Celina Su is the Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies—through which she anchors the Gittell Urban Studies Collective—and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York. This interview was conducted by Kendra Sullivan.

Can you tell me a little about the Gittell Collective and your work with it?

The Gittell Urban Studies Collective was established in 2014 through a generous gift by SAGE Publications, to honor the legacy of Marilyn Jacobs Gittell, a former CUNY professor whose research, engagement, and publications focused on cities, urban politics, and the ability of community groups to influence the policies that shape their lives. I was appointed as the inaugural Gittell Endowed Chair in Urban Studies, to direct the Gittell Urban Studies Collective. Before I took on this job, I spent time thinking about and dwelling with the parts of Marilyn Jacobs Gittell’s legacy I wanted to uplift most—for me, Gittell’s role in helping Black and Puerto Rican communities in New York’s struggles for community control of schools (after decades of fighting for racial desegregation), her visionary attention to antecedents of what we now call participatory action research, and her life-changing mentoring of students (especially those from historically marginalized communities) were especially poignant, moving, and inspiring.

It’s taken me a while to shape the Gittell Collective’s work in a way that feels true to Gittell’s legacy, makes use of my strengths and preoccupations as well, and speaks to urgent circumstances in our university and city today. I am responsible for coordinating and overseeing programming that especially lends support to doctoral students and junior scholars engaging in critical public scholarship at CUNY. I work to connect scholars, activists, and artists, and to convene working groups engaged in such work as a loose network, rather than as a stringent center with a pre-ordained research agenda. I hope to use available resources to think about how to engage in such work reflexively, with attention to the material conditions of our production of knowledge (hello austerity!), power inequalities, research ethics, and impacts on policy and conditions outside the university, in the respective communities we work with as well. Practically, this means that I help to mentor interdisciplinary groups of dissertation fellows, work with a postdoctoral fellow on programs like workshops bringing together activists and scholars on displacement during the pandemic, and work on programs like the Adjunct Incubator Project, a collaboration with the Center for the Humanities.

Do you understand the Gittell Collective as being a public humanities/public scholarship project? Why/why not? Who are the specific audiences for the work that the Gittell Collective does?

Yes, very much so. So much of the social sciences—even when it is policy-oriented public scholarship—remains focused on positivist facts, in an ostensibly value-free, neutral way. By contrast, public humanities and public scholarship not only acknowledge but unapologetically center the fact that no scholarship is truly value-neutral.

Certainly, we need hard facts, like those on climate change and public health concerns, for instance. Some of the most successful campaigns against police brutality in the past few years partly owe their success to years of carefully collected data on how city budgets are actually spent, and how more police does not lead to greater community safety. We also know that Congress has gone out of its way to ban federally funded research counting deaths from gun violence or mapping housing segregation. To me, the fact that such research is suppressed is as striking as the research itself—it should illustrate that we don’t need just more evidence of what policies work, but more attention to the language and discourses deployed, to the histories and politics surrounding each community and policy. We need new ways to both critique existing structures and forward new ways of working and being.

Public humanities and public scholarship not only acknowledge but unapologetically center the fact that no scholarship is truly value-neutral.

The Gittell Collective focuses on this line of work, and the specific audiences we have in mind are researchers and educators at CUNY who are interested in such work, and in working in solidarity with students, activists, other scholars, and others around the city and beyond. Who are the people, analyzing evidence with and not on communities, working towards justice? I am especially interested in working with those at CUNY who engage in what Richa Nagar calls “hungry translations,” cutting through legalese and technical jargon and working across uneven terrains of power.

Is the work that the Gittell Collective does particularly relevant/vital at a public institution like CUNY?

There are few other places where the Gittell Collective could exist. Its work feels especially vital because CUNY is a public institution known for the social mobility it lends its students; most of us associated with CUNY span boundaries, borders, and categories—traveling between socioeconomic classes and navigating all that such mobility entails, being the first person in our respective families to achieve this level of education, navigating a lack of affordable housing and literally moving between homes, and/ or hailing from other places and other countries and often serving as translators and interpreters between languages. (In making this statement, I partly have in mind questions of which colleges in the US help students who grow up poor earn middle-class incomes. A Brookings Institution report stated that among four-year and two-year colleges fostering economic mobility nationwide, six of CUNY’s senior colleges and six community colleges rank in the top 10! I never forget that half of our undergraduate students come from households with annual incomes below $30,000. More than one-third of our students were born outside of the United States. A 2019 survey—before the pandemic—showed that 14% of our students had been unhoused the previous year.)

The Gittell Collective works with such students to not just rack up achievements for each individual, but to work towards collectively doing things differently. Humanistic and critical social inquiry can help to guide our work to pay better attention to various histories of the present, to how we got here in the first place, and to how we can achieve a more just city and world. It’s especially pivotal at CUNY because so many of us are constantly moving between categories, doing so much with meager financial resources, and in doing so, defying categorization and expectations. This is not only about democratizing the production of knowledge and making sure that we can all participate, but also ensuring that the bodies of knowledge available to the world—even what is canonical—begin to shift as well, reflecting our richness and diversity.

If you had to speak to one moment of pride/an accomplishment with regards to your work with the Gittell Collective, or other public engagement initiatives you’ve participated in, what would it be?

I’m not sure that I have one particular moment of pride—but the few moments that immediately come to mind do all center the particular sparks of solidarity that emerge when people from different positions sit down and think together. I will mention two of these moments. At a conference that the Gittell Collective hosted for the national URBAN Research Network conference on Critical Solidarities and Multi-Scalar Powers in 2016, for instance, a number of speakers focused on immigrant rights talked about their priorities and recommended next steps. All the panelists are fierce activists. (Some of their affiliations have changed since then, but these were Naved Husain of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, Carl Hamad-Lipscombe of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Juan Gomez of MILPA Collective, and Sujatha Fernandes of Queens College and the Graduate Center.) But there was something about how the moderators, Shaun Lin and Sheeva Sabati, two doctoral students from the CUNY Graduate Center and University of California Santa Cruz, asked disarmingly thoughtful questions that prompted these activists to slow down, listen to one another, and reconsider their policy positions onstage. Folks quickly thought about new strategies to center how unauthorized Black immigrants are deported at disproportionate rates, for instance. I’m not sure I’d ever seen prominent speakers reconsider their assumptions or change their minds in front of my eyes before.

Another spark came during a workshop on housing financialization and the need for a global renters’ movement in 2021, convened by the Gittell Postdoctoral Fellow at the time, Jaime Jover Baez. Scholars and activists from Manchester in England, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Lisboa, New York, and Oakland came together via Zoom to discuss their research findings and struggles on the real estate landscape and housing (un)affordability. I was impressed by how folks spoke with such candor, passion, and expertise, willing to question jargon—to express their discomfort with the term “financialization” and to instead express their want for a new counter-hegemonic language, to share wisdom on their hard-won campaigns to even ascertain just who owned what developments and land where they lived, and to honestly grapple with complexities and potential compromises in their work. There was a moment when folks from several continents and cities realized that they were all fighting the same entity, BlackRock, and saw just how interwoven their seemingly isolated, distinct struggles were. Chills went down my spine.

Your biggest challenge?

To be honest, my biggest challenge remains a lack of support infrastructure to get community-based work done. Despite a lot of attention to discourses of care and interdisciplinarity, funding restrictions or institutional rules can still make it hard to set up programs in ways that don’t reify disciplinary boundaries or hierarchies of deservingness. I’m incredibly grateful that the Gittell Collective mandate has such a great mix of structure and flexibility—but working with CUNY’s federalist system of campuses, schools, and departments remains difficult, especially when the Gittell Collective aims to engage students and adjunct instructors, who often have less support than tenured faculty.

Despite a lot of attention to discourses of care and interdisciplinarity, funding restrictions or institutional rules can still hinder programs that trouble disciplinary boundaries or hierarchies of deservingness.

Often, our difficulties don’t have to do with any outright prohibitions, but simply with the challenges of helping others get adequately paid for work in a timely manner, and especially for treating interlocutors, comrades, and others in community with respect. There is beauty and creativity in collective struggle, but the constant feeling of having to hustle to get contracts fulfilled, for instance, is not part of its allure. And paperwork that makes us abide by the letter rather than the spirit of each law can feel a bit demoralizing—Each and every CUNY employee I know does an incredible job, so my frustrations have to do with the system, not any individual. It’s extra work to think collectively and differently amidst austerity and amidst inefficient bureaucratic procedures.

What advice do you have for students who want to undertake publicly engaged scholarship or address their research to publics beyond the university?

My advice is to try to take your time, despite the urgency of the situation at hand. For better or worse, these issues are unlikely to go away in the coming months. Our role as students—by which I mean those who study and research, including faculty members—is partly to provide a greater context, comparative analysis, and the long view for the public. My other bit of advice is to remember what drove us to academia in the first place, especially when this place can feel like such a totalizing institution. I have felt a lot of impostor syndrome myself, and staying engaged with activists or real-life debates has kept me grounded, reminded me of how much I don’t know in a very concrete way, and reminded me that what I do know has been hard-earned. To me, articulating where you’re coming from and destabilizing authority is part of the work of good research and asserting authority.

Any advice for institutions and departments seeking to build in structures that can help doctoral education become more publicly engaged?

I believe that there should be more emphasis on reflexivity and methods in our training, and on more chances to practice what we preach about publicly engaged work. I think it’s important to take the peer-reviewed journal article off its pedestal and the top of the publication hierarchy, for instance, and to demystify what the process looks like. I sometimes joke about how the peer-reviewed journal article is as much of a subgenre of academic writing as a zombie apocalypse movie is a subgenre of horror movies, or a middle-class white couple divorce story is a subgenre of Oscar-ready middle-brow dramas. This means that it has its own conventions for us to abide by, and maybe play with, in order to be more publicly engaged. This also means that our scholarly work can and perhaps should engage with other genres and sorts of publications as well, from op-eds to short films and beyond. I currently teach a course on writing journal articles for publication, help to organize working groups thinking about alternative venues and ways of sharing our analyses besides peer-reviewed publications, try to consistently weave in discussions of these questions into my dissertation seminars, and am currently organizing a workshop for folks writing their first books. While many institutions and departments expect doctoral students to learn all of this on their own, I believe that we should explicitly build spaces of support for this work—accountability groups, study groups, courses, and workshops.


Also on Distibutaries: On Translation, Responsibility, Solidarity: Celina Su’s Route 1095 by Marina Romani, an essay on Romani’s translation of Su’s Route 1095 and the sociality of translation.


Celina Su

Celina Su's first book of poetry, Landia, was published by Belladonna* in 2018. Her writing includes three poetry chapbooks, three books on the politics of social policy and civil society, and pieces in the New York Times Magazine, n+1, Harper’...

Kendra Sullivan

Kendra Sullivan is the director of the Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research at the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she also acts as publisher of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Archive Initiative and...