Social justice symposium focuses on effect of pandemic across society, continents

The symposium took place across four webinars this fall and was organized by faculty members from the Department of World Languages and Cultures.

This fall semester, faculty members from the Department of World Languages and Cultures – Juan Leal Ugalde, Pablo Celis-Castillo, and Federico Pous – organized The Pandemic, Crisis, and Social Justice Symposium.

Throughout four webinars, the symposium covered some of the most urgent social justice issues related to the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences in a global society. The symposium explored how COVID-19 has impacted different communities in the United States and Latin America, including immigrant workers in rural North Carolina, inmates in the prison industrial complex, the indigenous people of Central America, and social justice organizations in Portland, Oregon. While the virus has enhanced the challenges faced by these communities, it has also provoked resiliency and social justice movements to combat the challenges.

The first symposium, “Temporary Migrant Workers and Contemporary Struggles in the Fields of North Carolina,” was led by Leticia Zavala, former vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. FLOC has been working for more than 50 years to pursue social justice for domestic, undocumented, and migrant farmworkers in the United States, and it has been internationally recognized for its work. Zavala discussed the dangerous conditions and strict regulations that farmworkers endure while working, and how FLOC works to push more responsibility onto big farming corporations so that farmworkers are better supported.

The second symposium, “Prison Abolition in Times of Pandemia,” was led by Alejo Stark, a founding member of the project Rustbelt Abolition Radio that produces podcasts about prisoners and prisons in the U.S. and the world. Stark discussed how the pandemic raises the question of safety in the incarceration system, and he also explored prison abolition as an evolving social movement. One of the main ideas presented at the webinar was that U.S. prisons confuse security with safety. Many inmates are not safe from the health risks associated with prisons, especially when these risks are being exacerbated by the pandemic.

The third symposium, “Remembering Berta Cáceres and the Struggles of Indigenous People in Honduras,” was led by Emily Rhyne, director of Witness for Peace Southeast, who was accompanied by Meghan Krausch, a public sociologist whose work is related to environmental conflicts in Honduras, and Dunia Sanchez Dominguez, member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. In the webinar, they discussed the case of Berta Cáceres, a feminist leader and environmental defender, who was killed in 2016 after opposing a hydroelectric project in Honduras. With portions of the discussion in Spanish, they described the ongoing struggles of indigenous communities in Honduras and how the coronavirus has negatively impacted Latin America.

The fourth and final symposium, “Notes from Portland: Mutual Aid in Pandemic and Protest,” was led by Magalí Rabasa, assistant professor of Hispanic studies at Lewis & Clark College and author of “The Book in Movement: Autonomous Politics and the Lettered City Underground.” As an activist, she discussed her experiences with community-based projects and social movements in Portland, which has become a center of the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement. She described a brief history of Oregon, including the strong presence of ANTIFA and ICE protests in Portland and how the state once closed its borders to African Americans seeking to settle. Rabasa expressed how police abolition is a “horizon,” and that it dares people to imagine something that seems unimaginable.

The symposium encouraged students and faculty to take part in learning about the challenges being faced by different communities in the United States and Latin America. It provided a safe space for questions and it emphasized the importance of listening to other communities.