Lawrence Ben is a long way from his home in Adelaide, South Australia.
Lawrence made the arduous two-day journey in August 2018 with a very specific purpose: to experience SLU’s Union Semester program.
“My parents sparked my interested in labor,” Lawrence said. “They were both teachers and union members and always told me that ‘when you go to work the first thing you need to do is join your union.’ I also worked as a fruit-picker in my teenage years and was never paid for my work, which sparked an interest in working for a union. While I was studying Law and Arts at the University of Adelaide I took a part-time job with the retail and fast food union in Australia. After I graduated from university, I worked full-time there.”
How did he learn about Union Semester? “I googled it,” he laughed. “It’s really rare to find a program like that with a stipend attached. The stipend made it possible for me to come here. And what better place to study labor than New York City—the classic union town and the center of the labor movement in America.” He added, “I did the application online and Diana Robinson responded right away. She facilitated everything, helped me deal with the international hurdles—she pulled down the roadblocks all the way, for me and for the other students in my cohort from overseas.”
Continue reading Out of Australia and into CUNY SLU
My name is Sephora Wembo and I am a senior at CUNY’s Hunter College majoring in Sociology and minoring in Women and Gender Studies, graduating this December. In the fall of 2019, I got nominated by my professor to take part in the Community Leadership Program at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. When I heard about this amazing opportunity, I was excited to take part because I wanted to broaden my experience and skills and further my education in order to become a social worker.
The Community Semester program was an intensive academic and service-learning experience. It gave me the opportunity to not only learn academically but also outside the classroom with an internship. When I began this program, I kept on hearing the words “community organizing” and I had no idea what that meant. I now know that community organizing means empowering people in underrepresented communities to fight for issues that affect them. In class we not only learned about the subjects academically, but also got to experience them firsthand. For example, I attended one campaign in the city called “Housing Justice for All.” It was really empowering to see a lot of organizations come together to work for change in their communities.
Continue reading Community Semester Story: Sephora Wembo … in Her Own Words
Gabriela Quintanilla is a DREAMer. And she has some big dreams.
Born in El Salvador, Gabriela came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant at age 13 and grew up in the Catskills region of New York. She went to high school in Liberty, and was very active in her student government. When President Obama issued the executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the local press wanted to interview her. “I suddenly realized that everyone in my school and my community would know that I was undocumented,” said Gabriela, “but I wanted to share my story and raise awareness.”
Raising awareness is something Gabriela cared about from an early age. Her mother worked at a poultry factory for 12 years, and that’s how Gabriela became involved with the Rural & Migrant Ministry. “I joined RMM when I was 14,” she said. “I saw my mother’s situation and I wanted to know more about her rights. Every year we would go to Albany and my mother would share her story. In RMM I worked alongside women who really wanted to make a change in what is like a forgotten land. People in the City don’t understand that rural upstate New York isn’t just about growing apples. It’s about isolated factory workers and farmworkers who have been forgotten.”
After earning her degree in sociology at SUNY Stony Brook, Gabriela returned to RMM, serving as the organization’s Western New York Coordinator. “My job revolved around coalition-building. I worked alongside farmworkers who year after year shared their stories of oppression with legislators. I also organized community members to go to Albany and support The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. The Farm Workers Bill had been around for 20 years. It was about getting farmworkers to be protected by New York labor laws. That they deserved a day of rest, overtime, and the right to collectively bargain. And eventually, we won.” Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law on July 17, 2019.
Gabriela learned about SLU four years ago when she met Laurie Kellogg and Diana Robinson at a food chain workers event. “I wanted to go to graduate school, and I thought SLU would be a good fit for me, with its emphasis on the labor movement. But I had just moved to the Finger Lakes and I wasn’t ready to make another change. I had always dreamed of living in New York City, and last summer I decided to make the move—in the middle of a pandemic. The first month was really hard—I’m an extrovert, and the lack of community was just awful. But I accomplished my goal: I’m enrolled at SLU, in my first semester in the Labor Studies MA program.” She sighed. “Online.”
Gabriela says she’s lucky—she had a great support system that helped her get her education. “Others aren’t so fortunate. So in 2015 I founded Adelante Student Voices, an organization that provides a safe space for New York’s undocumented students to explore their legal status and find routes to college. They learn about New York State’s DREAM Act, the legislation that allows eligible undocumented students to apply for financial aid for college. So far, 55 students have gone through our program and 26 have been able to go to college.”
Asked what she wants to learn at SLU, Gabriela replied, “I’m curious to explore how non-profit organizations have been able to achieve changes in the law without relying on unions. When you think about the labor movement you automatically think unions, but there are many other organizations that should be included. There needs to be a way to bridge the gap. I’m hoping my professors and my classmates can help me figure that out.”
She added, “I’m enjoying learning about urban issues and how labor issues play out in the city. But I also want to bring a different perspective, from my own experience. I want to find out how we can bring the most marginalized communities to the forefront of the labor movement. I want people to think about the issues that impact rural areas and those vulnerable and forgotten workers, many of them undocumented. I’m fortunate to have my green card now and I’ve applied for citizenship. And I will utilize this privilege to bring forward those who are marginalized to decision-making tables.”
She paused. “I’m not going to forget them.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT SLU’S M.A. IN LABOR STUDIES
Brian Fleurantin is not about to stop talking.
The URB MA graduate candidate has recently been involved in a number of protests and community actions against his employer, Housing Works, which has been accused of unfair labor practices. Along the way, Brian has been quoted in news articles
and interviewed on WBAI radio
. Here’s Brian in his own words:
“Throughout my time at SLU, I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with my colleagues from various professions and learning what it takes to be a better, more effective organizer and advocate. Whether in class or working with my peers on projects outside of campus, SLU has taught me how to build community and achieve goals that previously seemed unattainable. Although our company has stifled our organizing efforts at various points, we’ve managed to persevere and continue doing the work of building community, working to form a union, and making sure every employee there has their voice heard. The work always continues and I’m thankful SLU has been here to help guide me along the way.”
Graduate student. Special education teacher.
Digital humanities specialist. Writer. Poet. Musician. Indie artist.
Those are only some of the myriad vocations of
Jeffery Collin Suttles. To call him enterprising would be an understatement.
A candidate for the M.A. in Urban Studies at SLU this semester, Jeffery found new inspiration for his art in a cooperative management course that he took with Rebecca Lurie in 2019. As his final project, Jeffery composed a song called, “Co-Op,” which he subsequently premiered last month at a community development rally/video shoot held at the Black Lives Matter mural in Brooklyn. Continue reading JEFFERY SUTTLES MAKES MUSIC FOR A MOVEMENT
Sima Petilli, a special-needs educator and participant in SLU’s LEAP-to-Teacher program who recently earned her master’s degree at Lehman College, was not going to let anything stand in her way of becoming a certified teacher – not even the sudden, mid-semester transition to working, studying, and full-time parenting from home in response to COVID-19, all while also preparing for the edTPA, a challenging certification exam requiring prospective teachers to submit a portfolio of lesson plans, videos, and written responses.
“It’s very easy to get confused and overwhelmed, but in reality, the edTPA is like a wave. You ride from one wave to another,” Sima said of her experience tackling the different portions of the test.
Originally from Russia, Sima first came to the U.S. when she was 13 years old and then moved to Israel to complete her undergraduate studies. She returned to the States afterward to pursue a career in public relations as a Conference Director. But when the company went bankrupt, she realized she wanted a completely different lifestyle. For the past three years, Sima has worked as a special needs preschool teacher in Manhattan, and loves it.
“You never know what could happen during a lesson!” she exclaimed gleefully. “This was a big shift in my career and I’m very happy with my decision.” Read more about Sima.