Creating activist scholars

New anarchist-led program at CIIS aims to help Bay Area social justice groups

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Anarchist Adrej Grubacic heads CIIS's new Anthropology Department.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY YAEL CHANOFF

yael@sfbg.com

This semester, the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS) will start a new Anthropology Department featuring teachers who are grassroots organizers with decades of experience, including Boots Riley, Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz, Sasha Lilley, and Chris Carlsson.

The program's goal is to create "activist scholars," to get students into communities outside the institution, and to use their research and intellectual opportunities at the school to move social justice projects forward. And the man who organized it all is an unrepentant anarchist.

"The most distinguishing character of anarchism for me is prefigurative politics — creating the new within the shell of the old," Adrej Grubacic, the new department head, told us.

His classes come at a time when anarchism is being more widely discussed in the US than it has been for generations. Non-hierarchical general assemblies and consensus-based "direct democracy," long practiced in anarchist and other leftist circles, swept across the country along with the Occupy movement last year.

Anarchists have been associated in the public eye with everything from spirit-fingered affirmations to the masked, black-clad protesters smashing bank windows and scrawling anti-corporate messages on walls. But Grubacic says it's more than that.

As anarchism exploded into practice in Occupy's tent cities, it was also experiencing a renaissance in the ivory tower. The North American Anarchist Studies Network was founded in November 2009, and since has brought together a growing number of professors who want to explore and teach anarchism through annual conferences.

Big names such as Yale Anthropology Professor James Scott have declared themselves anarchists. In a country where the study of economics is usually code for the study of capitalism, professors longing to talk alternatives are coming forward in droves.

It's more than a little ironic that, within an ideology focused on a lack of hierarchy, it can be hard for those on the street to connect with those in the lecture halls. So how can the academic-types truly support The People?

From Zapatista schools in Mexico to universities run by the Landless Worker's Movement in Brazil to popular universities throughout Canada and Europe, people all over the world have developed institutions based on anarchist and Marxist principles.

Now, in San Francisco, Grubacic is hoping to do the same.

A historian who was an anarchist by age 13, Grubacic grew up in socialist Yugoslavia, a country engulfed in brutal civil war by the time he reached his 20s.

"I was raised a Yugoslav," Grubacic says. "So I was raised to be a citizen of a country that doesn't exist anymore."

He was teaching history at the University of Belgrade, but his political beliefs became a problem.

"The political cultures and political groups in power were either Serbian nationalists or these hyper-capitalists," Grubacic told me. "And going after them, because I was publishing and I was doing a lot of things, was—let's say, not a smart career choice."

It was with input from his mentor, famed leftist writer and academic Noam Chomsky, that Grubacic left the crumbling Balkan state for his own safety. After a frustrating stint at University of San Francisco, he found CIIS.

"This is the first place where I think that I was hired because I was an anarchist, or I am an anarchist. It's kind of funny," Grubacic says.

Founded in 1968, CIIS grew out of the California Institute of Asian Studies, and has quietly taught holistic approaches to psychology and integrative approaches to psychology, spirituality and the humanities since then . Today 60 percent of CIIS students are studying clinical or counseling psychology. The Anthropology and Social Change program is part of the School of Consciousness and Transformation.

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