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Ask an Activist: Casey Aldridge
Our Ask an Activist series continues with equity in higher education advocate Casey Aldridge.
Tell us about your student activism?
I grew up in comfort; never riches, but never food or housing insecurity. I had the privileges of maleness and whiteness by the lottery of my birth. It would be a lie to convince myself that I had to overcome significant adversity to excel in school. Rather, my success in school was in no small part due to the comfort in which I lived. Going to college, also, was always something expected of me, the default route if you will. But when I applied for college, as an aspiring journalist in an uncertain job field, I felt the pressures of economic rationality constraining my choices. To attend the best journalism schools I’d have to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans, with no certainty of a job after college, much less a job that could pay off those loans. I attended UNC Charlotte because I got a scholarship I couldn’t turn down. It ended up being the best decision of my life, as the friends I’ve made and faculty I’ve learned from have been exceptional, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without Charlotte. But that scholarship - essentially free university tuition and board - has allowed me to create my own educational experience.
I’ve experienced an education that is global, hands-on, engaging, critical, and exactly what I’ve wanted it to be. I also am aware that my maleness and whiteness played its hand in that scholarship selection process, and in the years of my life leading up to the scholarship interviews. But the education I’ve been able to experience - a truly powerful and life-altering one - shouldn’t be limited to maleness or whiteness, or even to scholarship recipients in general. I was at the Montreal Student Movement Convention in 2014 in Canada, where the closing general assembly of students from across North America called for “free and emancipatory education for all.” College shouldn’t be only tuition-free, it ought to be tuition-free and liberating for everyone in society. Otherwise it isn’t “education,” because we learn nothing, we only learn to mimic the methods and tools of exploitation and global capitalism that got us into this mess in the first place. My student activism is about abolishing a university system that idolizes profit and corporate assimilative standards, and building in it’s place a non-exclusive people’s university that allows Charlotteans to change the world around us and liberate all of humanity.
Who are some activists or events which have inspired your own activism?
My passion for social justice was something I picked up very early on, but my transition from being vaguely moral to acutely political came in the second-half of my sophomore year at Concord High School, the early months of 2011. I still remember wanting to become generally more informed, and beginning to follow the news. Within weeks, the Arab Spring was in full form abroad, and the Wisconsin labor uprising was raging in Madison. That was the year, too, of the Indignados in Spain and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Watching those events unfold on livestreams as a young, impressionable adolescent was powerful. I can point to my parents, or the pastors who preached at First Presbyterian Church of Concord when I was a child, or a number of teachers and other family members as personal mentors that from a young age instilled not only a deep appreciation for justice and empathy in me, but also sparked a “utopian yearning” of sorts in my mind. Intellectually I’d say I’m particularly inspired by Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Malcolm X, Vladimir Lenin, and more recently theologians including but not limited to - Gustavo Gutiérrez, James Cone, Rosemary Ruether, and Allan Boesak. I think each of these - and so many more - intellectual inspirations teaches in me a pragmatic “how to” for revolution and post-revolutionary society that one can’t get from utopianism, but I also think that the utopian yearning which I inherit from the people I love and my faith, is something inherently grounded in my political activism as well, and is what sustains me in the work.
Why should people care about the corporatization of educational institutions?
The corporatization of the university spells the death of emancipatory education. There’s always been this idea amongst the privileged classes that college is “just something you do,” a sort of rite of passage, and among underserved classes there’s this concept of college as the escape. And you know, in the past, perhaps such a characterization was accurate. If you could get into college, it would “pay off” with a nice middle-class salaried job upon graduation, and you’d be set. That understanding was always considerably whitewashed and a little too “American Dream”-like to be true, but never has it been more untrue than it is today.
Every year, the new graduating class is the “most indebted in history,” and every year, job and wage prospects for recent graduates are increasingly bleak -- unless, of course, your major was in business or finance or economics, in which case you might be able to pay off your loans. Corporatization coerces students to do what’s in their own best interests, but a society in which everyone acts out of their own interests is precisely the hyper-individualistic dystopia that lies at the root of so much wrong in the world today. Education ought to cultivate a society for everyone in it, and that society needs historians and social critics and philosophers and an educated and politically-minded working class. But the skyrocketing costs of education on top of the cuts to departments that encourage critical thinking mean that universities under this corporate model is creating a dualistic society of an educated overclass, who works in banks and wears three-piece suits, and an excluded underclass who cannot afford to attend college in the first place.
What are some things people may not know about the effects of higher college tuition?
There are two primary things I think people don’t know about rising tuition. For one, it’s intentional. It is a way by which the Board of Governors and state government are consciously asserting rich white men over the rest of society. By raising tuition, the state has to spend less, and is able to grant tax cuts not to working-class and poor North Carolinians, but to corporations and to the top tier of the economy, the richest of the rich. But it also, for obvious reasons, means a lot of people can’t attend college that perhaps could have before. Remember, I never dealt with food or home insecurity or the power shutting off because my parents couldn’t afford the electric bills. But I still ended up picking the school that was not going to cost me anything, because I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. For those less fortunate than I, where poverty at home has ramifications in school, even that becomes impossible. College then becomes merely that “rite of passage” I mentioned earlier, and college as social mobility becomes even more a myth than it ever was.
Essentially, raising tuition is how the state eases taxes for the wealthiest, and simultaneously makes it so only the wealthiest can attend university in the first place. Secondly, it doesn’t have to be this way. A common chant at Student Power Union actions is “money for jobs and education, not for war and incarceration (or deportation)”. It reflects the facts that providing tuition-free education for every student in North Carolina, or the entire United States, is economically feasible and really quite easy. The fact that our government allocates so much money towards destructive policies of war, deportation, police militarization and defending racist police practices in court, and largely race-based incarceration is evident of the priorities of our government. I think people, when they see tuition going up year after year, should recognize that it’s not “because the Board had no other choice,” but because the Board is part of a government that has other priorities and that actively wants to make colleges more exclusive, more corporate, and less diverse.
How did you become involved in the NC Student Power Union?
Coming to political consciousness in Concord, North Carolina had its limitations. I attempted, on several occasions, to engage the community in radical politics, but consistently without any results. My only way to radicalize myself and to get involved, really, was through social media, and I stumbled across the work of the Student Power Union through social media, specifically twitter. They were shutting down streets, disrupting Board of Governors meetings, and participating in bringing youth into the Moral Mondays movement. I first contacted the Student Power Union at a time when I thought I’d be attending college in Chapel Hill, where their infrastructure and organization is stronger, but ultimately - in coming to Charlotte - was able to help bring it to another major state campus dealing with similar defunding of valuable gender and race departments and faculties, and with skyrocketing costs. Students and campus culture are different here, of course, but the root of the problem - an out-of-touch and elite Board of Governors bent on accelerating the corporatization and inaccessibility of public universities as rich, white, and male spaces - is common throughout and beyond North Carolina, and that’s why and how I got involved with the Student Power Union.
How did you garner support for your student walkout in October 2014?
I never actually felt like I needed to “garner support” for the walkout last October, as a matter of fact. I think the social conditions of where higher education is right now, and where students are right now, garnered the support that we at the Student Power Union needed to pull off the walkout at Charlotte and across the state. Really my work was in mobilization, and turning people out, and in the end, UNC Charlotte pulled off the largest walkout in the state that week. I think some of that testifies to the social media presence and the meetings and the flyering and chalking and leafletting and countless conversations our team had with students. But a large part of it undeniably comes from the way things are with the University of North Carolina system and its impact on UNC Charlotte. Charlotte’s ties to the city make it a dynamic university, and it’s a university that I love very deeply, but those ties to the financial and commercial powers-that-be in Charlotte spell a troubling identity crisis for the university.
State austerity and budget cuts means private donors are filling the gaps, but private donors have agendas. They’re supporting research and departments that produce profit and maintain the status quo, while UNC Charlotte’s students in Africana Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and other liberal arts and critical fields are under attack for threatening the status quo. All the while, faculty salaries and campus worker pay are gutted, and tuition is rising at unprecedented rates. I didn’t need to convince people of why they ought to walkout, they walked out because they know already their collective education are under attack. We had so many messages of support, in fact, from faculty who couldn’t speak because they weren’t tenured, or workers who couldn’t go on strike for fear of retaliation, or students who supported our demands but couldn’t attend because they were working two or three jobs off campus to pay back their loans. Most people wanted a walkout by the very nature of their conditions on campus. So many people are waiting on a revolution, on or off campus, because the university system is so corrupt and so poorly prioritized. It’s the ‘how’ that’s so difficult, as the Board of Governors and powers-that-be have so effectively atomized and divided workers, faculty, and students on campus.
How does social media play a role in your activism?
Social media has had and does have a profound impact on my activism. My introduction to politics came with the twitter-driven Arab Spring, and it was on twitter and other social media platforms that I - a high school kid stuck in Concord, North Carolina - was able to connect with organizers across the state, country, and world. Social media keeps me informed on what's going on, and the courage of others captured on social media has time and time again inspired me. It was through these platforms that I became exposed to critiques of capitalism and neoliberalism, and became able to coordinate with socialists and other leftists. I don't engage twitter as frequently as I used to, and there is plenty of disheartening, reactionary, right-wing content on social media sites, but I do really think that the access to information and collaboration that social media provides is in no small part responsible for the Black Lives Matter movement, for Occupy Wall Street, and for the movements still to come.
About Casey Aldridge
Casey Aldridge is a junior Levine Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he majors in Religious Studies and History, with minors in Political Science and Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights. At UNC Charlotte, Casey has served as the Lead Student Organizer for the NC Student Power Union, and is engaged in other Marxist activism and organizing. Currently, Casey studies as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for the Study of Socialist Theory and Movements in the field of Liberation, Black, and Feminist Theologies, and in researching and writing on the theology of prison abolition. He hopes to attend seminary in the Presbyterian Church (USA) after graduation, to pursue a doctoral program in Theology or Religious History, and to ultimately help to bridge the justice and communal work of faith communities with radical political vision.
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