New York Liberation School: CUNY’s Past, Present, Future

Authored by Jennifer (Jenna) Queenan

What is humanities pedagogy? What are our responsibilities as educators and students at CUNY? Over the course of the Humanities Alliance fellowship, we’ve wrestled with these questions. As a former high school teacher and current adjunct professor, I’ve always believed that pedagogy – in the humanities and beyond – is political (Freire, 1970; Giroux, 2001; hooks, 1994; Love, 2019; Picower, 2015) and education should and does extend beyond the four walls of the classroom. My work at CUNY over the last two years, including with the Humanities Alliance, has cemented this belief. 

In the spring of 2024, a group of us – all who shared the belief that pedagogy is political – gathered to read and discuss New York Liberation School: Study and Movement for the People’s University, written by Conor Tomás Reed and sponsored by the Humanities Alliance. We gathered in the context of:

  • Ongoing austerity at CUNY and in public education broadly (Fabricant & Brier, 2016; Mayorga, Aggarwal, & Picower, 2020).
  • The Black Lives Matter movement and 2020 uprisings, which amplified conversations and organizing around abolition, with a specific focus on the prison industrial complex. Students, educators, and community members have extended these conversations to schools and universities, both in terms of campaigns to get police off campus but also questioning the ways in which schools and universities operate like prisons and perpetuate systems of punishment. 
  • A growing recognition, thanks in part to student-led protest, of the harm that universities perpetuate globally, with calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions in solidarity with a free Palestine as Israel enacts an ongoing genocide. 
  • Ongoing attacks on free speech for students and educators who cite critical race theory, acknowledge queer identities, and dare to say “free Palestine” 

We came together as educators at CUNY, graduate students at the CUNY Graduate Center, and organizers from various fights for a people’s university, including: 

  • Reclaim the Commons: A campaign launched in winter 2023 to get a cafeteria and food pantry at the CUNY Graduate Center that quickly became about so much more. 
  • CUNY on Strike: A campaign by members of PSC-CUNY committed to rank-and-file organizing to build strike power. 
  • CUNY 4 Palestine: a network of CUNY students and workers organizing for Palestinian liberation on campus, including a chapter at the Graduate Center.  

Our legacies are, in many ways, detailed in New York Liberation School, which gives accounts of educators, students, and organizers who mobilized in the 1960s and 1970s to fight for a people’s university at the City University of New York, with a specific focus on City College and Harlem. We came together with a desire to learn from CUNY’s past to shape our pedagogies and organizing (and the overlap between the two) in the present. 

In each of our two meetings, we began with a check in and then each shared a takeaway and/or question we had from the chapters we read that week. We then grouped our takeaways and questions into areas for further discussion. 

Here are some of the questions and themes we discussed:

What historical narratives continue to show up today and what does that mean for our organizing? In New York Liberation School, Conor writes about how those in the SEEK program worked to push back against the narrative that open admissions, which increased the number of students of color at CUNY, led to the decline of CUNY. We considered what an open admissions, free CUNY might look like today and how this fight needs to be connected to union struggle. We also need to demand that our union is committed to anti-imperialism, particularly a free Palestine. In other words, all our struggles need to be analytically and materially connected. 

How do we, particularly in our roles as adjunct professors, support students in dreaming and fighting for a better world while organizing through and around the lived realities of capitalism (i.e. the need for a job)? We discussed the importance of knowing the legacies of resistance at CUNY; liberating writing from authoritarian messages about how one can express oneself (and using the prompts Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and David Henderson gave to their students as models for this, which show up in Chapter 2); discussing and acknowledging material needs; and creating space for dreaming in our classes in order to break cycles of trauma and poverty that can teach people that they don’t have time for joy and dreaming. 

How can we bring New York Liberation School – both the book itself and the lessons in the text – to our classrooms? The book is a rich repository, with references to and excerpts from archival material including from the CUNY Digital History Archives

How are we archiving CUNY movements as they happen and as we participate? We recognized that archiving is sometimes associated with the movement being over and that often in social movements, institutional archives are viewed with skepticism. New York Liberation School asks us to pay attention to the ways in which (institutional) archives “legitimize only select traces of these movements … while forcing other parts of our movement histories into anonymity” (Reed, 2023, p. 186). At the same time, “strategic silences” in the writing of revolutionaries “indicate another method of self-protection and encourage us to read archival absences more carefully” (Reed, 2023, p. 145). In our meeting, we considered ways in which we might archive our moments in social movements. How can we archive our lessons in ways that are nimble and flexible, acknowledging ongoing state violence? Rather than framing one movement moment, such as Reclaim the Commons, as over, we are particularly interested in thinking about the boomerang effect and convergence spaces that movement moments create. In other words, how did the call to get fresh food in the building through Reclaim the Commons move to CUNY on Strike and GC CUNY for Palestine? We considered the ways in which an archive is put together might help resist a read of movement moments as isolated, just as Conor asks us to read the lives of Toni Cade Bambara, David Henderson, and June Jordon; Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich; Assata Shakur and Guillermo Morales together. 

Finally, we wrested with the tension presented in New York Liberation School around what it means to fight for a people’s university. What are we demanding of versus taking from the university? What about these institutions can we transform and what should we just leave behind? Within this conversation emerged a related one on goals in social movements, particularly when we are comprised of individuals who might share a broader political analysis but differ when it comes to their specific political orientations. On the one hand, we recognize the need to push against perfectionism: there is no dream school or perfect solution. On the other hand, reformist reforms versus abolitionist steps (for more, see Critical Resistance, n.d.) have taught us that we need to be clear about our goals and when we will not compromise so that our movements will not be coopted. Relatedly, what strategies do we use to fight for a people’s university? What is sustainable for us as graduate students that also still ensures we are holding ourselves and those around us accountable for fighting for the world we want? When do the strategies we use impact the goals we are pushing toward? More specifically, what does it mean to democratize the union? Is this both a strategy and a goal? We shared a political analysis of worker power in the discussion and agreed that our current union leadership will not support everything we see as the goals of a people’s university, including a free Palestine. To us, democratization does not just mean that everyone who wants to can speak, but rather is focused specifically on standing in solidarity with marginalized groups of people. 

While our discussion group met prior to the wave of Gaza Solidarity Encampments that have spread globally in the last month, many of our questions felt present in the CUNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment (GSE) that began on April 25, 2024. With that in mind, I’d like to end with the Five Demands of the CUNY GSE, which were modeled after the Five Demands of Harlem University that are documented in New York Liberation School. In our present moment, these demands are the newest iteration in the ongoing fight for a people’s university. The specific iteration of these demands below were presented for a vote in front of the CUNY Graduate Center Graduate Council. 82% voted in favor. 

  1. Divest!: CUNY must immediately and completely divest from companies that produce weapons and technology used for zionist settler-colonial violence. Ensure accountability by publishing annual reports of CUNY’s investments and contracts. 
  2. Boycott!: Ban all academic trips to the Zionist state; encompassing- birthright, Fulbright, and perspective trips. Cancel all forms of cooperation with Israeli academic institutions, including events, activities, agreements, and research collaborations. 
  3. Solidarity!: CUNY must recognize the right, enshrined in international law, of colonized peoples to resist their colonizers including by armed means, while also ending its repression and retaliation against organizers who speak out in support of this right at CUNY.  
  4. Demilitarize!: NYPD, KKK, IOF they’re all the same – get them off our campuses! We demand that CUNY end its security memorandum of understanding with the NYPD and eject all IOF and NYPD officers from our campuses. 
  5. A People’s CUNY!: CUNY was free and fully funded for over 125 years. We demand a fully-funded, free CUNY that is not beholden to zionist and imperialist private donors, as well as that CUNY meet all the demands for a fair contract made by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC CUNY).

Ultimately, humanities pedagogy is an active one that extends beyond the walls of the university. It is a praxis-oriented pedagogy embodied within the fight for a people’s university. 


Critical Resistance. (n.d.). “Reformist Reforms vs. Abolitionist Steps in Policing.

Fabricant, M. & Brier, S. Austerity blues: Fighting for the soul of public higher education. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Herder and Herder.

Giroux, H. (2001). Theory and resistance in education: Towards a pedagogy for the opposition. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey. 

Heatherton, C. (2022). Arise!: global radicalism in the era of the Mexican Revolution. University of California Press.

Hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress. New York, NY: Routledge.

Love, B. (2019). We want to do more than survive: abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Mayorga, E., Aggarwal, U. & Picower, B. (Eds.). (2020). What’s race got to do with it?:  How current school reform policy maintains racial and economic inequality, Second Edition. New York, NY: Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers.

Picower, B. (2015). Nothing about us without us: Teacher-driven critical professional development. Radical Pedagogy, 12(1).

Reed, C. T. (2023). New York Liberation School: study and movement for the People’s University. Common Notions.