Urban Activism: Staking Claims in the 21st Century City

September 12 – 14, 2021, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

The following report of the Urban Activism conference was published online by The Harvard Gazette on September 27th, 2021. Photos and links have been added to the text.

“Exercising or eating spinach will not make us healthy. What makes us healthy is society,” said Columbia professor and psychiatrist Mindy R. Fullilove, author of “Root Shock” (2004).

Fullilove spoke at the 2021 Urban Activism conference which was convened by Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). The organizers — Harvard graduate students Joan Chaker and Aylin Yildirim Tschoepe, Leicester University postdoc Stefano Portelli — aimed at showing how a collaboration of activists and scholars can help prevent further harm to cities.

“Society is a collective construct,” Fullilove continued. “If I destroy a piece thinking the rest will be fine, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what ecosystems are.”

The event was attended by prominent researchers and housing activists from many cities: Nadine Bekdache (Public Works Studio, Beirut), Erin McElroy (Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, New York University), Diana Bell Sancho (MIT Displacement Research and Action Network), Stavros Stavrides (Technical University of Athens), S’bu Zikode (Abahlali BaseMjondolo, Johannesburg), Welita Caetano (Frente de Luta por Moradia, São Paulo), Yasar Adanali (Center for Spatial Justice, Istanbul),  Sai Balakrishnan (Harvard Graduate School of Design), and Cemal Kafadar (CMES, Harvard) responded to the panels.

Urban renewal swept North American and European cities for almost a century. Massive demolitions, such as in Boston’s West End, erased thriving city centers, pushing poorer residents into segregated suburbs, pinning communities against each other. Despite their “trans-Atlantic collapse,” today all the world’s metropolises follow these policies. British geographer professor Loretta Lees calls it “planetary gentrification.”

In a keynote speech based on her work with London public housing residents, Lees lectured on how organized anti-eviction groups re-create the social fabric that displacement shatters, as affected people become activists that can help others. Scholars shall abandon their top-down expertise and learn to collaborate. Who knows a community better than those who build it every day?

Community organizer Welita Caetano, translators Eduarda Araujo and Allen Trujillo

In authoritarian countries such as Brazil, however, activists that work to restore minimum welfare and social bonds among the poor are forced to break discriminatory laws, exposing themselves to violence and arrestWelita Caetano, leader of FLM, a housing organization in São Paulo’s, showed a video of everyday life in vacant buildings occupied by poor families and single mothers of color.

“They have to choose between paying rent or buying food,” she explained.

Caetano does not hesitate in justifying the breach of law: “The Brazilian constitution states that private property shall fulfill a social purpose.” “We remind institutions of their duty. We organize daycare for children to allow mothers to work. But the government treats us as criminals,” she added.

Four FLM leaders were recently arrested, 12 more face criminal charges, including Caetano. In the same way as indigenous activists are targeted or killed for defending the Amazonas from arson, housing activists confront not only the rigidity of law, but also the violence of paramilitary groups. Only last year, community activist Marielle Franco was killed in Rio for her commitment to housing rights.

S’bu Zikode, leader of a shack-dwellers movement in Johannesburg, also spoke of his house being burned down in 2009, while his family suffers constant threat of violence.

But scholars and intellectuals that work on gentrification often claim neutrality in front of these extremes.

Professor Herzfeld’s speech. In the front, Professor Kafadar and Professor Lees

In the second keynote speech, Harvard anthropologist Professor Michael Herzfeld said that to seek “objectivity” when violence is in place puts us on the side of the offenders and does not guarantee us to be better equipped to study those contexts. In fact, people who suffer systemic violence will not entrust confidential information to researchers who approach them assuming neutrality.

Weatherhead Center Professor Lizabeth Cohen opened the roundtable, discussing with Lisa Owens, board member of City Life Vida Urbana, a social justice organization active in Boston since 1973. CLVU already puts into practice what the conference advocated: every week, attorneys from Harvard Law Clinic give legal advice to foreclosed residents of Boston’s suburbs. Some of their clients attended the conference, showing that scholars able to approach organized civil society are more easily recognized as people whose views matter.

To engage in urban struggles is harder than to research or lecture on them. As Owens said, though, “only working together can we create something new.” This is how the urban ecosystem can begin to heal — and we with it.

Participants meeting members of City Life for the field visit in Jamaica Plain

Short Abstract:

This conference emerges from the shared need to create a collective discourse on how critical urban research and urban political activism are increasingly converging and creating a common field of inquiry and action. It connects scholars in various fields such as planners, geographers, historians, and critical urbanists with activists working on housing rights and the right to urban identity and the city more generally.

Together, we will discuss a number of theoretical, methodological, and practical questions, including: How shall communities and activists be involved in the production of knowledge? What constitutes the archive and evidence? What possibilities are there to disseminate the knowledge produced? Can scholarship suggest political solutions? Who are the agents of this story? What is the relationship between the state and the market in displacement processes? Can we think beyond the framework of structure and agency? How does ideology make its way into research and action? What is the appropriate scale of analysis?

A consideration of cities as different as Beirut, Istanbul, Athens, Barcelona, Johannesburg, São Paulo, and Boston sheds light on commonalities that point to a single dynamic operating on a global scale, which is at play in the various distinctive manifestations apprehended at the local level in very different contexts. While a consideration of global, structural transformation can contribute to an understanding of the specificities of every case, the global phenomenon itself cannot be fully captured without a serious engagement on the local scale with the social, cultural, economic and political processes in which each specific case is embedded. A global understanding can only contribute to local struggles if it remains attentive to the subjectivity of local communities within their particular context as they experience and think it.

Organizers: Aylin Yildirim Tschoepe, Joan Chaker, Stefano Portelli

Dates: September, 12th-14th, 2019

Location: Thompson Room of the Barker Center, Harvard University, Cambridge (MA)

Attendance to panels, the roundtable, and associated events is free of charge. No registration required.