Prof: More ‘scholar-activism’ needed for ‘social change’

An assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona argues that academics should conduct more “scholar-activism” to help promote progressive values.

Alvaro Huerta, who teaches classes on urban planning and women’s studies, recently penned an essay for Inside Higher Ed titled “Viva la Scholar-Activist,” arguing that some scholars don’t “walk the talk” on issues of social justice. 

[RELATED: Study: Social justice activism is ‘rife’ with ‘oppression’]

”When it comes to serving or advocating for Chicana/o-Latina/o communities and other racialized groups, while some scholars talk a good game, they don’t walk the talk,” Huerta writes, adding that unlike other academics, he actually does advocacy work. 

“I publish without losing sight of my ultimate object: improve the living conditions of historically marginalized communities,” he explains. “This is where I separate myself from traditional or mainstream academics, who falsely believe that publishing esoteric articles in peer-reviewed journals will bring about the necessary structural changes to improve the lives of racialized and working-class communities.”

In an interview with Campus Reform, Huerta cited Latino illegal street vendors as one potential topic of inquiry for scholar-activists. In California, it’s currently illegal for street vendors to operate, yet many continue to do so, especially Latino immigrants. 

As a result of these activities, Huerta said that many street vendors are subject to confrontations with law enforcement, who may confiscate their goods and fine them, leading to community unrest in some parts of the state.

[RELATED: Student protesters complain homework is interfering with their activism]

To help such street vendors, Huerta suggested that professors could interview them and research their working conditions, then publish their research findings in both academic journals and the popular press to help raise awareness and promote policy change. 

“Overall, the scholar-activist aims not only to understand this particular group or the research problem, but also to improve the working conditions of street vendors, etc,” Huerta told Campus Reform

Though scholar-activism is often critiqued for its potential to generate bias towards a certain policy outcome or to exaggerate a political issue, Huerta explained that “as long as the scholar-activist is clear about his or her perspective and his or her methods are sound, there should not be any problem.” 

“On both sides, there’s always a danger of bias,” he added. “For example, many traditional or mainstream scholars, like CNN reports, claim to want to be neutral and provide both sides of the story without taking a position. The problem is that neutrality is a position itself, where it only promotes the status quo.” 

[RELATED: School seeks admin for social justice ‘advocacy and activism’]

Huerta concludes his essay by encouraging schools to give their professors credit for engaging in scholar-activism, especially as academics apply for promotions or tenure. 

Huerta adds that professors should especially earn credit for for non-academic writings in journals and websites known to be useful in raising support for “public policies to advance social, racial, and economic equity in this country and beyond.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen