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“[Becoming an artist] is a total risk of everything, of you and who you think you are, who you think you’d like to be, where you think you’d like to go—everything, and this forever.”
-James Baldwin, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” 1962
Last week was Union Week on our campus, one of 25 colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, a large urban university system. Our union, the Professional Staff Congress (PFC), representing full-time and part-time faculty and staff at the 25 colleges, is negotiating for a new contract amid the many challenges faced by higher education. The Union Week Embroidery Project, an individual artistic project aiming to take a stand, is intended to highlight the needs of our campus with the understanding that all students deserve the right to a fully funded higher education, in clean and sustainable facilities.
Some of the 25 campuses are housed in former office buildings surrounded by highrises, concrete, and glass. They are close to the subway and in some ways indistinguishable from the surrounding city. In contrast, the campus where I teach is almost bucolic, with many trees and open green lawns where students gather on warm days. Geographically, the campus remains part of the city, but is located close to the suburbs and two miles from the subway.
Nevertheless, the physical plants at many of the campuses, including where I work, suffer from years of underfunding and subsequent neglect. Signs of disrepair are hiding in plain sight, with one instance late last year, of interruption to in-person classes. In spring semester 2023 and again this fall, returning to in-person teaching in the continued wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, I could not help but notice the worsening conditions on campus.
The Union Week Embroidery Project finds inspiration from James Baldwin’s writing on the risks and responsibilities of becoming an artist, which are akin to the risks and responsibilities of the work of higher education. As the union works to negotiate a new contract, together we draw attention to the need to bear witness to the consequences of the deteriorating conditions around us–there is too much at stake to ignore.
In becoming aware of the consequences and intervening in the current situation, perhaps we can bring into being a hope that is so often absent these days, hope that our students and future generations of students can pursue a meaningful education, and, as a result, give back to a world that must continue to offer opportunities to flourish and grow.
Notes and Credits
The Union Week Embroidery Project was made for City University of New York's PSC CUNY (Professional Staff Congress) Union Week, which can be found on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/psc_qc/
The banner and sign are provided by PSC CUNY. The embroidery and other multimedia work is my own. A video for the Union Week Embroidery Project is available here: https://youtu.be/-vkWVmBTPEo
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