Insurgent Midwest:
Transnational Dialogues for a Humane Urbanism

This project focuses on the American Midwest as a site of locally situated but transnationally networked forms of insurgent and transformative social movements. Our preliminary explorations reveal the Midwest as a node in a network of transnational organizing and mobilizing practices “from below” that develop in dialectical opposition to the global political and economic processes that are unequally and unevenly restructuring “from above” the urban landscapes of the traditional Midwest.

Our interest in the Midwest as a site of transnational insurgent practices emerges through the struggles waged by homeless and jobless inhabitants of marginalized urban places. These groups form alliances and solidarity between workers, tenants, and indebted homeowners across national and sectoral divides to create a different world—one more responsive to their lived realities. Grounded in their insurgent practices and shared struggles and relying on their trans-local and trans-border alliances, these movements are opening the way for new forms of cross-sectoral (shelter and work) and transnational solidarity and activism. They combine struggles for “decent housing for all” with struggles for “decent wages for work.” Moreover, they connect their struggles in the global South of the Midwest with those of the dispossessed communities in the global South elsewhere.

The project engages with this broader re-working of the global Midwest through the experience of organizations that fight social and economic injustices they experience locally through local, trans-local and transnational organizing. Activists and scholars alike see much value in these and other transnational solidarities and in the knowledge they exchange and produce. But the processes, practices and impacts of such exchange are rarely documented and scarcely analyzed.

This project brings together an engaged group of scholars and activists to study and document the insurgent Midwest—a globally connected region that is being transformed through global processes of urban development, localized insurgent practices, and transnational solidarities. Resistance to exclusion, displacement, and dispossession and efforts to imagine alternative, inclusive cities are seldom made visible through the dominant, elitist narratives of urban development for the rich and powerful. The project seeks to record, represent, exhibit, screen, and broadcast online the voices and stories of insurgent Midwestern organizations and struggles.

Project goals and plan of work

This project has two inter-related goals: (a) documenting the life stories, narratives, struggles and successes of locally situated but transnationally networked movements in multimedia form (audio, video, text, images, public art exhibit and event); (b) producing knowledge about the insurgent Midwest.

The two dimensions of the project feed each other and as such they strengthen solidarities among movements locally and transnationally. Our ethnographic process and multimedia products allow us to examine the languages and discourses movements use to make claims across cultural differences and spatial divides; understand how these solidarities are established in practice; and document how they facilitate alternatives to elitist agendas and exclusionary urban processes; and trace how they reconfigure the relationship between the state, civil society and capital.

Towards these goals this project supports training workshop for movement members to record and represent their own realities and struggles; facilitates Transnational Dialogue Workshops among social movements based in the Midwest and oversees; collects ethnographic information, and produces multimedia products documenting their struggles and practices. The Transnational Dialogue Workshops will first be facilitated via skype and followed up by face-to face workshops to take place in the Midwest during Fall of 2017. For the latter international activists will spend two weeks in the Midwest participating in closed strategizing and exchange sessions with Midwestern activists and scholars and taking part in public forums for community groups and academics. Collection of ethnographic information span the project timeline both through the group conversations at the Transnational Dialogue Workshops and through individual interviews with movement members. These dialogues as they facilitate exchange and forging solidarities by movement activists they also facilitate production of knowledge about these practices and processes by activists and researchers alike.

Our two-pronged approach relies on full partnership and collaboration among activist and academics, whereby knowledge is produced not about social movement activists and their practices, but with them as active partners.

Project significance: conceptual and applied

This project assembles a team of collaborators uniquely positioned to create humanistic scholarship supporting critical public engagement. The project has significance for scholarship and activism.

It contributes to a multidisciplinary scholarship on active and insurgent citizenship examining growing contradictions between formalized notions of citizenship as a nationally recognized legal status and informal claims of citizenship as rights to the local territories necessary for the everyday life such as the street, neighborhood and the city. To fulfill their expectations of a dignified, humane livelihood, people take their interests in their own hands. They do not relegate the defense of their interests to politicians, bureaucrats, or planners. They employ direct action. As observed in such movements as Occupy and Right to the City, citizens resist evictions and occupy land and housing. Their gains might be small and slow, but they are real. Scholars have conceptualized these transnationally inspired insurgent practices as new forms of citizenship that demand and shape more inclusive cities and humane urbanism.

This project contributes to this ongoing practice-inspired scholarly discussion on citizenship and insurgent practices by providing new ethnographic detail and media on these infrequently scrutinized struggles. The project promotes a reflective space to facilitate dialogue among movement activists, locally and transnationally, on their practices and alliances (or lack thereof).


Photo Credits:

Autonomous Tenants Union

The Housing Assembly

Photograph Front Page: Pablo Lopez Luz.


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