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Meet SLU’s 2020 Valedictorian and Salutatorian

Gena-Fae Fillingham
B.A. Urban and Community Studies, summa cum laude
Valedictorian, SLU Class of 2020

Gena-Fae Fillingham was born and raised in a small farm town in Nebraska, where her mother taught her to care about the most vulnerable in her community. She worked as a certified nurses’ aide throughout her senior year in high school, and later attended nursing school where she graduated with honors and was certified as an LPN. She worked as a charge nurse in a nursing home in Brooklyn, and simultaneously volunteered for the charity “Hope for Kids,” which seeks to raise awareness and increase the number of children receiving up to date immunizations. Gena-Fae later changed her career path and worked as a paralegal in the corporate sector, then decided to return to a field of work that would allow her to engage more with the community and serve others. Gena-Fae found the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies a perfect fit for her ambitions. After completing her coursework at SLU in December of 2019, she completed an online TEFL certification course in April 2020, and was officially certified as an ESL teacher in May. Her internship took her to lower Manhattan, where she worked with Chinese immigrants and tutored a Chinese student online. Gena-Fae plans to move to Asia and work as an ESL teacher. Read more about Gena-Fae.

Karen Gale Mardenborough
B.A. Urban Studies, summa cum laude
Salutatorian, Class of 2020

Karen hails from the beautiful twin island Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis. Karen excelled in her education and after graduating from high school, became an untrained elementary school teacher. She spent just over one and a half years on the job before migrating to America, moving to New York City in 1999.

While raising her two children, she worked part-time and decided it was time to go back to school. In 2005, Karen enrolled at Cypress Community College in California. However, after only two years, she and her children returned to New York in 2007. There, Karen was able to get a part-time position as a College Assistant at Hostos Community College, and later took and passed the CUNY Office Assistant exam. This provided her with a secure, permanent, and full-time position working for the Human Resources Department at Hostos.

Karen took advantage of CUNY’s tuition waiver benefit to pursue her higher education, earning an Associate’s degree in Criminal Justice from Hostos in June 2017. Her education at Hostos made Karen realize that it is not only the justice system that is broken, but there are so many disparities within her own community that need to be mended. She subsequently enrolled at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, and has now earned a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies, summa cum laude. She will enter SLU’s master’s program in Fall 2020. Read more about Karen.

Gena-Fae and Karen appear on this CUNY video at minutes 2:55 and 4:50.

SLU Alum Nastaran Mohit in Teen Vogue

To get more people organizing labor, more people need to know what organizers actually do. Which is why we were thrilled to see Teen Vogue feature a day in the life of Nastaran Mohit: labor champion, current organizing director of the NewsGuild of New York — and SLU alum. From the article:

It’s a tough time to be in journalism. Revenue sources are dwindling and new layoffs seem to be announced every day — and the COVID-19 pandemic sent another shockwave through the industry. That’s where Nastaran Mohit comes in. As organizing director of the NewsGuild of New York, Mohit works to unionize the staff at newspapers, magazines and online publications, so that reporters, editors and social media staff have access to the benefits and protections they so sorely need. The NewsGuild, a sector of the Communications Workers of America, represents more than 24,000 journalists and other media workers across the U.S. and Canada. Mohit has led successful campaigns to unionize publications including The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine and BuzzFeed. Here’s a window into the life of a busy union organizer.

Read about a day in the life of Nastaran here.

Diana Robinson Named to City & State’s Top 40 Under 40

This year, City & State inaugurated its list of Labor’s 40 Under 40 in New York City. And SLU’s very own Diana Robinson, coordinator of the Union Semester Program, was one of the labor leaders featured on the list! Congratulations, Diana!

From City & State:

Diana Robinson connects her activism and desire to play a role in the labor movement to the history of her family.

“I come from an immigrant family and social justice was always something really important to me,” she says. “I’m happy to be able to repay (my parents) for all they’ve done.” Her father is from Providencia Island, Colombia, while her mother immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic.

Around 2006, she became involved with organizing protests in support of the federal DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, “when there was a lot of talk around comprehensive immigration reform,” Robinson recalls.

At first, she thought she wanted to be an immigration attorney, but had second thoughts about playing a role in a system that is often dehumanizing for those trying to obtain legal immigration status in the U.S.

Instead, Robinson wound up interning at an association of street vendors in East Harlem, Manhattan, which she describes as “mostly Mexican women selling food and CDs.”

“I saw this very strong connection between immigrant rights and labor organizing,” she says.

That led to organizing work at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 and then with the Food Chain Workers Alliance.

In her current position, she mentors students at CUNY. “I saw this program as really important to help people interested in social justice,” she says. In Robinson’s view, the work being done in the labor social justice movement “has to be centered around racial justice.”

SLU Announces Two New Faculty Members

Dean Gregory Mantsios is pleased to announce the appointment of two new members of the SLU faculty: Joel Suarez, Assistant Professor of Labor Studies, and Samir Sonti, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies.

Joel Suarez is coming to SLU from the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a Visiting Scholar in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department. At UT, he also serves as a Qualitative Research Associate at the Dell Medical School, studying the health care experiences of formerly homeless and historically marginalized populations. Dr. Suarez holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Princeton University, an M.A in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, and a B.A. in Government from the University of Texas at Austin. He has received a number of grants and awards, including the Davis Prize from Princeton University, and the Reed Fink Award in Southern Labor History from Georgia State University. Joel is the associate editor of the academic blog “Tropics of Meta,” and currently has a book in progress based on his dissertation, entitled Laboring for Liberty: Work and the Problem of Freedom in Modern America.

Samir Sonti holds a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Sonti earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a concentration on 20th century U.S. labor and political economy. He has worked as a political organizer for the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), and as a researcher for UNITE HERE, a union representing hospitality workers in the U.S. and Canada. He is currently expanding his dissertation, entitled The Price of Prosperity: Inflation and the Limits of U.S. Liberalism, 1932-1980, for publication. Since 2019, Samir has been the Books and Arts Editor of SLU’s New Labor Forum. He will teach in both the Urban Studies and Labor Studies programs.

“We are very fortunate to have recruited scholars of the calibre of Joel and Samir to our School,” said Dean Mantsios. “Their academic achievements and their personal passion for the labor and social justice movements will help SLU grow and appeal to an expanding student population.”
Professors Suarez and Sonti will join SLU for the Fall 2020 semester.

Introducing: City Works

City Works is a NEW monthly news magazine program produced by the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies (SLU) in collaboration with CUNY TV and hosted by Laura Flanders. The show’s mission is to create is a visual and thematic presentation of work, workers and worker organizations, employing topical examinations of the changing nature of work, tributes to unsung heroes, and analysis of the enduring challenges faced by workers. The show will spotlight the vast array of occupations of working people across New York City, and explore individual and collective efforts to make a better life for workers and a more prosperous and equitable society.

The first episode features an interview with former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, a field report on the gig economy, and on-the job profiles of a nail salon worker and one of New York City’s remaining blacksmiths. It also has a “Culture at Work” segment highlighting subway musicians.

City Works will appear the first Monday of every month at 8 PM.