Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Black Lives Matter Mini-Course: All Three SAIS Campuses Working Together

Brandy Darling, HNC Certificate '20 + SAIS MA '21, had the opportunity to interview HNC professor Dr. Paul Dottin, who recently led a mini course on the Black Lives Matter movement. Dr. Dottin’s mini course titled Black Lives Matter in Social Movement Theory explored the origin and organization of the Black Lives Matter movement, important actors and strategies, as well as the movement’s international manifestations and intended outcomes. This extracurricular course engaged students from all three campuses in academic study and critical discussion of this global movement for equality.

Tell me about your journey in crafting this course and its impact across all three SAIS campuses. 

Given the speed and scale of racial unrest sparked by George Floyd’s murder, Dr. Webb [HNC American Co-Director] and I wanted to create a course that would examine the BLM movement critically. What was conceived as a mini-course for HNC students in Nanjing quickly graduated into a four-country affair spanning all SAIS campuses and Australia. The result was Black Lives Matter in Social Movement Theory, which is probably the first HNC course taught across all three campuses. 

My intention from the start was to adopt a “triangulation approach” to the course. The movement’s complexity, speed and scale(s) necessitated an approach that was interdisciplinary, comparative and international. Second, I wanted students to know and assess through the BLM case the merits of influential social movement/collective action concepts and theories. Third, I sought to put some of those social movement perspectives from political science, sociology and psychology into dialogue with perspectives from an interdisciplinary field germane to BLM’s agendas: African-American Studies. My meta-objective was to provide students with theoretical frameworks that could be used to deepen their analysis of other social movements, regardless of composition or politics. So, a pretty ambitious agenda for a three-week course! Thankfully, student feedback on the course was very positive.

“While the Back Lives Matter movement has been a major topic of conversation in the news and across social media, sitting in on this course was the first time I’ve had the chance to engage with the topic in a rigorous academic context. Dr. Dottin instructed the class on how to analyze the different driving forces and reactions to the movement through the application of theoretical frameworks, which I found really valuable and illuminating. It was also very heartening to see how many students were still willing and eager to participate in the mini course despite being in the middle of finals!” - Amanda Bogan, HNC American Program Coordinator 

In your opinion, how has the internationalization of Black Lives Matter helped or harmed the movement’s goals and strength? 

We must recall that BLM as an organization has been international in its vision for some time. “Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation” is its full proper name. If we think of BLM in global network “terms” as a movement wherein each BLM affiliate must attend to its local circumstances yet is affected significantly by what other affiliates (and their opponents) do elsewhere in the world, we can envision BLM as an arena of collective action that can be and is “international” even when this social justice movement is not particularly widespread within a given country. 

Add to this the strong aversion of BLMGNF’s founders to dictating the course of the movement, domestically or abroad. On the one hand, Patrisse Collors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza and other organizers have created a movement that cannot be easily derailed, whether its most visible spokespersons are discredited or die. (Think of what happened to the civil rights movement after King was killed.) On the other hand, is there an effective limit to this non-hierarchical decentralized structure when it comes to growing the movement? Can the movement stay “on message” without its actions being strictly directed across the many different public spheres that exist domestically and globally? It will be interesting to see what develops. 

“As someone heavily focused on China, Dr. Dottin’s BLM mini course gave me the opportunity to take an in-depth look at a movement that I’ve always believed to be very important but never had an opportunity to talk about in an academic context. His framing of BLM in social movement theory also meant that everything we learned was applicable in much broader contexts. We were not just analyzing BLM, but developing a useful framework to understand any kind of social movement anywhere in the world. Dr. Dottin even included a section of the course focusing on the impact of BLM in non-American settings, which I found both enlightening and useful when thinking about how social movements differ across borders.”  - Austin Bliss, MAIS '22

What important conclusions were made in your classes? How do those conclusions tie into the lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? 

One conclusion I hoped students to draw is that of continuities rather than discontinuities. It has become somewhat fashionable to mark the civil rights movement as outdated, coopted, and now part of the “Establishment.” Now, there is clear public disagreement between the BLM movement and mainstream African-American leaders such Jim Clyburn, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and even former President Barak Obama. Still, BLM is not divorced from the civil rights movement, though it is a different movement. BLM draws more directly on other, lesser-known, activist thought and practice seen during the heydays of the civil rights and black power movements. From Ella Baker “strong people don’t need strong leaders,” a deep distrust of hierarchy? Definitely. From Demita Frazier, Barbara Smith and Beverly Smith a black lesbian feminist ‘intersectionality’ critique of each of those movements? Certainly.

Yet dethroning King is not the conclusion I wanted my students to reach. Rather, it was for them to think through how King’s dream is being re-envisioned today for all of us by those whom in King’s time were forced so often to the margins of the black freedom tradition. 

Interview conducted by Brandy Darling, HNC Certificate '20 + SAIS MA '21.