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Free City!


The fight for San Francisco’s city college and education for all. Marcy Rein, Mickey Ellinger, Vicki Legion, PM Press 2021

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Free City! The Fight for San Francisco’s City College and Education for All tells the story of the five years of organizing that turned a seemingly hopeless defensive fight into a victory for the most progressive free college measure in the US. In 2012, the accreditor sanctioned City College of San Francisco, one of the biggest and best community colleges in the country, and a year later proposed terminating its accreditation, leading to a state takeover. Free City! follows the multipronged strategies of the campaign and the diverse characters that carried them out. Teachers, students, labor unions, community groups, public officials, and concerned individuals saved a treasured public institution as San Francisco’s working-class communities of color battled the gentrification that was forcing them out of the city. And they pushed back against the national “reform” agenda of corporate workforce training that drives students towards debt and sidelines lifelong learning and community service programs. Combining analysis with narrative, Free City! offers a case study in the power of positive vision and solution-oriented organizing and a reflection on what education can and should be.


Free City! is a timely and urgently needed saga of successful resistance to the corporate forces threatening the very existence of public higher education in California. It is a meticulously documented history, a breathless narrative, and a comprehensive guide to action all in one. The lessons learned in the fight to save City College of San Francisco need to be widely understood and applied by all educators, students, and community members committed to the struggle for education for all.”    —Justin Akers Chacón, professor of Chicano/Chicana Studies, San Diego City College, coauthor of No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the US-Mexico Border and author of Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class

“The struggle and success of Free City proves that when people organize, persist, and resist injustice, they win!”    —Diane Ravitch, founder and president, Network for Public Education, author of The Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools

“The fight to save City College is one of the most remarkable in the long history of progressive politics in San Francisco. It offers hope and practical lessons in opposing the neoliberal agenda of austerity, exclusion, and privatization. For decades, California bled dry the greatest public education system in the world. Turning that around will take years of struggle by the people demanding their lost rights and public investment in their children. As City College showed, victory is possible, and the battle will be led by the new working majority of color, who have already turned California blue and may yet save us from the depredations of the billionaires and madmen who rule America today.”    —Richard A. Walker, professor emeritus, University of California Berkeley, author of Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area

“The struggle to keep City College of San Francisco, the largest community college in the nation, open was one of perseverance, collaboration, and ultimately a commitment by the faculty and staff of the college and the people of San Francisco to fight for a remarkable institution. Authors Marcy Rein, Mickey Ellinger, and Vicki Legion have made an important contribution to understanding the scope of this five-year battle. At its core, the fight to keep the college open revealed a much larger narrative at play in American public education: shaping our schools to meet the needs of the marketplace and its advocates or molding schools to meet the needs of students, working people, seniors, and veterans. Ultimately, this struggle highlights the strength of combining a broad community of faculty, the people of the city, and unions. It should serve as a template for other battles.”    —Joshua Pechthalt, president, California Federation of Teachers (retired)

Free City! recounts a riveting chapter in what can only be understood as a multigenerational struggle over public education, from its relationship and responsibility to the working-class communities it serves to its emancipatory possibilities. Free City! offers fresh insight into what community-centered education can look like as an educational project that dedicates itself to building the capacities of working-class students to seize their own destinies, while grounded in the wider struggles shaping their lives: gentrification, immigration, police brutality, and economic inequality. Free City! teaches us the oft-forgotten lesson that—as students at San Francisco State recognized so many years ago—only with deep organizing and an unwavering dedication to bringing diverse constituencies and concerns together can our collective fight be won.”  —Jason Ferreira, associate professor and chair of the Department of Race and Resistance Studies, College of Ethnic Studies, San Francisco State University

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Weight 0.312000 kg