You are not immune from the adjunct crisis

My latest for the Chronicle of Higher Education is on the broader implications of the adjunct crisis:

There is no escaping the consequences of academia’s reliance on contingent labor. If you do not experience the adjunct crisis directly as an academic, you may well experience it as a citizen: as a student, a parent, or a professional facing a similar contingency crisis in your own field. The adjunct crisis in academe both reflects and advances a broader crisis in labor. Our exploited professors are teaching our future exploited workers.

On February 25, 2015, adjunct professors across the United States are planning to walk out of the classroom to protest their low pay, lack of benefits, and unfair treatment. Their struggle is one we all should support. Here are the reasons why you should care.

Labor exploitation is not the new normal. Adjunct professors are distinct from other low-wage contract workers only by virtue of degree – that is, the Ph.D. Like other exploited workers, adjuncts are told that their low pay and mistreatment are the deserved consequence of poor choices. While low-wage workers without college degrees are told to get an education, adjuncts are asked what they thought all that education would get them. The plight of the adjunct shows one can have all the education in the world and still have no place in it.

The contingent labor market is marked by two paths: one of low-status, low-paying jobs emblematic of poverty; another of high-status, low-paying jobs emblematic of wealth. Adjuncts fall in the latter category, indicative of how the rhetoric of prestige is used to justify low compensation. Since the recession, academia’s pay-to-play business model has been adopted by other professions, including law, policy, and media – all of which increasingly rely on unpaid or low-wage labor. That should not be accepted as “the new normal” but rejected as a crisis of exploitation.

Read the whole thing, The Adjunct Crisis is Everyone’s Problem, at Chronicle Vitae.

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No recovery in sight

My latest for the Chronicle of Higher Education is on the academic job market recovery that never came:

We are at the point where the academic job market has been dismal for so long that one could have entered a Ph.D. program at the start of the recession and graduated, six years later, into a market still waiting to recover. In contrast, new graduate students today enter more aware of the limited job opportunities in store for Ph.D.’s. Unlike previous cohorts, they cannot claim ignorance of academia’s economic conditions, nor can they reasonably expect full-time, tenure-track employment in a university upon graduation.

This raises the question of why anyone would get a Ph.D. Some students talk of “callings,” some talk of love, but the reality might be that, in a rigged economic system, graduate school is no worse a bet than many others.

“What can you do with a Ph.D.?” people ask. Here are a few things: You can defer undergraduate student loans, which are at record highs. You can get a stipend and health benefits as a teaching or research assistant, versus working in an unpaid internship that you cannot afford. You can drop out with a free M.A. often required in a market defined by credentialism and the diminishing value of a bachelor’s degree.

You can bide your time, waiting for the economy to turn around, because that is the main pastime of the post-recession economy: waiting.

In 2008, Obama was elected on rhetoric of hope and change. But the hope that things would change for the better soon transformed into hope that they would simply not get worse. They are worse — much worse — because in academia, the effect is cumulative. The nonacademic job market – particularly in areas like scientific research or policy that have traditionally hired Ph.D.’s – is in comparable disarray, hurting from the same austerity and greed that decimated the university system.

Six years later, the problems of higher education are on the table, piling up, remarked upon and reread and rarely rebutted. Academics no longer have their heads in the sand but their eyes wide open — surveying the damage, trying to avoid being hit.

Read the whole thing, The Job Market Recovery That Never Came, in Vitae for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Thanks, Riverfront Times!

My thanks to the Riverfront Times for naming me best online reporter of 2014. Their write-up below:

It’s a bit limiting to pin down local writer Sarah Kendzior as simply being a “reporter.” Though she does longform, in-depth work, like her piece “The Fast-Food Worker Strikes Back” for Medium, she also wrote op-ed pieces for Al-Jazeera (before quitting the gig recently) and keeps the world on its toes 140 characters at a time on Twitter. With degrees in anthropology from Wash. U. and in Central Eurasian studies from Indiana University, Kendzior is one of the people to keep on your radar if you want to keep abreast of global politics. And in a rapidly changing city like St. Louis, her particular interests in gentrification, wage gaps and the up-and-coming millennial generation will give you a lot to chew on.

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This is not the 1960s

My latest in Al Jazeera English is on Ferguson, fast food protests, and comparisons between now and the civil rights movement of the past:

In the United States, they say it is like the 1960s: Civil unrest at home, war abroad.

On September 10, protesters in St Louis, Missouri shut down a highway demanding justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager from Ferguson shot dead by a white policeman. The same day, in New Jersey, students chained themselves together during an eight-hour protest over the corporate takeover of public schools. In Pennsylvania, workers at the fast food chain Chipotle quit en masse over “borderline sweatshop conditions”. As night fell, the nation watched US President Barack Obama announce that we are bombing Iraq again, in yet another chapter of a feckless, regenerative war.

They say it is like the 1960s, but that is nostalgia for nostalgia. Baby boomers romanticised those battles, but it is hard to imagine anyone romanticising this era, in part because the era feels like it has no end.

We woke up on September 11, 2001, in a war and a declining economy. We woke up on September 11, 2014, the same way. The only thing that changed is the scale. Thirteen years of waiting for the tide to turn, only to endure an erosion of opportunity – the economic collapse in 2008, the false “recovery” of the years to follow.

They say it is like the 1960s, but in the 1960s there were options. In 1968, the minimum wage hit its peak and unemployment was at a near all-time low. In the 1960s, middle-class youth dropped out of society because they knew they could drop back in. “Cut your hair and get a job” was something people would say, because there were actual jobs to which people could return.

Today’s youth have no such options. We have the institutional racism and civil unrest and foreign wars of the 1960s – along with a decimated middle class, record income inequality, a slashed safety net, and skyrocketing debt.

For anyone who came of age after the millennium, war and economic decline are all we have known. Our country stagnates and generations stagnate with it.

They tell you it is cyclical. But that cycle is spin, spin, spin.

Read the full article, The wages of discrimination, at Al Jazeera English.


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St. Louis, race and grief

From my latest for Al Jazeera English:

A shooting in St Louis is never surprising, but it will always be shocking: that the cruelty of the act is complimented by the callousness of the reaction; that when a community cries, someone always finds a way to give it more to grieve….

If you had asked whether the killing of Brown would become an international cause, or be swept silently aside, most would have bet on the latter. It is a testament to black St Louis activists, and their ceaseless documentation and calls to action, that it was not.

No one will forget the killing of Michael Brown. But that killing was preceded by decades of police brutality, of violence, of losses, of teddy bears tied to trees. During the 2013-2014 school year, 17 St Louis public school children died, a record number. The second largest number, in 2010, was eight.

“At some schools, kids don’t come back to school for several days when a young person has died in the kind of violent death that occurred last night because they think there may be repercussions,” a St Louis school superintendent told local media in March, after an eleven-year-old black boy was shot through the window of his home.

By spring, trauma counsellors were working overtime. Now, after the death of Brown and the tear gassing of the local population, including children, they work around the clock.

St Louis was grieving long before the tragedy of Ferguson – or, at least, parts of it were. Like everything else in St Louis, grief is unequally allocated. This is a city where people live their whole lives seeing certain neighbourhoods only on TV.

St Louis is a city where black communities are watched – by police, by spectators – more than they are seen, more than they are heard.

Read the full article — St. Louis’ sons, taken too soon — at Al Jazeera English



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Sarah and Umar go to White Castle

As the media converged on Ferguson, my cowriter Umar Lee and I decided to see what was going on in the rest of North County. We drove around towns near Ferguson  – Berkeley, Kinloch, Jennings, Florissant, Riverview Gardens – and talked to black North County residents at fast food places and laundromats about the events.

Everyone is afraid, but moreover, they are frustrated, because North County has been hurting for much longer than Ferguson has been in the news:

Today, ruins dot the North County landscape too. An abandoned mall, its closed entrance declaring “Cash paid for anything of value.” A meadow, lush and random, in the space where the Wyndhurst and Terwood apartments—bulldozed in the 1980s for an airport extension that never materialized—once stood. A closed-down, castle-shaped playland turned night club turned day care turned abandoned failure. A faded wall of fame in Kinloch, Missouri’s first black incorporated town, proclaiming its historic achievements, before the population dwindled to 600 and it became capital of North County’s drug trade, another airport expansion casualty. Kinloch’s roads lead nowhere but are still blockaded with “Road Closed” signs, in case you mistakenly detected a sense of possibility.

The St. Louis metropolitan area is a city of migration, but that migration is not limited to the historic patterns of successive white and black flight. Migration is an everyday occurrence. Many St. Louisans—especially poor and black St. Louisans—live in a state of permanent transience, moving from one apartment complex to the next, one suburb to the next, multiple times per year, on a futile hunt for safety and affordability. Canfield Green Apartments, where Michael Brown resided, is a typical example.

Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population roughly doubled. But the towns near Ferguson—like Berkeley, Kinloch, and Jennings—have always been, and remain, worse off. In the initial days of the crisis, Ferguson was referred to as “small town” or a “ghetto,” but it is neither. Ferguson is one of North County’s more economically viable locales, in that it houses the region’s baseline businesses—payday loans, title loans, dollar stores, barber shops, beauty shops, chop suey joints—along with a few highbrow rarities: a library, a brewery, a farmer’s market. Ferguson has houses with people in them. Ferguson has roads that lead to destinations.

The rest of NoCo does not share these advantages, but Ferguson is very much part of that continuum. What affects Ferguson affects the rest of North County. If Ferguson burns, it will likely take parts of the county down with it. If Ferguson rebuilds, it could inspire a rebirth of the surrounding region—that is, if anyone bothers to care. And they should: Unless the investment in Ferguson extends to the rest of North County, Ferguson does not have a chance.

Read the full article After Ferguson at Politico Magazine.

I also recommend checking out my earlier piece The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back, which discussed striking fast food workers from North County, and Umar’s The New North County: The 1950s Aren’t Coming Back. We have been writing about NoCo for a long time and plan to continue our coverage.

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Ferguson is news, but it is not new

I have a brief op-ed in the New York Daily News on how the problems of Ferguson are not new or unique:

What is happening in Ferguson is news, but it is not new. The black population of Ferguson — and the surrounding area of St. Louis’ North County — has endured hard times for decades. Families who fled the city of St. Louis for a better life now struggle in its impoverished suburbs, where jobs are scarce, opportunities few, and resources denied.

They struggled for decades, and spoke out — privately and publicly. The only change now is that the world is listening.

St. Louis’ problems were never “invisible.” There is a difference between what is invisible and what people refuse to see. St. Louis is known for urban ruins: crumbling brick homes with no roofs or windows, a fenced urban forest where housing projects once stood. Less remarked upon is the fate of the families who fled them.

You can read the whole thing here.

I also spoke with NPR’s On the Media on press coverage of Ferguson and the struggles St. Louis faces. I discussed how St. Louis’s geography is informed by racial politics and answered questions about what the national media missed when they came to town. You can listen here.


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St. Louis Round-Up

Like many others in St. Louis, I’ve spent the last two weeks furious, grieving, afraid, and inspired by the protesters and caring citizens of this beautiful, broken city. I have a few new articles coming out, and I’ll post them once they are online. But for now, here are some older pieces that shed light on St. Louis and the issues we face.

The view from flyover country (5/12/13)

Op-ed on St. Louis, the good and the bad. I’ll always be grateful for Al Jazeera English – the international Al Jazeera — for taking interest in St. Louis when most US outlets told me it was irrelevant.

In St Louis, you re-evaluate fair. In St Louis, you might have it bad, but someone’s got it worse. This is the view from flyover country, where the rich are less rich and the poor are more poor and everyone has fewer things to lose.

The symbol of St Louis is both a gateway and a memorial. The Arch mirrors the sky and shadows the city. It is part of a complex that includes the courthouse where the Dred Scott case was settled, ruling that African-Americans were not citizens and that slavery had no bounds.

On a St Louis street corner, someone is wearing a sign that says “I Am a Man”. Like most in the crowd gathered outside a record store parking lot, he is African-American. He is a fast food worker and he is a protester. He needs to remind you he is a human being because it has been a long time since he was treated like one….

In St Louis, possibilities are supposed to be in the past. It is the closest thing America has to a fallen imperial capital. This is where dystopian Hollywood fantasies are set and filmed. It is the gateway and the memorial of the American Dream.

But when the American Dream is dying for everyone, St Louis might be the one to rise up. In St Louis, people know what happens when social mobility stalls, when lines harden around race and class. They know that if you have a job and work hard, you should be able to do more than survive. They know that every person, every profession, is worthy of dignity and respect.

St Louis is no longer a city where you come to be somebody. But you might leave it a better person.

The minimum wage worker strikes back (4/14/14)

In-depth look at minimum wage poverty in St. Louis, based on months of interviews with black workers mostly from North County, including many from Ferguson. Struggled to get this one published, as the topic and locale were viewed as unworthy of examination. But those following Ferguson should know that the current protests were hardly their first. Here’s an excerpt explaining geography of North County:

St. Louis is an anomaly for large American cities in that the actual city has only about 300,000 residents. Most of the metropolitan area’s nearly three million people live in the surrounding St. Louis County. The county consists of dozens of suburbs ranging from poor to opulent, and its regions are designated by their relation to the city — for example, North County.

To follow a fast food worker’s commute is to trace St. Louis’s long history of racial segregation, economic decline, and fear. Most workers with whom I spoke grew up and still live in North County towns whose populations changed dramatically over the past three decades: a phenomenon one observer bluntly described as “ghetto spillover”. Once the suburbs of white flight, these towns are now the destinations of black flight, as struggling African-American families seek a safe and good life outside the crumbling terrain of the inner city.

St. Louis residents are defensive about the city’s reputation as one of the most dangerous in the U.S., and for good reason. St. Louis is civic-minded and family-friendly, and violent crime is rare outside certain areas — where it is rampant.

The truism that St. Louis is “not dangerous” belies a darker truth: the people for whom it is dangerous are not supposed to matter.

Drive through northern St. Louis and here are some of the things you find: A 12-bedroom, 8-bathroom 19th century mansion with a carriage house on the market for $185,000, the price falling every year. A 57-acre forest in the center of the city where the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, demolished in 1972 after decades of degradation, once stood. Kinloch, the oldest African-American community incorporated in Missouri: population 6,000 in 1960, population 299 in 2010. Houses with no doors or windows and the pipes torn out of the walls. Houses that are frames because someone stole and sold the bricks. Houses with people still living in them, wondering what will happen next. The average life expectancy in North St. Louis is lower than that of Iraq. Almost everyone in North St. Louis is black.

There are few functional businesses in North St. Louis. Drive out of the city limits to the fringes of North County, where many of the fast food workers live, and things start to look up. Next to the decaying buildings are signs of life: a payday loan store, a title loan store, a dollar store, a pawn shop. The economy is poor because the people are poor: possessions, here, are not what you own but what you trade to survive.

St. Louis is a typical U.S. city in that it is many cities in one. Fast food workers take the bus to the nicer areas, where the businesses are, where the people with money are, away from where they live. They look out the window and watch opportunity pass them by.

Expensive cities are killing creativity (12/17/13)

A call to reject the “gated citadels” for cheaper places like STL:

Creative people should fear the prescribed path to success – its narrowness, its specificity, its reliance on wealth and elite approval. When success is a stranglehold, true freedom is failure. The freedom to fail is the freedom to innovate, to experiment, to challenge.

In 2012, St. Louis artist Martin Brief debuted his drawing “Success”. The drawing consisted only of a dictionary definition of success, with each word broken down into its own definition, until, as he writes, “The language can be read but will not yield any greater understanding of what the word means.”

It is a mockery of careerism made all the more salient by Brief’s residence in St Louis – where success, by definition, is supposed to be impossible. To “succeed”, one is supposed to leave a city like St Louis – a Middle-American city associated with poverty and crime. To “succeed” is to embody the definition of contemporary success: sanctioned, sanitised, solvent.

But sanctioned success is dependent on survival, and it is hard for most people to survive in an art world capital like New York, where some homeless people work two jobs. Success by geographical proxy comes with a price: purchased freedom for the rich, serving the rich for the rest. But what happens when we veer off that path? Is it failure? Or is it redefined, recognised anew?

Creativity is sometimes described as thinking outside the box. Today the box is a gilded cage. In a climate of careerist conformity, cheap cities with bad reputations – where, as art critic James McAnalley notes, “no one knows whether it is possible for one to pursue a career” – may have their own advantage. “In the absence of hype, ideas gather, connections build, jagged at first, inarticulate,” McAnalley writes of St Louis. “Then, all of a sudden, worlds emerge.”

Perhaps it is time to reject the “gated citadels” – the cities powered by the exploitation of ambition, the cities where so much rides on so little opportunity. Reject their prescribed and purchased paths, as Smith implored, for cheaper and more fertile terrain. Reject the places where you cannot speak out, and create, and think, and fail. Open your eyes to where you are, and see where you can go.

The peril of hipster economics (5/28/14)

This one was based on my observations of poverty and urban renewal in the city versus in North County, and conversations with my friend Umar Lee, who is quoted in the piece (and whose work you should be reading; no one knows NoCo like Umar). Excerpt:

Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout – and accompanying racial privilege – to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is “cleaned up” through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in “urban life” – the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit – while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.

Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made. […]

Gentrification spreads the myth of native incompetence: That people need to be imported to be important, that a sign of a neighbourhood’s “success” is the removal of its poorest residents. True success lies in giving those residents the services and opportunities they have long been denied.

When neighbourhoods experience business development, priority in hiring should go to locals who have long struggled to find nearby jobs that pay a decent wage. Let us learn from the mistakes of New York and San Francisco, and build cities that reflect more than surface values.

PolicyMic Interview (6/14/13)

This was an interview I did on the “prestige economy” and exploitation in higher education but I weighed in on St. Louis at the end:

If social revolution comes to America, it will not come from New York, San Francisco or other cities where the middle class has been obliterated or is struggling to survive. It will come from St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, New Orleans — cities where you can afford to fail. When success is a stranglehold, true freedom is failure. The freedom to fail is the freedom to innovate, to experiment, to challenge. St. Louis is becoming a city of unlikely agitators.

When the cost of living is low, you have less to lose by losing. It is terrible to be poor and precarious anywhere. But it is far worse in expensive cities powered on the exploitation of ambition, cities where so much rides on so little opportunity. It is more liberating to live in a place where the illusions have already been shattered. St. Louis is not a city of hypotheticals.

Movements for widespread social and economic reform require a diversity of participants…When I went to the fast food workers strikes in St. Louis, people from all walks of life came out to support them. People were looking out for each other, and that was inspiring to see. But the dark takeaway of those strikes is that the plight of the working poor is so terrible in St. Louis that they have little to lose by protesting. They struck out at birth, so now they strike on the streets.

They know that when the game is rigged, you have a better chance of winning if you change the rules than if you keep stepping up to the plate. America’s educated youth could learn something from them.


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On the ‘telegenically dead’

From my latest for Al Jazeera English:

Social media has been described as “humanising” the Palestinian victims. Television may be decried by politicians and pundits, but the internet is where Gaza’s story is told firsthand by its residents, where graphic images of the grieved are shared.

If you are being “humanised”, you are already losing. To be “humanised” implies that your humanity is never assumed, but something you have to prove.

“What am I supposed to do/be to be qualified as a human?” Maisam Abumorr, a writer and student in Gaza, asks. “As far as I can tell, I live like normal humans do. I love, I hate, I cry, I laugh, I make mistakes, I learn, I dream, I hurt, I get hurt… I still have not figured out what crime I have committed to endure this kind of wretchedness. I wonder what being human feels like.”

For every group that uses media to affirm its humanity, there is another group proclaiming that humanity as irrelevant, or inconvenient, or a lie. One can see this not only in the Middle East conflict, but in movements like Nigeria’s “Bring Back Our Girls”, frequently proclaimed “forgotten” due to their so-called “nameless and faceless” victims. But the girls were never nameless and faceless to the Nigerians who fought, and continue to fight, for their survival. They have names that few learned, faces from which many turned away. The people who refuse to forget are the ones the West has now forgotten.

In all documentation of violence, from memoirs to social media, lies a plea to not forget. There is a reason Netanyahu fears the “telegenically dead”. They haunt the world like ghosts – a reminder of what we have done, what we are capable of doing, and the lengths gone to justify it.

Those dehumanised in life become humanised in death. With this realisation you mourn not only the dead. You mourn the living too.

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The politics of water: Detroit, West Virginia, Gaza

My latest for Al Jazeera, on the water crisis in Detroit and beyond:

Detroit is one of the poorest cities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Detroit is also surrounded by the largest supply of fresh water in the world. The US does not lack for money, and Detroit does not lack for accessible water. What Detroit lacks are people viewed as worthy of the compassion and resources given to their richer, whiter peers. They lack the rights and respect most US citizens take for granted.

At a rally in June, life-long Detroiter Renla Session spoke out for her community: “These are my fellow human beings. If they threatened to cut off water to an animal shelter, you would see thousands of people out here. It’s senseless … They just treat people like their lives mean nothing here in Detroit, and I’m tired of it.”

When rights are considered privileges, only the privileged have rights.

“They treat people like animals in Detroit,” an auto worker complained in July, but the US treats its poorest citizens worse. When the government shut down in late 2013, the food programme for impoverished women and children was suspended – but the animals in the National Zoo stayed fed. More attention was paid to the shutdown of the PandaCam, a livestream of a bear cub, than to the suffering of the US’ poorest citizens.

Water is a human right, but who is a human being? Corporations, the US supreme court ruled in June, as the parched citizens of Detroit started filling up at water fountains.

“In its last day in session, the high court not only affirmed corporate personhood but expanded the human rights of corporations, who by some measures enjoy more protections than mortals – or ‘natural persons’,” wrote Dana Milbank at The Washington Post.

The mortals of Detroit enjoy no such protection. Perhaps that is why the city’s corporate venues – like its high-end golf club, hockey arena, football stadium, and over half of the city’s commercial and industrial users – still have their water running despite owing over $30m, while its most impoverished residents have their water, and their rights, taken away.

In Detroit, corporations are people. Their worth is unquestioned because it is measured in dollars. The worth of the residents of Detroit is measured in utility, and so their utilities are denied.

Read the full article, Water is a human right, but who is considered a human being? at Al Jazeera English.

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