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Taking Freedom

taking freedom cover

In early 2017, the Services Employees International Union commissioned the MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) to do a scan across the country and identify local community organizations standing up on a range of social justice issues amid this nation's growing climate of intolerance. Over a period of 30 days, CoLab found more than 1,100 organizations working in more than 250 cities on issues ranging from economic justice and the Fight for $15 to attacks on immigrant communities, police violence, environmental justice, and Islamophobia. Most of the organizations were grassroots, headed by people who themselves were directly affected by the issues they address, with a focus on people-of-color leadership. In talking with the organizations' leaders, we found a desire to develop analytical frameworks so that they could better understand current conditions, evaluate options to respond, and plan alternatives. The Taking Freedom book series was born from this need.

Taking Freedom, a collaboration between The Social Justice Foundation, SEIU's Racial Justice Center, and MIT CoLab, is intended to help unions and activists deepen their understanding of the issues that are playing out now in the news, in communities, and in daily lives. It is a jumping-off point for conversations with co-workers, neighbors, and others—a way, as the public's grip on facts is slipping, to help people find their way and develop their ability for independent thinking and analysis.

Taking Freedom: Understanding Structural Injustice is a collection of readings for discussion; it introduces some of the key concepts that the book series will later explore. It is intended to help discussion leaders and facilitators prepare for the ongoing conversations that we hope will follow. The articles presented here address a wide range of issues, from housing rights to debt burden, police reform, and more. They push to expand readers' understanding of the structural injustice that has plagued the United States for centuries and explore questions such as these:

  • How has re-segregation affected children's access to quality education?
  • How is the system of debt meant to hurt the working poor?
  • What are the barriers preventing American workers from advocating for their rights in solidarity with one another?
  • How is an unjust immigration system causing damaging violence to diverse communities?

The readings will explore these issues and much more. This book also includes discussion questions for each reading, encouraging readers to apply these questions to their own lives. How are the effects of systems of oppression creating challenges for activists and union members as individuals and communities?

These readings are not intended to be a final destination or a final word on the subjects presented. They are simply a means of inspiring readers to look more closely at how they could take on the challenges of social injustice. In turbulent and uncertain times, anyone may be called on to lead, anyone may be called on to facilitate change, and anyone may be called on to call out injustice.

It is our hope that the Taking Freedom series will inspire readers to seek out, join, and begin action that will positively impact the many pressing systemic issues of our time. It is our hope that these readings and the ones to come will untangle the connections between systems of oppression, so that the path to solidarity will become increasingly clear. Last, it is our hope that these readings will embolden union members and activists to become leading voices within their communities and beyond.

We invite readers to spend time with these texts and to discuss them within your organizations, families, and communities. This reader should challenge and engage you, and we look forward to seeing how you use it as a learning and organizing tool.

*Click here to access a Spanish-language version.

Nearly every so-called race riot in the United States since 1935 has been sparked by a police incident. Police, because they interact in black communities every day, are often seen as the face of larger systems of inequality in the justice system, employment, education, and housing.

Taking Freedom: Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why.

On the historic role of policing in reinforcing racial inequality and how it has led to black Americans' fear of police.

The North American Free Trade Agreement wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of small farmers throughout Mexico. More dead undocumented immigrants have been found in Arizona's Sonoran Desert than in any other region of the southern border of the U.S.—2,701 bodies were discovered between 1998 and 2013.

Taking Freedom: 'Build That Wall!': A Local History

On how politics and fear, rather than the day-to-day risks and realities of life at the U.S.-Mexico border, have historically shaped border policies.

Prisons have no incentive to pay inmates better—to the contrary. Unlike workers in the free market, who (theoretically, anyway) can weigh factors like pay, working conditions, and other benefits when deciding where to work, inmates do not have a choice between employers. If they need the money, or the experience, they must take or leave what the prison is offering.

Taking Freedom: Modern-Day Slavery in America's Prison Workforce

On the labor issues connected with using inmates as extremely low-paid workers in state and federal prisons.

Schoemehl pots, concrete sewer pipes filled with dirt named for former St. Louis Mayor Vincent Schoemehl. These barricades, ubiquitous in St. Louis, block off the heavily white neighborhoods along Delmar Boulevard, the city's infamous racial dividing line.

Taking Freedom: School Segregation, the Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson

On racial segregation in American schools, using the example of St. Louis, Missouri, and its Normandy district.

Putting equal or greater responsibility for capitalist oppression on workers (the political majority) themselves—as one must in a democracy—is a major shift in orientation from blaming the bulk of the ills of society on "the ruling class."

Taking Freedom: Capitalism, Democracy, and W.E.B. Du Bois' Two Proletariats

On W.E.B. Du Bois' theory of the working class and how race and class cannot be separated in the United States.

PAR is an approach to research that values the significant knowledge people hold about their lives and experiences. PAR positions those most intimately impacted by research as leaders in shaping research questions, framing interpretations, and designing meaningful research products and actions.

Taking Freedom: Theorizing Audience, Products, and Provocation

On an approach to research that works with communities to address important issues they are facing, using "weapons of mass instruction" that help groups make decisions, work together, and mobilize.