Teach-In Brings “Occupy” Movement to Saint Mary’s

Professors, Students Share Insights to Broaden Understanding of National Protests

Occupy teach-inThe Occupy movement that has swept the nation, from Wall Street to Oakland, came to Saint Mary’s College on Wednesday as about 100 members of the community took part in an Occupy Saint Mary’s teach-in.  

Frank Martinez, one of the students who helped to organize the event, said, “We wanted to educate people so they can evaluate and make their own decisions about whether or not they should participate.” The Saint Mary’s teach-in was part of an “Occupy College” teach-in held on more than 100 campuses across the nation on November 2-3.

For Martinez, the Occupy protests against economic disparity in the United States have a personal relevance. “I work three jobs to go to Saint Mary’s,” he said. “Once I graduate, I don’t want to work three jobs. I want to work one job at something I’m passionate about.”

Martinez kicked off the teach-in with a rapid-fire history of protest movements throughout U.S. history, then he rallied the crowd with the words: “Change comes from the bottom up. Change can happen.”    

Politics Professor Ron AhnenAmong the professors who addressed the crowd were History Professor Myrna Santiago, who characterized the Occupy movement as “a rebellion against globalization,” and Sociology Professor John Ely, who spoke on the growing lack of accountability of corporations.

Hisham Ahmed, a politics professor and expert on the Middle East, compared the importance of the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring protests and advised students to follow the nonviolent spirit of that movement. “You are the vanguard of the future,” he told the students. “You are writing a most important chapter in the history of the country.” 

A number of politics professors also participated, including Patricia Longo, who spoke of the yawning gap between the rich and the poor; Ron Ahnen, who passed along lessons learned in his work organizing prisoners; and Jack Rasmus, who outlined the conditions that created the Occupy movement, including chronic unemployment, student debt that has doubled in the past few years, and college graduates who can’t find good jobs.

As parents feel the impact of the economic downturn, those conditions are impacting the lives of students across the nation, including those at Saint Mary’s, despite the College's strong financial aid program for needy students.

“I work on campus during the school year, and during breaks I work back home,” said Brianda Hernandez, a senior who was one of the teach-in organizers. “It’s very hard to keep up with loans and paying for school. Sometimes you can’t even afford to eat.” She said she got involved to help broaden students’ view of their role in the world. “We need to get out of the bubble and experience what is going on outside of Saint Mary’s.” she said.

Sign at rallyOne of the highlights of the teach-in was an improvised telephone conversation with Sociology Professor Cynthia Ganote, who was in Oakland with the Occupy movement. With the help of Reid Davis of the Performing Arts Department, who relayed her message, she led the crowd in rallying cries, including “We are the 99 percent!”

Student Corey Fedor also stirred the crowd with his rousing poem, “The Revolution Will Not be Privatized” – a tribute to the famous 1970 poem by Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

In addition to the students, faculty and staff members, the teach-in also drew recent alumnus Nick Marzahlo ’10. “I came out here today to become more educated about the movement and listen to what the professors had to say,” he said. “The sit-in was very motivating and inspirational.”

After the professors spoke, students were invited to share their thoughts on the movement. Karen Pedraza, a freshman, said “My parents have been slaving away in the fields for 20 years. We hear that Saint Mary’s motto is ‘Enter to learn, leave to serve.’ This is our chance to work for social justice –  right here, right now.”  

View a photo gallery of the Occupy SMC teach-in.

Read the San Jose Mercury News article on the event.

Read the Lamorinda Sun article on the teach-in.