The Work of Democracy

Wednesday, November 8, 2023
Frank Guridy, Holder Initiative Executive Director and the Dr. Kenneth and Kareitha Forde Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies and professor of history

Emma Asher

Launched in November 2017, The Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights aims to extend the themes and questions of the Core Curriculum into a contemporary context. Named for former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. CC’73, LAW’76, the Initiative provides undergraduate students with courses, internships and mentoring; the cornerstone of the Initiative’s programming, The American Voter Project series, is now in its fifth year.

Frank Guridy, the Dr. Kenneth and Kareitha Forde Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies and a professor of history, became the Initiative’s executive director and senior scholar in July 2022. Now a year into that role, Guridy sees an urgent need for the Initiative to create avenues that allow students to do social justice work during their time at the College; he believes strongly that opportunities for engagement exist not only through the Initiative’s programming, but at the curricular level.

To that end, the Initiative has partnered with the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society to develop the class “Justice Now,” which debuted this fall. Students taking the course, taught by Larry Jackson, director of the Witten Center for the Core Curriculum, will work with the Initiative to identify opportunities for active engagement.

“I am excited by this partnership between the Core and the Holder Initiative, which enables us to bridge the gaps between theory and practice, and campus and community, while also experimenting with new ways of teaching and learning,” Jackson says.

Guridy will lead the next installment of the American Voter Project series, the panel discussion “Sports and Democracy,” in Pulitzer Hall on Thursday, November 9. [Editor’s note: the event has been canceled.] We recently spoke with him about the work of the Initiative, how it’s building bridges with the Core Curriculum, and the eventful year ahead.

You’ve been the executive director of the Holder Initiative for a year; how have you put your stamp on the role?

[Initiative senior associate director] Elizabeth Manchester and I are working to take the public programming that we’re known for and align it a bit more with supporting student research and efforts toward democracy work. I like to say that we’re trying to cultivate students to embrace the responsibility of being 21st-century American citizens, with a new conception of democracy. Voting and civic engagement are central, but so is the challenge of working alongside with and for the marginalized and the dispossessed in our society.

This year we created a Research Fellows Program, which supports student research on justice issues. Students in our initial cohort of five fellows are working on an array of topics, including immigrant communities, gentrification, caste inequality and the role of artistic forms, such as jazz in the history of marginalized communities. In addition to the Fellows Program, we’ve partnered with Larry Jackson to create the “Justice Now” course being taught this fall; he’s done an amazing job in encouraging students to consider questions of justice from the philosophical level and accompanying that with practical possibilities to conceptualize justice work on contemporary issues. These are two initiatives that we launched this year to create excitement and interest from students.

What do you think is most impactful about the Initiative right now?

The effort to create possibilities for students to do impactful work in the world, during their time here at Columbia and after, is an exciting, but also daunting, task, especially in light of everything that’s transpired during the last several years, such as the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, the Ferguson uprising of 2014, the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the pandemic and the upheavals of the summer of 2020, the imperilment of reproductive rights, the climate crisis and so on.

I think all of those events — and I’ve seen this myself in the classroom — have created a sense of urgency among our students. There’s a real sense of urgency regarding questions of climate change, racial justice, the fate of democracy and gender equity, among other challenges we are facing today. So I think this context makes the Holder Initiative, among other pedagogical work that we do here at Columbia, vital, because our program aims to provide a structure that enables students to take what they’re passionate about and figure out how to translate that into impactful work.

It’s so important for students to have that conduit to action, because I would think that that would be the most difficult part — where do you even start?

Absolutely. We start with our programming, such as the panel discussions we have in our America Voter Project series, where students are able to learn from leaders who are doing that impactful work. Our speakers come from organizations that are engaging in political questions, legal questions, all sorts of social justice issues. And students actually have an opportunity to connect with them. In some ways, we are simply providing role models for students — former AG Holder is the obvious one, but there are many, many others who are doing important work right now. I think it’s imperative for students to be exposed to the work that they do.

Can you say more about the “Justice Now” course? How is it strengthening connections between the Core Curriculum and the Initiative?

“Justice Now” is a bridge from the Core to the Initiative; it builds on texts and ideas that students are encountering in Lit Hum and CC and allows them to think about justice in a more expansive way. It takes what the Core seeks to cultivate — critical thinking and a practice of deep reflection — and develop those skills to approach the complex question of justice in different contexts. It starts with John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and then analyzes the complexities of social justice in three areas: economics, the environment and race. It invites students to explore what justice means for different communities; what economic justice might look like in a society shaped by overlapping forces of racism, colonialism, sexism and other forms of domination; and what justice looks like in the midst of mass incarceration, among other questions.

We are really excited about the possibility of students being able to minor in social justice. Our hope is that “Justice Now” will be a gateway course, that we could connect students who take this class to the vast array of other courses that our faculty offer in many other departments. The more we can make social justice a more intentional part of our curriculum, the more they will be able to approach social justice thinking and practice as something they can engage in and reflect upon during their time here.

It’s a priority for us that students understand the importance of intellectual work — these are complex philosophical questions that require study and an attention to nuance. We’re not approaching “social justice” thinking as a mastery of talking points. In order to understand, say, immigration questions, you need to have a sense of immigration history. And we want to encourage the notion that the thinking work and action work operate in tandem. We want to get away from the idea that intellectual work is separate from advocacy work, or civic engagement. Our hope is that students can learn how they can be harmonized.

Tell us about the “Sports and Democracy” panel on November 9.

Exploring sport’s relationship to larger social and political questions has been a central component of my research and writing during the last decade or so. Sport is much more than a realm of entertainment. It is a multibillion-dollar industry whose reach is far greater than many realize. For the scholar, it’s an arena that allows us to explore all sorts of issues — racial inequality, gender inequality, citizenship and politics, the environment, and the organization of the political economy of cities, among other topics. And sports is one of the few places left where people from different backgrounds voluntarily come together. So for me, it has become a fascinating lens to explore these bigger questions that are facing the world and this country right now, including the question of democracy in the 21st century.

What we saw in 2020 was unprecedented partnerships between athletes, activists, team executives and election administrators, which helped facilitate the largest voter turnout in American history. One tangible impact of these collaborations was an unprecedented number of stadiums and arenas that were repurposed into voting centers because of the need to provide safe places to vote during the pre-vaccine era of the pandemic, and because of the enormous impact of the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd was murdered. During that tumultuous year, many channeled the desire for racial justice toward mobilizing voters in that year’s historic election. We saw more athletes getting involved, not just in speaking out against racial injustice, but also in galvanizing voters in unprecedented ways. In short, the overlapping crises of the pandemic and the fallout from the murder of George Floyd forced the sports industry to become responsive beyond its traditional philanthropic efforts. Professional sports franchises were forced to acknowledge that they actually play a larger role in our society than just providing entertainment. This was an important realization, given the enormous tax subsidies and entertainment dollars that it receives from the American public. By devoting resources toward voter mobilization and the cause of social justice, the sports industry played a vital role in the expansion of democracy and, in my view, it should continue to do so in the years to come.

And so the event we’re having on the 9th will feature some of the people who have been engaging in innovative democracy work in the sports world. Jocelyn Benson, the current secretary of state of Michigan, was very much involved in the formulation of the idea of stadium voting; Scott Pioli, a former NFL executive and media personality, is encouraging the NFL’s efforts to facilitate voting and civic participation; and Sherrie Deans CC’98 has done enormous work with the NBA Players Association, inspiring athletes to engage questions of civic engagement social justice. They will be in dialogue with myself and former AG Holder, who will share his perspective as a longstanding advocate of voting rights.

I’d like to continue to showcase the work of people in the sports industry, and show how sports could help reconstitute democracy in this age. It’s one of the few places where people still congregate for in-person interaction, which presents an opportunity to think about how we can find commonalities amidst enormous social and political polarization.

At the risk of sounding formulaic, I must say that I witnessed a small, but potent example of the power of sport to cultivate community on our campus last spring when I attended the last regular season game of the women’s basketball team, led by Coach Megan Griffith CC’07. That night I witnessed a level of excitement and commonality at Levien Gymnasium that I have never seen anywhere else on this campus during the eight years I have been here. It was truly something to behold. As a historian of the Black Freedom movement, I know that sport has possessed the power to move and inspire people to dedicate themselves toward positive social transformation. I’m inclined to believe that it still can.

What’s on deck for the Initiative in the year ahead?

We want to continue to build upon our efforts to engage students. I think that they are the smartest people on this campus. Our students are super sharp, but they’re understandably anxious. But I also feel that the anxiety is based on a productive desire to do something impactful in the world. We plan to continue to strengthen relationships with students through the Research Fellows Program, through our public programming, through our support for internships.

And of course, we are looking ahead to the 2024 election. We will have another installment of the American Voter Project series focusing on the election, but also the mobilizing work around voting rights, which is an ongoing national struggle. And we will select another cohort for our Research Fellows Program, through which we hope to encourage students to develop research projects on locally impactful concerns. Being in New York gives them this opportunity to deal with many of the pressing issues of our time — many of the issues we’re dealing with in American cities (the need for affordable housing, skyrocketing cost of living, questions of labor after the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact of climate change, to name a few) are happening in our neighborhood, in our communities here in West Harlem/Morningside Heights.

I want to encourage students to approach the Holder Initiative as a lab of sorts, as an opportunity to test out and think through the issues that matter to them. I’m convinced that the work we are doing here will only increase in importance in the years to come.

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