Advocacy in 2017: What We Can Do Together

Originally published in the Spring 2017 MLA Newsletter

I write these words ten days after the forty-fifth president of the United States was inaugurated. The landscape for MLA advocacy has already registered the seismic shifts that the new administration set off when it issued executive orders to construct a physical wall between the United States and Mexico and to close United States borders to citizens of seven nations with majority Muslim populations, as well as when it threatened to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Many of you wonder what role your scholarly association should play in these times. We all realize that issuing MLA statements on what promises to be a flood of worthy causes could dilute the power of our collective voice and expend energies best directed toward other actions. At the same time, we recognize that silence can be interpreted as complacency, so as an association we commit to speaking out on those issues that intersect most directly with our professional interests. The MLA also joins with other scholarly associations in making statements that endorse or oppose particular causes (a recent case in point: the joint statement on threats to academic freedom and higher education in Turkey).

The MLA has formed strategic alliances to promote the interests of our members and to engage in advocacy efforts, especially at the federal level. Here are some of our key partnerships:

  • The National Humanities Alliance (NHA). As a founding member of the NHA, the MLA has a central role in shaping the advocacy priorities of this Washington-based group. A coalition of more than 170 organizations and institutions, the NHA advocates for humanities education, research, preservation, and public programs. In addition to lobbying for humanities funding, the NHA works to advance policies that support the humanities, develops policy initiatives, and promotes public awareness of the humanities. MLA members can participate in the NHA’s National Humanities Advocacy Day and learn how to lobby effectively on Capitol Hill and in their districts.
  • The Coalition for International Education (CIE). A coalition of over thirty higher education organizations, the CIE works to support programs, like Title VI and ­Fulbright-Hays, that promote greater awareness and understanding of the world’s languages and cultures. Through symposia, reports, videos, and other campaigns, the CIE educates policy makers, officials, and the media about the importance of United States global competence.
  • The Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS), a nonprofit education-policy organization with more than one hundred organizational members, works to “ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to learn and use English and at least one other language.” JNCL-NCLIS promotes awareness of language issues through its lobbying and publications and through events like the annual Language Advocacy Day and Delegate Assembly. The event draws language advocates who want to make the case for language education to Congress while learning more about programs and policy issues.
  • The Conference of Executive Officers (CEO) of the American Council of Learned Societies brings together leaders from the council’s member societies to discuss issues that affect humanities research, teaching, and scholarly communication. The CEO collaborates on policy documents and public advocacy statements, such as the recent statements about the January 2017 executive order on immigration.

In addition to participating in these organizations, the MLA frequently joins with other groups to speak out on specific issues. Recent MLA efforts include a briefing for congressional staffers on adjunct working conditions, led by the New Faculty Majority, and a panel at the Albert Shanker Institute on the emergence of the precariat.

The MLA is often called on to participate in policy discussions at the highest level. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences asked me to serve on the Commission on Language Learning, which has just completed its work. One of the commission’s reports, The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait, draws heavily on MLA research and analysis. I will be in Washington, DC, in late February, when members of the commission will present the report at a congressional briefing.

To help members keep track of the association’s advocacy efforts and participate more fully, we will soon introduce an advocacy hub to our Web site. You expect the MLA to work hard to advocate on behalf of our common interests, and we commit to doing so with increased vigor in the months and years ahead. In a paper originally delivered at the MLA Annual Convention in 1977, the year I joined the association, Audre Lorde told us, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you” (41). I carried a sign with that famous second sentence at the PEN America Writers Resist event at the New York Public Library this past January, and I thought about the connection between language and action. “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america,” Lorde said, we must speak out and be seen. “And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength” (42). May we recommit to speaking, writing, and acting out, and may you find in the MLA a source of strength.

Works Cited

Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 2007, pp. 40–44.

The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2016.