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Teach-Ins in the Time of Trump

After the election, universities are positioning themselves as sources of information about immigration rights.

Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

On November 9, the day after the election, Alina Das walked into her class at New York University School of Law and saw fear. As the co-director of NYU’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, Das and her students work with undocumented people facing detention and deportation; many of her students are immigrants themselves.

It quickly became apparent to Das and her students that “there were a lot of questions from the community, and a lot of people scared by how dramatic the changes could be in January,” Das says. The university, Das realized, could answer some of those questions. Along with Jojo Annobil, the executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Immigrant Justice Corps, Das organized a teach-in on immigrant rights and organizing at the NYU Law Center. On November 28, the event drew nearly 700 people: community members, lawyers, advocates, high-school students. Dozens of other similar events have been taking place in recent weeks at universities across the U.S.

“At the university, we have the resources and space and the ability to bring people together,” Das says. She and Annobil recruited around 20 advocates and representatives from local legal organizations, who gave lightning-round presentations on a host of topics, from steps to take in an immigration raid to navigating the system with a criminal record to anticipating changes to DACA. “People need to have accurate information about what their rights are, and they need to hear that information in settings that are trustworthy,” Das says.

Especially around the topic of immigration, uncertainty and a lack of trust are pervasive. Immigration scams run by people pretending to be lawyers have been on the rise since the election, and Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the topic has been overtly hostile. But as my colleague Brentin Mock writes, it’s unclear what direction Trump’s proclamations will ultimately lead. Still, “people are feeling an understandable urgency, and there’s a desire to get information into people’s hands very quickly,” says Sarah Sherman-Stokes, a Boston University School of Law professor who organized a similar teach-in on November 29. “People want to know: What is it that Trump is saying? What is it that he could actually do, and what steps can I take to push back against that and protect myself in case I am targeted?” she says. The BU event aimed to break down some of the myths around immigration policies, and arm students and community members with the tools to recognize specific causes for action and concern.

Teach-ins, historically, have been a way for colleges and universities to extend beyond the classroom. The first were hosted as a form of nonviolent protest during the Vietnam War. Instead of striking or walking out in opposition to the wars, educators organized groups of students to resist through learning, and worked to engage the public in a sustained intellectual discourse.

In the years since, both the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements have hosted teach-ins at universities—but a renewed cry for knowledge has followed on the heels of this election. In the weeks since the election, colleges have organized protest walk-outs and circulated petitions to create “sanctuary campuses,” but The Atlantic points out that the role schools can play in preventing student deportations remains unclear. Universities are designed to foster discussion; the events are a form of “resistance through knowledge,” Sherman-Stokes says.

As opposed to the recent events at NYU and BU, which focus on providing concrete resources, a new, ongoing series of lectures at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette aims to situate the current political climate in the context of a longer history and leave space for debate. “We’re a very red state here in Louisiana,” says the masters student and organizer Kelsey Jagneaux. “We want to answer questions that not only the student body might have, but that anybody in the community might have.”

Sherman-Stokes emphasizes that teach-ins are a starting point: a call to action for educational institutions, advocacy groups, and communities to identify and share resources and strategies. She envisions her students collaborating with local organizations to continue getting information out into the communities; Das and the NYU Immigration Clinic will be sharing materials and videos from their teach-in online so they can be translated and spread. Jagneaux also sees educational institutions playing a crucial role. “There are people who feel like they don’t have a space for these dialogues in their homes or in the community,” she says. “We want them to know that the university can be that place.”

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