are putting out there right now is really exciting. I just finished reading this amazing book by Tiffany Florvil. It’s called Mobilizing Black Germany, which is also about the kind of intellectual and political power that a group of Black women had to really create effective, and long lasting social changes in Germany. And it opened my world to new possibilities. That’s the kind of input that keeps me alive and keeps me believing that there’s possibilities for something better.
ML: Lorgia, a lot of our readers do not really mess with academia and didn’t go to college. Can you explain why these works are so important and so critical to actual, everyday people?
LGP: We keep hearing things like, “the Constitution said this” and “our founding fathers said that,” right? And even if you’ve never read the Constitution, or even if you never read the works by the men who designed this country, we’ve all been told one story. And that story was that this was a nation created by a group of white men who believed in certain things, and that we should all believe those things. The problem is, that is only one version of the story. And that version of the story, which is told in snippets, does not tell us the full story. That those “oppressed” white men owned people, that the nation was founded on the back of enslaved people on stolen land. All of those other stories that are suppressed, and that we don’t hear, are what we need to know to understand how we got here; how white supremacy got to be what it is, how racial capitalism got to be what it is, and how those things have been ingrained in every fabric of our society for hundreds of years.
So, the work that people have been doing, the work of Tiffany Florvil, the work of Yomaira Figueroa, who’s writing about decolonizing diasporas and looking at Black diasporas across the globe, they give us the other stories, they give us the other half. They teach us how this great story of nations that we have accepted for years are incomplete, and how they have affected the majority of the world’s population. So, they’re incredibly important.
I do think that in academia, we need to make a bigger effort to make our work accessible, because there’s a lot of good work produced inside academia, especially by women of color, and they are not read, they are not understood, they are not disseminated outside of academia. And so it’s important to try and bridge that gap and to try and make sure that our work is accessible. That it is not behind some paywall and that people can understand and learn from it. And I think that is another aspect of decolonizing knowledge at the university that I’m really committed to.
ML: And that’s something that I hope we can do at The Boycott Times, be a jargon filter for academic work. You mentioned capitalism, and a lot of people are starting to understand why white supremacy needs to be eradicated. But they are still fully on board with capitalism. Can you explain to people why capitalism is directly tied into the same system of white supremacy that we’re trying to boycott?
LGP: It’s as simple as this. The most important and the first product of global capitalism was slavery. And so if you think about it in those terms, if you think about the way in which capitalism emerged and has been sustained. You realize that in order for you to buy whatever cheap product you’re buying at Walmart, it means that someone is being treated in subhuman conditions.
It is again, about understanding our individual participation in oppressive, corrupt systems. And the way in which capitalism has worked for hundreds of years is through the oppression, the destruction, the violence, the disenfranchisement of people of color. First through slavery, then through indentured servitude, and its most recent emergence, the exploitation of migrant labor.
So, it’s as simple as becoming less comfortable with accepting the way things are, then questioning how things are and making the right decisions. I understand that it is idealistic to think that this system is escapable, that you can just live outside it. But we can make better choices. And that is what boycotting is all about, right? It’s about making better choices about where, and how you participate, and in which systems, and being aware. I think it makes a huge difference when you are making a decision to be part of a particular system, but you are making that decision consciously and you understand what the consequences are to other people besides yourself.
ML: Thank you for that. So, what are some things that Lorgia Garcia-Peña boycotts in her life?
LGP: The list is very long. My friends will tell you that I am the most annoying person to eat with, travel with, shop with or for. I’ve been boycotting big multinational corporations since my early 20s. And, there are obvious evils like Walmart and anything owned by Trump or Trump supporters. But for me as a Caribbean woman, it has also meant being conscious about particular products that come at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods. So, that means big hotel chains, all of the Caribbean resorts, Citibank, many tropical fruit companies that people might enjoy, any product containing sugar that comes from the Dominican Republic, which exploits Haitian labor. Any clothes made in factories that underpaid or abused people in the global south and migrants, any business, big or small, that is homophobic or racist.
I also boycott people, and cultural producers and scholars who I know have hurt others, who have contributed to pain or inflicted violence on others, whether it is a professor who’s a bully to their grad students, or you know something bigger. I choose to withhold my contribution to people and businesses like that. I boycott institutions all the time, including colleges when they have done something wrong. For example, I joined the scholars’ boycott of the University of Mississippi in support of Garrett Felber, whom they fired unjustly precisely because of his own praxis of boycott. So, it’s really a long and evolving list, which will for sure enough end in me moving to some farm in the middle of nowhere, growing my own food and running a freedom school someday.
ML: Every time I eat a banana, I have immense guilt. And I tell myself, every year, I’m gonna stop eating these frickin bananas. The history of it is just so brutal and even up til today, like you mentioned, some of these fruit companies are conducting legalized slavery right under our noses through their multinational corporations, while we’re off buying an affordable piece of fruit that can fill us up every morning.
LGP: It’s mind blowing. My dad is from a small town in the northern part of the Dominican Republic, where the United Fruit Company, and then Tropicana, came in and destroyed people’s ability to feed themselves. My dad tells me how when he was little, even though they were very poor, there was always bananas. They could just go in the fields and grab bananas or pineapples. And then these companies came in, and put barbed wire all around the food, and people started to go hungry and they started to migrate.
The effects of these things are very real and concrete to many, many people. So yeah, it’s tricky to make those choices. It almost feels like it’s endless, like anything you touch, when you look at the history or when you look at where it’s coming from you’re like, “I should probably not eat this either.” And so, it’s about making some tough choices, which might mean, Mordecai, that you cannot have a banana.
ML: I’m trying to get there, but you know, it does lead me to something that’s very important, which is sometimes, very smart people get caught up in trying to fight, let’s call it the Illuminati or some dark evil force that they can’t put their finger on. While, at the same time, we can come out here and name our oppressors by the name of their companies and what they have done. And looking at a United Fruit Company, or a Tropicana or a Chiquita, or so many actual companies that have somehow become household names, while at the same time, these are the companies that are our oppressors more so than some dark cabal, like they would like us to believe. If we can stay within the realm of factual evidence and say, “these are the companies and individuals doing the most harm, let’s collectively work to boycott that situation until it no longer exists,” then we can get somewhere.
LGP: And raising awareness to that, right? So like, we all know, Monsanto is the evil of food. But how many people know which foods when you actually go to the supermarket? Again, I’m the most annoying human on Earth, so I go with a list. And every day, there’s less and less that I can buy. So, being aware of where we put our money is so important. This is a system that depends on our participation in it. On us eating the grapes. What happens when we say, you know what, I don’t need grapes, they’re good. But they’re not that good.
When we do that, we turn our participation into a powerful tool. And I think we need to be more aware of how much power we have, because we’re made to feel powerless by the gigantic corporations that rule our lives. But when we realize, they’re only this big because we’re allowing them to be this big, because we’re participating by giving them our money, and if we withhold that, they have nothing.
ML: And what happened when they boycotted the grapes?
LGP: Well, it was a long boycott and a five year strike. The boycott was only one aspect of everything the farmworkers did in California. But what ended up happening was that they had to come and sit down at the table and actually negotiate a contract that was fair. And that’s a huge battle that was won, and of course there are other battles that continue to be fought in that context. But the farm owners not being able to sell the grapes, the winemakers not being able to make their wine, it was no longer profitable to treat the farmworkers the way they had, because they were losing money. So, they had to sit down, raise the minimum wage and give them the basic dignity that was asked.
Boycotts work and will continue to work as long as people are willing to participate. It is such a small way to be part of a movement. The people doing the hard work on the ground, doing hunger strikes and dealing with the brutality of everyday life. They’re putting up with police brutality, being arrested, all of the things that we know happen in this movement. And all of us, removed from that situation, all we had to do was not buy grapes. I mean, it’s such a small gesture to support the people making the bigger sacrifice. And that’s what we need to think about, you know?
We need to be thinking about what are the small actions, the small radical actions that we can do as individuals to support and enact larger changes in our societies. And there’s a lot to do, but it turns out that there’s a lot we can do, too.