American Dream or Pipe Dream? A Recap of the 2016 NCC/AAUP Annual Symposium


Nassau Community College AAUP Advocacy Chapter

May 2, 2016

Half way through a classic but uniquely riveting immigrant-in-America story, NCC student Angel Reyes identified two full-time NCC professors who changed his life: Dr. Stephanie Sapiie of History, Political Science and Geography and Professor David Rosner of English. A political science course with Dr. Sapiie and her connections with immigration advocates on Long Island, ignited Angel’s passion for immigrant activism and helping other Dreamers like himself. Professor Rosner inspired in Angel a love of reading that has only grown deeper. Both professors instilled in Angel the conviction that education can “change your mind and change your life.” Angel’s “testimony,” hit a theme that ran through this year’s NCC/AAUP Symposium the power of professors to inspire dreams in the lives of their students.

Angel’s talk was part of the NCC/AUP’s 2016 Symposium: Community Colleges: Hold On to the Dream. The Symposium featured an inspiring roster of speakers—a panel of Dreamers including NCC student and activist, Angel Reyes, former SCC student and leader of the Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates (LIISA), Osman Canales, a local businesswoman, and Maria Isabel Martinez. Journalist and LINCC instructor, Professor Natalia de Cuba hosted the Dreamer Panel. NYPIRG representative, Tiffany Brown, ASEC Student Chair, Shadley Hobour, and Democracy Now! host, author, and (now former) Daily News columnist, Juan Gonzales—shared powerful stories of struggle and success in an America along with the apprehension that the American Dream has become a pipe dream, for all but those with the right income and complexion. For the Dreamers, those undocumented strivers hoping to use the uplifting leverage of a higher education to make a better life for themselves and their families, they face a cruel historical paradox: the nation that so proudly hails its immigrant origins, acts with prideful hostility to deny immigrants the American Dream. There’s the failure of the national Dream Act in 2010. There’s the failure of the New York Dream Act in 2014 and 2015. There are the xenophobic proclamations of Donald Trump (“Make America White Again” captures his position). There is the systematic defunding, destruction, and privatization of public education targeted toward communities of the poor, of immigrants, of people of color. There is the telling marriage between majority-minority demographics and the starvation of public higher education—witness NCC, sinking quickly in one of this nation’s richest and most segregated counties. And so Angel’s words, and those of Osman, Maria, Professor de Cuba, Tiffany, Shadley, and Mr. Gonzales, exposed another cruel paradox thriving quite close to home: faculty may change lives, but full-time faculty here are being fired.

The paradox at the core of this historical moment, so movingly revealed by the symposium’s speakers, was painted in broad historical relief in the elegant words of the day’s keynote speaker, Juan Gonzalez. Mr. Gonzalez began by recalling an extraordinary year, the year of his graduation from Columbia University in 1968, when, much like today America felt the extraordinary dialectical pressures endemic to a democracy: huge progressive forces pressing for change (the anti-war movement, the Civil Rights movement, second-wave feminism) and the conservative forces resisting this change, often violently (the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the rise of Goldwater conservatism, the presidential run of George Wallace whose campaign slogan was “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”). The year saw the passage of perhaps the most significant piece of legislation of the decade, the Civil Rights Act, one of many progressive milestones of the 1960s. Government seemed to be working for all people: witness the flourishing of America’s middle class, a huge expansion in public higher education, and rapid economic progress in minority communities.

But then, as Mr. Gonzalez described in sad detail, came the depredations of much of the last forty years, the conservative “revolution” intended to overthrow not only the accomplishments of LBJ’s Great Society but the great progressive achievements of FDR: innovation in conservative governance (a.k.a. “freedom”) has meant limiting voting rights, interfering in the reproductive decisions of women, deregulating all kinds of industries, cutting funds to public education, destroying unions, rolling back environmental legislation, unleashing an orgy of privatization of everything, and systematically destroying the notion that the good of the public—since in the conservative mind the public refers to “those people”—is a worthy goal of good government.

However, as Mr. Gonzalez calmly reported, there are signs of hope, growing out of massive demographic shifts in America’s population: the people of the nations colonized and exploited for generations by the United States are descending on the land of the great colonizer. Simple logic dictates the change: why, Mr. Gonzalez asked, should people in poor countries work at starvation wages when the richest country in the world beckons? Why, they ask, shouldn’t they share in the harvest that their sweat and starvation made possible? And such questions shine a light on one of the great moral failures of these conservative times: the refusal of House Republicans to even consider comprehensive immigration reform. The only good that can and will come from these great moral failures of governance is that the people of these formerly colonized nations will vote in massive numbers for public servants who still believe in economic opportunity for all people. Trump’s prospects, in other words, are very dim indeed. And so, we hope, a new era in progressive governance, at the national level at least, is less than a year away.

So, American Dream or pipe dream? Consider the demographics of the question. The American Dream for many Americans has become a pipe dream—almost literally: the phrase “pipe dream” dates back to 1870, referring to the illusory visions of opium addicts. In 2016, a significant portion of America’s formerly great working and middle classes is addicted and dying from opioid addictions (heroin laced with fentanyl is the latest, deadliest thing). Working class white mortality is rising as a result, while that of people of other races is decreasing. In 2016, who wants to live? Who has hope? Who has the drive and desire to make the next generation better than their own? To make America a more hospitable nation? More and more, it looks like it will be the immigrants who will save America. They are our future—but here’s the thing: they always have been. And it is this fact, that America is a nation of immigrants, and this spirit that really was the story of last Wednesday’s symposium. And it is this fact that explains the fundamental mission of Nassau Community College: to inspire in people of all races a love of learning and a spirit of public service. To say NCC exists to “train” demeans us all: we are here, as Angel stated, to change minds and lives; we are here to change the world. Anything else is beneath us.


Tim Strode, Ph.D.
NCC AAUP, Executive Committee

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