Deva Woodly on Power, Organizing, and the Future of the Polity

Deva Woodly, Associate Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College and 2019-2020 Fellow in Residence at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University, has organized a new home at The New School for interdisciplinary research on politics in action. The Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States will hold talks, host a conference, and produce a publication on its 2020-2021 theme: The Politics of Care.

“Power and the Politics of Care” Panel, the ISPPO’s first event, took place on November 13, 2020 with panelists Monica Atkins, Christopher Paul Harris, and Miriam Ticktin.

Research Matters talked with Woodly over Zoom to discuss the Initiative’s purpose, its theoretical foundations, and the role of organizing in our communities and universities. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Organizing and Political Power

Research Matters: Congratulations on launching the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the U.S.! Can you talk a little bit about what the inspiration for that was, and what the vision for it is?

Deva Woodly: The reason for the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics and Organizing in the U.S. is that The New School actually has relatively little in terms of research on American politics, and American politics is one of my specialties. I wanted to bring something to us that would be interdisciplinary in nature, and yet focus on the U.S. as a case.

I also wanted to highlight the intersection between power, politics and what I think is  a lesser-studied, and yet very politically important phenomenon, which is political organizing… In political science, we often talk about mobilization. In sociology, they talk about activism in social movements. But mobilization and activism are both distinct from organizing.

Mobilization is when you assemble people who already have the requisite knowledge and skill to do a thing—you get people who are already registered to turn up to vote, for example—and you remind them to get out and do what they know how to do.  

Activism is when people turn up outside the regular institutionalized boundaries of the state to make their voices heard. This is the thing that we normally associate with protest and direct action …But activism doesn’t necessarily involve sustained social  analysis or the idea that you’re trying to achieve particular goals, or that you’re necessarily working with other people over time.

Organizing, on the other hand, is the long-term process of relationship-building and the changes in our subjectivity that make us understand that we are agents who can act to make change, and that we are, furthermore, agents-in-context, agents in a collectivity—that it is the power of the people acting together, over time that makes change. Organizing teaches us not only that we can act in a particular instance, but that we’re the kind of person who can act to make political change. So, it creates a fund of knowledge and a disposition toward civic action that’s good for the long-term….Organizing changes who we think we are in the polity. It creates us as an active citizenry.

There’s a ton of organizing that takes place all over the United States, and indeed it’s accelerated in this moment, but we as scholars know very little about it, and the fact is that organizers very rarely write down what they know, so we have very limited texts to teach us about organizing …I think it’s a fertile ground for scholarship to explore the nature, impacts, and efficacies of organizing.

RM: I think the word “organizing” and “get organized” are things we see and hear a lot right now, and it’s possible to feel a sense of embarrassment at not knowing what that means. You can have a toe in it without knowing what it means.

DW: Yeah, but the nice thing about organizing — both the thing that makes it so powerful but also the thing that has caused people to overlook it — is that it’s an extremely long-term process. It’s something that takes place over years. So, what political campaigns have typically done and called “organizing” is not organizing; it’s mobilizing.

But we see now that particularly Black women, Black feminists, are revolutionizing organizing in political campaigns, and we see the results of that led out by folks in Georgia, like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and Nse Ufot. We see that happening in other communities, as well, particularly among indigenous folks in Arizona and New Mexico. These are long projects, they’re about engaging with people about the political problems that they identify for themselves in their communities, and trying to work with people and enable them to fight for themselves—resource them and give them the type of knowledge that they need to make changes locally. And as people get a taste of making changes locally, their political imaginations begin to expand and their political efficacy begins to increase. 

RM: I love to hear you bring up Arizona—that’s where I moved from before coming to The New School, and that’s where I learned about organizing. The different groups that are at work in Arizona are doing such good work. I’ve loved to hear them get a small portion of the recognition they deserve in the last week [following the 2020 election].

DW: Oh, absolutely. I so agree. So, another goal for this initiative is to have a space to bring together political practitioners and scholars where they can inform each other and think through the common problems and contours of this political time; a place to jointly imagine the political possibilities for the 21st century.

The way that I do work is inductive. That means that the way that I work is kind of opposite the Western tradition, which is deductive. If you take a deductive approach you start with a big concept and then you go down to the particular, or try to fit instances of the particular under the big concepts. I work from an inductive approach. I start with the particular, people’s lived experiences, and try to relate those to overarching concepts that we have or create new ones. Whatever I do, I always start with people, and one of the things that has led me to understand is that we, as scholars, need to be always in contact with practitioners in the world. We have a lot of knowledge to offer each other!  

I also think that universities need to have institutional pathways that allow them to have regular contact with people doing political work on the ground, particularly with organizers. So what I always try to do in any kind of educational initiative. Whether it’s creating a class I’ve taught called “Becoming a Generation Citizen,” which put [Lang] students in high school classrooms so they were interacting the world. Or with bringing in an Activist-in-Residence, which brought someone doing the work of political change to our community and providing them a space in the university to think, reflect, write, and teach which they usually don’t have time to do. And it also to informs the academic community about how our theories actually play out in the world and the questions that people who are actually doing the work would love to have answers to. This is the way to create an ongoing and fruitful interchange between theory and practice. My opinion is that the only way to achieve praxis is to actually have scholars and political practitioners in contact and helping each other think through the problems that we are witnessing and experiencing in common.

RM: I’m also curious about where “the politics of care” come into this. What makes that a research interest for you, and what made you decide to make it the organizing principle of the Initiative?

DW: Well, the politics of care is something that I became interested in as I was working on my forthcoming book, Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements (Oxford University Press, 2021). As I was researching that book, doing interviews with people in the Movement for Black Lives, there was a series of principles and values that people kept espousing. I ended up   codifying those ideas under the term “Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism.”

One of the key aspects of Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism is the politics of care…[which] says that we need to think about politics in a completely different way. The primary subject of politics is not “rights,” the subject of politics is not “institutions,” but is instead the fact that people matter and deserve care. So, if that is the basis of our political thought, if that is the way that we think about how to design systems and to collect and aggregate resources, then it changes the whole way that we talk and think about what is necessary for the governance of the world that we share.

Organizing and Activism on Campus

RM: What do you see as the role of campus organizing and activism, something we’ve had a lot of at The New School over the last few years?

DW: Campus organizing is critical. It’s part of political organizing writ large. A campus is a community. A campus is a locality. People who are members of that community, who are members at the campus as a polity, should absolutely be in connection with each other and organizing. They should be creating relationships of political friendship and reciprocity and it is an aspect of organizing in the polity.

RM: I think one of the challenges of campus organizing could be that, as you mentioned before, the thing about organizing is that it takes a long time.

DW: Right, and the university is full of a transient population: students. That is the nature of organizing at the university, but that’s also why students have to build institutions that can handle succession…Because of the nature of the population, the wins that you have are less likely to be driven only or solely by students. They often have to be in collaboration with people who have long-term stake at the university, like unionized staff and faculty. That’s also a lesson to learn, in terms of organizing: it’s coalitions that have the biggest bang, because everybody is structurally positioned in a different way…That’s why it’s not just organizing; it’s also power and politics. You have to understand power in the place that you’re trying to make change, and that’s really where the full expression and magnitude of influence will be realized.

Journalism and Democracy

RM: I have personal stake in this question, because I’m in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program—what do you see as the role of media and journalism in the way the average person understands their political environment and role?

DW: I think that media, in terms of political journalism, needs to focus a lot more than they often do on accuracy over trying to be unbiased. The “both sides” norm is actually really detrimental to the rendering of reality, so I think that the idea of objectivity insofar as it means “both sides” needs to be put to bed. Instead, we should be interested in facts, authenticity, accuracy, and nuance. These are things that are much more descriptive of reality than objectivity, which is a thing that just doesn’t exist.

I think that media, particularly journalism and political journalism, helps us when it gives us context, and hurts us when it deprives us of contexts and reproduces stereotypical narratives that are easy to digest but don’t expand our understanding.

In the actually existing world, there’s more than two sides to almost every story, and the power that those sides wield is very rarely balanced. Their intentions, their imaginations, and their impact will not necessarily be equal, so we shouldn’t pretend that that’s the case. We have to accurately render the world as it is, or journalism ceases to be useful and that’s bad for journalism and bad for democracy.

Movements, Crises, and the Political Future

RM: How do you see the pandemic impacting political participation moving forward?

DW: The pandemic, combined with the movements and the contentious cycle that we’ve been in, the #MeToo movement, the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives—this is just in the US, not to mention global movements—I honestly think that this confluence of circumstances has re-politicized public life in a really beneficial way.

Not that it’s smooth; it’s not all a happy story. Like, right now we’re in a moment in which autocracy is a real possibility, in which the current administration is trying to overturn the results of an election in which more than 150 million people voted. It’s a time of danger, but also one of opportunity. Democracy is always dangerous…You’re leaving everything up to people, and people can disappoint you and make catastrophic choices. However, people can also impress you and make revelatory choices. It’s a moment in which the contingency of everything is clear to us but it’s also a moment filled with possibility.

Organizations and practices among people are huge: the way that people have remembered that they can take to the streets to make demands; the way that people have started to actually educate themselves about civics, about the way that the American government works. This past week [of the election] was insanely stressful, but do you know how many Americans learned geography? Do you know how many Americans learned what the Electoral College is, and how many electors each state has, and what kinds of officials are in charge of making what kinds of decisions? All of that is amazing and really good for democracy, to have a politically educated and engaged populace that is capable of acting on its own, capable not only of pressuring the state, but also acting autonomously.  This is one of the reasons the rapid increase in the scope and coordination of mutual aid that has happened since the pandemic began is so interesting. These are the kinds of things that democracy needs.

What I’m saying to you now is basically the legacy of American pragmatism — this is straight John Dewey — which is to say that democracy requires democratic citizens, and for a long time, we haven’t had a democratic citizenry; we’ve had consumers. I think that, if we survive this time as a democracy, if the democracy stays intact, we will be really strong going forward and have the possibility to make really good changes in the future, just because so many more people will understand what can be done. So many people will have had their subjectivity reformed, having been organized in this moment. So many more people will understand that they are capable of being authors of the world that they want.

RM: That’s incredibly encouraging to hear.

DW: Well, we have to survive it. I don’t make any guarantees on that score!

The first event from the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States is a panel on The Politics of Care on Friday, November 13, at 4PM ET. You can register here.

Review: First Lecture Series from Institute for Philosophy and the New Humanities

In Fall 2020, NSSR welcomed a new interdisciplinary institute: The Institute for Philosophy and the New Humanities (IPNH), led by Zed Adams, Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy; Paul Kottman, Professor of Comparative Literature and Chair of Liberal Studies; and Markus Gabriel, chair of epistemology and modern and contemporary philosophy and director of the International Centre for Philosophy at the University of Bonn. IPNH aims to extend humanistic inquiry in new directions to foster work that critically engages the current moment. Read more about INPH here.

In late October, IPNH hosted its first lecture series focused on artificial intelligence. Robert Mass, an NSSR Philosophy PhD student, reviews the series below.

In 2008, I took my children to see WALL-E, a Pixar movie that takes place amid an environmental and human apocalypse. In WALL-E, humans have been essentially made redundant; they live their lives reclining, staring into computer screens, all their basic needs satisfied by technology supplied by the State. 

Over the past 12 years, technology has done amazing things. It has revealed the secrets of the genome, allowing scientists to develop astounding biotech solutions to disease, and brought the world’s accumulated knowledge within reach via mobile phone. However, it has also brought the world of WALL-E closer to reality. We spend more times staring at our screens than interacting with other people, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, technology has now enabled governments and Big Tech to reach deep into our lives to both record and reshape our acts, our words and potentially even our thoughts. We are more dependent on technology, and more subject to manipulation and monitoring. 

These concerns drew me to Artificial Intelligence and the Human, the inaugural discussion series from the new Institute for Philosophy and the New Humanities (IPNH) at The New School for Social Research. For four hours each day from October 19-23, I joined an international group of students and scholars from various disciplines trying to work through the issues that technology poses for living a fulfilling human life.

The broad program included many topics, from the history of automata and computing, to the extent to which computers are able to mimic various forms of human thinking, to whether computers can be called ‘creative,’ to what kind of regulatory framework we might want to set up to limit some of the excesses of super-intelligent Artificial Intelligence (AI 2.0). Speakers included Jens Schröter (University of Bonn) on machine creativity, Nell Watson (QuantaCorp) on AI and social trust, Brian Cantwell Smith (University of Toronto) on AI and the human, and Jessica Riskin (Stanford University) on the influence of machines on our conception of mind. Watch the talks here.

For me, the two most powerful sessions focused not so much on the future of AI, but on the future of human beings in the face of improving AI. 

In one session, Stuart Russell (University of California, Berkeley), argued that to understand AI, we need to realize that it deliberates only about means and not ends, which must be programmed into it by humans. AI optimizes results based on whatever those ends are; thus, the key to AI being beneficial to humanity is ensuring that its objectives are appropriately specified. Research to date has failed to properly theorize about how to do that and as a result, too often AI optimizes for an outcome that is detrimental. Russell argued that we need to develop new approaches to how best to specify beneficial goals, taking into consideration human preferences, e.g., recognizing the difficulties of identifying human preferences and then capturing them computationally, the uncertainty and plasticity of our desires, our weaknesses in identifying those preferences that are beneficial to us, the difficulties of interpersonal comparison of preferences, and the like. He believes that with appropriate focus, super-intelligent AI that benefits humanity can be developed.

After setting before us this fundamentally optimistic picture of what we need to do to guide the development of AI in the future, he left us with two problems.  The first he labelled the Dr. Evil problem — namely that evil actors, both private and state, can cause tremendous havoc in human life.  The second was my great fear, which he, too, called the WALL-E problem — that the overuse of AI will produces human enfeeblement. He had no vaccine for that, either. 

As frightening as that vision of the future is, a more dystopian one was presented by Susan Schneider (Florida Atlantic University). She discussed trans-humanism,  a philosophy that advocates improving the human condition through “mind design” — the implantation of chips in the brain or uploading or merging of mental functions into the cloud to improve mood, attentiveness, memory, musical skill, or calculation abilities.  

While generally positive about these possibilities,  Schneider discussed the philosophical challenges those types of brain augmentations pose.  At some point, augmentation may become so complete that self-consciousness — our felt quality of having inner experience — would be compromised or disappear altogether, and what we have heretofore thought of as distinctive to the human “mind” would no longer exist.  The changes wrote by brain augmentation could also be so great that we could no longer call ourselves the same person we were before the augmentation.  If either of these stages of mind design are reached, humanity as we have known it for millennia will no longer exist, as we will have merged into super-intelligent machines.

The growth of AI is changing our conceptions of human mindedness as well as human flourishing.  The program demonstrated the value the humanities can bring to understanding and perhaps guiding those changes for the better. In that regard, the program amply met the goal of IPNH to demonstrate the continued relevance of humanities in the academy and beyond.

It was quite a week, and I am looking forward to the IPNH Fall 2021 program on Objectivity in the Humanities.


Robert Mass is a Philosophy PhD student at The New School for Social Research

The Art of Researching Food

Three Projects from NSSR Alumni About What and How We Eat

Food is at the center of human life. What we eat, when we eat, how we eat, and why has evolved from matters of basic essential survival function to ritual, culture, and identity.  Research Matters sat down with NSSR alumni from Anthropology, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism, and Politics whose work collides with the study of food.

The Food of a Diaspora 

During the 2019-2020 academic year, Isobel Chiang (MA Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism ‘20), received a grant from the India China Institute to conduct ethnographic field work within the Chinese diaspora community in Kolkata, India. Specifically, she set out to explore the phenomenon of Indian-Chinese food. 

“I wanted to know how Cantonese and Hakka cuisines have been retained, modified, understood, and misunderstood in India today,” Chiang says. “I have a background in sociology, so I knew going in that when you study the food of a diaspora, what you’re really studying is the culture of a diaspora, the politics of a diaspora, you’re studying boundaries, the way we hold onto identity or ideologies or religious convictions when we move away from home, the way we forget.”

In addition to visiting Chinese restaurants and food markets, and of course, eating, Chiang also conducted oral histories with Indian-Chinese residents.

“I didn’t want to simply ‘parachute’ into Kolkata and start researching. I wanted to get to know the residents there, fold myself into their lives. Luckily for me, they were so gracious and welcoming. I ate an inordinate and probably unhealthy amount of dumplings. I talked with business owners and chai sellers. I was invited into peoples homes to cook with them and share meals. I went to universities in Kolkata to interview young Indian students about their conceptions of Indian-Chinese food. I even found myself at the birthday party of one of Bengal’s most famous soccer players,” Chiang says.

This project has personal implications for Chiang. Her father was born in Kolkata, but during the Indo-China War of 1962, he and his family moved to Toronto, Canada. Chiang is one of the few members of her family who have been back to India since.

“My father remains unsentimental and indifferent toward India,” Chiang describes. “The only thing that connects him to the place he’s from, the only time he allows his children to peek behind the curtain of his past life, is when he cooks fried rice. This sounds like a cliche, but it’s the truth. Thus, food has always been my entry point to India. In many ways, going to India was my attempt at dealing intellectually with my father, with his heritage, and therefore my heritage.”

Chiang crafted these experiences and research into a piece of long-form journalism that she workshopped in a Master’s writing workshop during the Spring 2020 semester, and hopes to eventually publish it one day.

“The New School grant wasn’t just helpful for making this trip possible, it made this trip possible,” Chiang said. “Without the grant, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to conduct independent research abroad. Very few publications have the money these days to send journalists abroad to cover stories like this, so it would have been a difficult story to pitch to a magazine and get funded.”

The Future of Meat

When Jan Dutkiewicz (PhD Politics ’18) began graduate work in Politics at NSSR, he thought he might want to study the $200+ billion U.S. animal production industry. He looked for academic literature on the topic but found very little, especially in political science. So he set out to create it.

“It seemed like a really good opportunity to bring the tools of political economic inquiry — the intersection of economic activity with politics and social effects…to this [industry] that’s completely hidden in plain sight,” Dutkiewicz says. He worked within Politics as well as with faculty from several different disciplines, including Hugh Raffles, Professor of Anthropology, and Julia Ott, Associate Professor of History and co-founder of the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, which helped support his research. “The New School is really unique in that…there’s a real openness to disciplinarily risky research,” Dutkiewicz remembers.

His dissertation, Capitalist Pigs: The Making of the Corporate Meat Animal, traced how the U.S. meat industry seeks to produce a commodity that best suits changing market conditions. He is currently turning that dissertation into his first book, which he places at the intersection of political economy, economic sociology, and economic anthropology.

After graduating from NSSR, Dutkiewicz was the Connie Caplan Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. There, he started asking questions around normative ethics and bioethics in the animal production industry, especially around new food products. In particular, Dutkiewicz began to dig deeply into plant-based meat alternatives and the potential of cellular agriculture — the production of animal products from cells rather than from animals themselves, also known as lab-grown or cultivated meat — to transform the global food landscape. In addition to his peer-reviewed publications, Dutkiewicz now writes and speaks extensively on the meat and alternative protein industries for media outlets ranging from The Guardian and Jacobin to Forbes and Business Insider. “Bringing this research to the public is a really important and valuable part of my work,” he says.

In his 10+ years studying the topic, Dutkiewicz has witnessed an enormous growth in public awareness, concern, and debate over the effects of animal production and consumption on anthropogenic climate change. He believes that recent advances in the alternative protein industry will make it easier for more people to decrease their meat consumption

“What cellular agriculture will do is that it minimizes switching costs. It’s saying, we’re not asking you to actually change what you like eating, what your tastes are, what your culinary and dietary habits are. We’re just asking you to switch between products that are ultimately very similar. From a social impact perspective, you can’t underestimate the power in our society of providing people with more consumer options and technologically developing superior products,” Dutkiewicz says, citing empirical evidence from the fast-food industry showing the popularity of alternative meats among people who aren’t vegans or vegetarians 

Dutkiewicz will continue his work this fall as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School.

Mushrooms as Ethnography

Peggy Tierno (MA Anthropology ’20) loves mushrooms. Sporting a pair of tiny dangling red mushroom earrings, she explains how a paper on the kinship of fungi for her Anthropology Master’s program evolved into a multidisciplinary collaborative journal.

“The paper explores multi-species and multi-sensory ways relating and building community and kinship relationships with other species,” Tierno says.

Her infatuation with mushrooms started when one grew miraculously among her spruce saplings. This led her down a path to research the species’ other incredible natural interactions.

“When you’re thinking about food, for a lot of people, food might be the only way they are interacting daily with the natural world,” Tierno shares. “So I’m thinking about our relationship to food, thinking about how mushrooms relate with their environment, and thinking about those reciprocal caretaking relationships.”

Because of her passion for the subject, Tierno decided to expand and evolve the life of her work beyond a paper. “I was thinking on how I could turn it into a collaborative project, with  submissions of poetry, personal writing and artwork alongside research on mycelium and mushrooms,” she says.

While taking a class on design and publishing and using the resources at the Making Center at Parsons School of Design, Tierno created a prototype for her journal. Now, she hopes to establish a journal of diverse multimedia work that is created collaboratively, and that has the potential to eventually develop into a larger project around community and food.

“Food is something very intimate, it’s very important to my personal life and my personal relationships, and how I connect with people. I love to cook for people. I love to be cooked for,” Tierno says. “Another thing I am thinking about with this project is how to do DIY cultivation or communal cultivation of mushrooms that people can have access to, expanding the collaboration of relating with mushrooms.”

Anyone interested in contributing can email her at peggy.tierno@gmail.com  


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz

Saving Democracy from the Plague

Transregional Center for Democratic Studies responds to COVID-19 and explores a path for political recovery

In 2019, The New School began its fall semester like most other years. Students excitedly returned to campus, some walking through its doors for the first time. There was an added layer of exhilaration in the air as the academic year marked The New School’s centennial. The university looked back to its beginnings in 1919 with the founding of its University in Exile — the predecessor to The New School for Social Research — as a safe haven for scholars fleeing Nazi Germany, and a century’s worth of scholarship and community activism. It also began to map its next century amid a current time of unprecedented global turmoil.

Building on this spirit, the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) launched its Democracy Seminar amid the October Festival of New. This “worldwide network of democratic correspondence” met to celebrate the centennial as well as to navigate the rise of authoritarianism around the globe and chart a path forward for the preservation and advancement of liberal democracy. 

TCDS was founded at The New School for Social Research in the 1990s, inspired by the dismantling of communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. Since then, TCDS has been dedicated to an interdisciplinary and international examination of democratic theory and practice.

Now, almost a year after that October meeting, the fall 2020 semester looks and feels much different, as does most of daily life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, TCDS has transitioned much of its global programming online, including holding virtual conferences to address pressing issues of the current moment.

Democracy and the Pandemic

Democracy Seminar is a revival and reimagining of the Democracy Seminar of the late 1980s and early 1990s, conceived of by Polish dissident Adam Michnik and brought to life by Michnik; Jeffrey Goldfarb, Gellert Professor of Sociology and Democracy Seminar chair; and Elzbieta Matynia, Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies and TCDS director. The original Democracy Seminars were semi-clandestine cross-border meetings of pro-democracy intellectual dissidents in East and Central Europe.

Democracy Seminar also organized by Goldfarb, Matynia, and Jeffrey Isaac, Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington now fosters worldwide and open discussion among pro-democracy academics, journalists, activists, and more. Originally the group was supposed to reconvene in person this summer for an update on global democracy. Instead, they met over Zoom.  On May 20, TCDS held its conference “Democracy & the Pandemic.” In July, they held a public panel: Democracy in a Time of Plague: Challenges & Opportunities in the Struggles Against Authoritarianism, COVID-19 and Racism. 

“The Democracy Seminar, our worldwide committee of democratic correspondence, moved to Zoom in May,” says Goldfarb. “We met to urgently consider how the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of authoritarianism are related. There was bad and good news reported from Brazil, China, Georgia, Hungary, Poland,  Romania, Slovakia, South Africa, Turkey and the United States. While the virus is being used by authoritarians to strengthen their positions in innovative ways,  their opponents are also innovatively working to strengthen their opposition, and we used our conference to compare notes. I think there was a general consensus that the situation is bleak, but not hopeless.” 

“The alarming worldwide trend of abandoning democratic rule began at least five years ago, but the pandemic has sharpened its visibility,” says Matynia. “We discussed how the pandemic has provided opportunities for authoritarian regimes everywhere to expand their emergency powers in order to consolidate their peculiar autocratic legalism; but we also asked whether it might under certain conditions serve to topple them? The issue that was of particular interest to me was whether the very experience of this borderless occurrence, the pandemic, might provide an opportunity for the rebuilding of cross-national bonds of social solidarity.” 

Student Collaboration 

Students across NSSR participated in the discussions. “The Democracy Seminar is a great and meaningful event for me to hear the voices of the international scholars and activists from all over the world and their insightful reflections on the current global pandemic and democratic crisis,” says Sociology MA student Chang Liu, who contributed an article on China and the pandemic. 

“The virtual Democracy Seminar was a truly inspiring event for me,” said Malkhaz Toria, a Sociology MA student and coordinator of the Memory Studies Group at The New School. Toria is also an associate professor of history and head of the Memory Studies Center at the Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. “The distinguishing participants scholars, journalists, activists, and graduate students from the Americas, Eastern Europe, South Africa, and China addressed backsliding from democracy exposed by COVID-19. In many countries, we witnessed rising authoritarian rule and right-wing populism before the coronavirus outbreak. However, the already existent pressing issues re-appeared in new lights during the ongoing pandemic. Insightful discussions and debates at the seminar covered an array of topics on how the pandemic is employed by authoritarian governments elsewhere. The Coronavirus revealed disturbing practices of using and abusing power to further impose governmental rules and restrict civil rights while failing to deal with the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19. But panelists also observed democratic ‘innovation’ and ‘awakenings’ to protest and resist these troubling signs of undermining democracy. Fortunately, we also hear strong critical voices from observed countries, and the Democracy Seminar exemplified these sincere hopes for the global defense of democracy.” 

In the Same Boat

After a summer of rigorous online programming and intellectual discussion, Goldfarb published an update on the Democracy Seminar, titled “We’re All in the Same Boat.” 

“As I wrote over two years ago, when our current group first began to take shape, this is the second iteration of the Democracy Seminar,” wrote Goldfarb “Back then, our immediate situations were strikingly different on each side of the “iron curtain.” Now, we are all in the same boat. The papers prepared for the conference, and our discussions on Zoom all attest to this.” Reflections on TCDS work done this past summer and more ongoing writing can be viewed on Democracy Seminar at Public Seminar.

TCDS is preparing for an online fall 2020 semester and another season of programming via Zoom. They are re-launching the Memory Studies Group at The New School and are looking at summer 2021 for holding their next graduate Democracy & Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland. Among the first events of the semester, TCDS will host Toria and Mykola Balaban, two former Open Society Foundations (OSF) Global Dialogue Fellows at TCDS (2016). They will talk in an online public panel about their collaborative research on “Narrating Conflicts in Post-Truth Era, Facing Revisionist Russia: Ukraine and Georgia in Comparative Perspective,” supported by a ‘Global Dialogs’ Collaborative Research Grant, funded by OSF (2019-2020).  

TCDS plans to continue to grow and adapt, standing up to the ever-evolving threats to liberal democracy.


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguini and Tortellini.

New Ways to Approach Global Mental Health Challenges

Mental health disorders are currently the leading cause of disability worldwide. Still, access to culturally relevant treatment is complicated by a wide range of social and economic barriers. And with more than 40 percent of the world population under the age of 25, many child and adolescent mental health problems are largely neglected.

Faculty and students at The New School for Social Research are spearheading a major effort to expand both research on global mental health and interventions to help people on the ground.

An Interdisciplinary Cohort

In Fall 2019, NSSR launched the Global Mental Health subject area as a way for Psychology students to explore this specialized area of study while deepening their research, developing closer relationships with faculty, connecting with outside job opportunities, and more. 

Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology and head of the subject area, notes that courses on the topic have filled up quickly, and that the cohort of students interested in Global Mental Health — like Psychology PhD student Evan Neuwirth — is growing substantially. And it’s not just Psychology students who are involved; increasing numbers of Parsons School of Design students interested in how design can support mental health are enrolling in courses, too.

Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology and head of the Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab at NSSR

Opportunities in the field are also growing. Students in Brown’s Spring 2020 Global Mental Health course were excited to partner with the Mayor’s Office of ThriveNYC to help address critical gaps in New York City’s mental healthcare system — a project that was unfortunately disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Brown says, “it speaks to amazing potential community partnerships that exist locally with international implications about ways to work with different organizations and agencies, while building on the creativity and knowledge basis of New School students.

New External Support

One of the classes offered in the Global Mental Health subject area is Child and Adolescent Global Mental Health, taught by Miriam Steele, Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Center for Attachment Research

 “This is a very innovative program because there are very few global health programs within psychology doing this kind of work,” Steele says. Steele’s work has largely looked at childhood development, bridging psychoanalytic thinking and clinical practice with contemporary research practices.

Her current course explores current trends in child and adolescent mental health services and examines responses to social and cultural traumas, with specific focus on refugee populations and displaced children. NSSR MA and PhD students from across disciplines, as well as Parsons design students, engage in team-based project work, partnering with government agencies and NGOs working to deliver interventions to children in Africa and South Asia. Together, they work to find innovative solutions and prototypes for the global mental health challenges their stakeholders propose. 

The course’s Teaching Assistant, Zishan Jiwani, is a Psychology MA student and a Zolberg-IRC Fellow in Mental Health in Humanitarian Settings who has also studied transdisciplinary design at Parsons. “Zishan and I will really co-teach the class,” Steele says. “Together, we will deliver a blend of psychology, intervention science and design education to guide students in conducting user experience research, prototyping, and testing solutions remotely.”

Miriam Steele, Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Center for Attachment Research (left), and Zishan Jiwani, Psychology MA student (right)

“An important objective of this class is to support the cultivation of a deep understanding of how mental health and psychosocial support is delivered for children and families in low-income settings in the Global South,” Steele says. “The interdisciplinary design challenge helps students engage meaningfully with the promise and pitfall of mental health interventions.”

The course will benefit from a distinguished list of guest speakers who are at the helm of child and adolescent global health include Aisha Yousafzai from Harvard School of Public Health, Lisa Cogrove from the University of Massachusetts – Boston, Marinus van IJzendoorn from Erasmus University Rotterdam & the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge, UK.

Mentors from partnering organizations will help guide the student teams through the nuances of their specific challenges. Current projects include partnering with Strengthening Families for the Well-being of Children in Nairobi, Kenya to support teen mothers reintegrate into society after giving birth, and working with the Effia Nkwanta Regional Hospital in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana to help parents of special needs children cope with their children’s diagnosis. 

For the Fall 2020 semester, Steele and Jiwani were successful in securing funding from the Association for Psychological Science Teaching Fund, which was then matched by the Two Lilies Fund, a global early childhood mental health initiative. Microgrants will be awarded to all group projects that show courage, creativity, depth and provide a clear rationale for how they plan to use the funding. Teams will also have an opportunity to request a small amount of funding to develop prototypes midway through the semester. 

Steele hopes that publicizing this work will inspire students from across a range of disciplines to engage with these crucial issues at The New School, which is unique in its ability to blend design and psychology in this particular way. The class, which will be offered online in Fall 2020, will also set up a protocol for other universities to develop their own global mental health studies, as well as offer an outline for an engaging and experiential online classroom experience. 

“COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge for teaching complex subjects like child and adolescent global mental health through an online format,” Steele said. “However, we plan to use the online format to greatly benefit the classroom experience by expanding our reach outside of New York and bringing in more collaborators virtually.”

From the Lab to the People

In Brown’s Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab, faculty and students are investigating disparities in mental health issues as well as developing innovative solutions and interventions that can reduce barriers to care in low and medium-resourced contexts, especially in the wake of COVID-19.

Recently, Brown connected with the World Health Organization about a short-term mental health treatment plan called Problem Management Plus (PM+). The pilot program to train his Lab students in PM+ would have been conducted in partnership with the Danish Red Cross, which has used PM+ primarily in areas facing humanitarian crises. Now, his ab students are learning PM+ remotely so they can help deliver it online to those in need. Read more in this New School News story

Brown is also working with three students — Psychology MA students Camila Figueroa Restrepo and Jamie Gardella, and Milano MA student Maria Francisca Paz y Mino Maya — on a study about intergenerational memories among immigrant communities in New York City.

Together with a local nonprofit, they’re working with families of Ecuadorian heritage to understand how their narratives of migration get passed down through generations, and the extent to which knowledge of that narrative is connected with better mental health outcomes.

And, funded by a grant from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation, Brown and his lab students are working with Danny Horesh of Bar Ilan University on an international study examining the psychological implications of the pandemic. Together, they are assessing multiple factors including stress, anxiety, and quality of life, and looking at predictors of distress and well-being. 


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguini and Tortellini.