You want systemic change? Community colleges have some tools to consider

Nicola Blake and Niesha Ziehmke

In the outcry for racial justice following the brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake, the country is propelled to move from grief to action. The action made visible in the streets is now reverberating in organizations, businesses and all the systems and structures of our society – education, healthcare, housing and finance. The persistent, pervasive demand for dismantling the systemic racism woven deeply into the fabric of our nation has a new sense of urgency.

Guttman Community College prides itself on its commitment to student success. We are an institution built to serve the whole student. Our mission, aligned with the greater City University of New York (CUNY) mission of access and excellence, drives and defines our recruitment and retention strategies. The most important criteria for the reappointment, promotion and tenure of our faculty is their teaching, according to the Guttman Instructional Principles, which are grounded in engaged and inclusive pedagogy. By the end of October, more than 85% of the faculty has completed a sustained culturally responsive pedagogy training, and all faculty members receive ongoing professional development in a variety of topics focused on equity.

As community college educators within the CUNY system, we recognize that undoing racism is central to our daily duties, an essential project with no clear endpoint. We also understand that as much as our largely white faculty and administration want to challenge the systems that hurt our students, who are overwhelmingly Black and Latinx, of low-income and immigrant backgrounds, as well as the first in their families to attend college, we sometimes perpetuate these very systems. Because we care deeply about our students and their futures, we are constantly building and revising structures to eradicate unconscious bias. This is very difficult work that involves transforming hearts and minds, then changes in structures, curriculum and policies.

According to the Community College Research Center, community college students comprise approximately 44% of all U.S. undergraduate students. This scale and the greater diversity of students at community colleges make this a critical pathway to educational advancement for the very communities leading the movement for racial and economic justice. Our institutions have always been swimming upstream against the torrent of racist educational practices in our country, with CUNY having a rich history in providing broader access to higher education and resulting socioeconomic mobility to marginalized groups leading that work. In this spirit, we invite you to consider two broad lessons from our college.

A curriculum of resistance

Community colleges democratize access to higher education not only by serving the new majority but by also supporting the whole student. We see the strengths of our students and honor their prior learning and life experiences. For many community college students, just being in a college classroom is an act of resistance. Weaving aspects of students’ lives and the issues that affect them into courses on numeracy, arts, critical and quantitative thinking, digital literacy and subject areas prompts student learning and development to further challenge the status quo.

In their teaching practices, Guttman faculty embed their extensive research expertise in areas like urban education reform, the fight against school segregation, textbook diversity, race and politics, race and racism in our prison system, urban food systems, welfare policy, and the politics of redistribution, public housing and gentrification, and improving STEM success for students of color.

Student success is the lifeblood of community colleges. We work to fulfill this mission by helping students to skill up through certification, micro-credentials and degree completion. Our focus at Guttman is exploring the concepts and realities of work and career from the very first semester, when students are required to take the two-semester course sequence Ethnographies of Work (EoW). Students don’t merely prepare for a job; they learn that a job is a nuanced space that perpetuates the culture of that workplace and industry. They ask and investigate how one operates or is allowed to operate at work, who gets hired and why, who gets paid and how much, and who has access to power and growth or is blocked from it. Students gain research skills and theoretical frameworks for understanding work as an ecosystem replete with the same social and political ills that plague our society. More importantly, EoW students study models and strategies to begin to navigate and counter systems of inequality.

A curriculum grounded in student voice

The voices of community college students matter. Though their potential and achievements are minimized and disregarded in favor of students at institutions granting baccalaureate and advanced degrees, community college students are the perfect exemplars of talented emerging researchers, poets, activists and more. It is up to community colleges to validate and strengthen our students’ voices so they carry farther and make the most impact, especially in this moment of social transformation. We must provide ample opportunities for student research and greater investment in showcasing student work publicly, regardless of major or field. This is how we show our students that their voices, expressed through the work they do in their courses, can play a role in the greater movement for social change.

At Guttman, we believe in our students as knowledge creators. One of our liberal arts special topics courses, in which students focus on narrative frames and short stories, reflects this vision. After reading and studying short stories, students are asked to write their own. They get and take the space to present their stories as they see fit, challenging ideas of language, heteronormativity, race, gender and the legitimacy of beginnings and resolutions. Students spend as much time writing the bios that frame these stories as the stories themselves. In those bios, students often state, “I am a first-time author,” declaring that they have arrived as contributors to the public narrative. Funded by the college, the students’ pieces and their bios are culled and published as an anthology of short stories.

In another effort to elevate our students’ voices, Guttman faculty consistently connects students with opportunities for research and civic engagement, recognizing that their perspectives are not only valid, but critical to progress. Students are involved and supported in becoming true collaborators and co-authors of academic research, which has included finding alternative uses for biowaste, the impact of growth mindset and mindfulness on math anxiety, and the creation of a youth justice toolkit. Students are invited to attend and, more importantly, to present their work at conferences and other public platforms.

These initiatives have one ambitious goal: making public the rich work happening in the classroom, to put students at the forefront of that work, as makers, shapers, activists and thinkers who use the skills learned to change their own perceptions, realities, and, ultimately, the world around them.

You want systemic change? Invest in community colleges and community college students.

Nicola Blake is dean of faculty and academic affairs and associate professor in English at Guttman Community College in New York City. Niesha Ziehmke is associate dean for academic programs and planning at the college, overseeing the Center for Career Preparation and Partnership and co-directing the Center on Ethnographies of Work.