The Need for Critical Magnifying Lenses at SIPA
As my first semester at SIPA comes to an end, my brain is overwhelmed with the amount of knowledge it received in the past four months. My horizon has expanded by learning how policies are designed, approved, implemented, and evaluated as well as how complex this scenario is. My horizon has expanded by understanding how economics can basically put the whole world into formulas and numbers giving a mathematical representation of reality and helping us understand a government or firm’s limitations. My horizon has expanded by listening and learning from all my peers about what is going on in their countries, their history, their challenges, and more. However, after these four amazing months, I think that besides expanding our horizons we need to start deepening them and it’s important to start wearing critical magnifying lenses in the classroom, in our readings, and in our discussions.
In one of my favorite courses, my teacher was talking about gender policies and never mentioned the term intersectionality*. We studied gender policies as if women were the same all around. There was no discussion on the difference of the impact of these policies (or lack of them) on a white rich woman and a poor black woman. No discussion on how these policies affect a Hispanic woman and a European woman. In a class about my home country (Brazil), we discussed the country’s economy and its reforms, but there was no mention of the implications of these reforms and how they’ll affect the most vulnerable populations. The examples go on, and I wonder if future leaders that are in SIPA “To advance solutions to critical global issues” will have a solid understanding of who these complex issues affect more. We bring high ranking bureaucrats to teach us about policy, but we don’t listen to those affected by it. We hear from William Bratton, former Chief Commissioner of the NYC police, about how the videos of black man being choked to death are “a bit exaggerated”, but we don’t give equal space and voice for black activists or local New York citizens who have been affected by police violence to tell their side of the story. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very in favor of bringing people that have different views to speak, but it would also be good to invite people from grassroots-movements and beneficiaries of so many of these policies we talk about in our classrooms. For many of these activists and citizens, Columbia might seem like another elitist neoliberal university not really worried about challenging the status quo nor actually changing the lives of the most in need, and by not inviting them, in many ways, we are proving their point. Without including them in the dialogue, Columbia risks reproducing an educational framework that helps people work in alleviating poverty and other similar issues, but doesn’t go further in teaching and reflecting on how to take a punch at the structures of power that continue to perpetuate inequality and social injustices throughout the globe.
If we are truly committed to work for/with the most marginalized populations, be it Syrian refugees or the black community of Harlem, it is important to wear critical magnifying lenses in SIPA. We should work to reflect and translate those microeconomic numbers into people and not simply transactions. We must struggle to learn how to bend those rigid lines on graphs so that more consumers, producers, and society can be better off without having to heavily tax the poor while giving the rich and powerful tax exemptions. We need to debate and contradict that colleague who says the world provides a chance for everyone as long as they are hard workers and defends the myth of meritocracy. We ought to challenge the idea that social innovation and corporate social responsibility are the solution to all of our problems. We need to advocate within our student organizations that they promote more opportunities for students to engage with community service (a shout out to Karla, Ana and Maricella, fellow first years who organized a trip to Puerto Rico for relief efforts) and bring the silenced voices to speak and teach at our university. The list goes on, and I’m sure there are many possibilities here.
At the end of this semester of my wonderful SIPA experience, I have met many amazing people, and I have no doubt that many of you, my fellow Columbia students, do reflect and think about these issues. I’m sure many of you have sacrificed high paying jobs to dedicate your lives to work side-by-side with those whom history has been unfair to, but in a university that up until 2015 had 8 million dollars invested in a private prison company and that has consistently denied the rights of student workers to unionize**, I do believe the use of critical magnifying lenses should be worn at all times. Furthermore, as SSOC’s new vice-president, Andrew Chang, pointed out, only 18% of SIPA's core faculty are people of color, and Black and Latino faculty, specifically, are just 5%. Additionally, only 19% of tenured faculty at SIPA are women, 3 out of 16. That’s slightly worse than America's Congress. The knowledge we are receiving may be contaminated with a highly white, occidental, and predominantly male biased view, and it’s up to us to push for more diversity not only in students, but within the people that help us shape our views.
As students of one of the best universities in the world, many, if not all of us, will be in high positions of government, companies, international organizations, and nonprofits, creating and influencing the policies and programs that will impact the population of our country and the world. In terms of hierarchy and power, we will, in many ways, be at the top and wearing those critical magnifying lenses will help us comprehend and be better equipped to support and solve those that we want to lift up. Acting as allies, not saviors.
Fernando Haddad Moura
*Fortunately, a few weeks later Divya (an amazing fellow classmate) brought the issue up in a panel competition about gender and the issue was briefly discussed. She won it by the way, clap clap!
Speaking of Intersectionality, as Ali Feldhausen thoughtfully pointed out to me while helping me with the edits of this article, the intersectionality of SIPA students and the ways that affects their privilege within the world and their privilege within SIPA is also a relevant issue. For example, for Americans, English being their first language gives them great privilege at SIPA or me being a man gives me a certain element of privilege at SIPA. These characteristics mean that SIPA interactions also reflect language, race, class, and gender hierarchies and, thus, are also in need of a critical magnifying lens. Additionally, these characteristics will affect our ability to access different positions after we graduate from SIPA.
**A big thank you to all the TAs that went above and beyond this semester to teach, guide and help all of us in micro, POP, etc. You’re amazing and I hope Santa gives you all great presents, you deserve it.