Ruben Solis, President, University Sin Fronteras

Cita Cook, UNSIF note-taker and History Professor (retired)

Jenice L. View, UNSIF Board Member and Associate Professor (George Mason University)

Overview of the University Sin Fronteras

The literal translation of Universidad Sin Fronteras (UNSIF) into English would be “University without Borders.” Yet the faculty, staff, and students embrace the idea of a University Beyond Borders, a University without Walls.  Our six campuses in Atlanta, GA (the flagship campus), San Antonio, TX, Detroit, MI, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Jacksonville, FL and Bemidji, MN are all rooted in anchor social change organizations with existing infrastructures and ongoing activist campaigns. On and between each campus, we move together beyond the borders that artificially separate people and also act to break down borders within ourselves, reaching into unexercised parts of our brains.  We recognize the need for a university that respects and documents our work and our leaders, that focuses on realities more than on ideas, and that acknowledges the truths about problems such as environmental racism and the contributions of groups like the Georgia Hunger Coalition.  Rather than a top-down model of a university with classrooms functioning as competitive contests over who knows the most, we seek to share knowledge among individuals who can make liberation a basic goal of their social movements.  We encourage the kind of critical thinking that is fundamental to successful community organizing.  Out of disciplined discussions, we expect that our knowledge will grow, as it belongs to each of us.  Through a circular/dialectical interaction between our theory and practice, we teach each other about how to progress in our core liberation struggles.  This chapter provides an overview of the mission, pedagogy, and structure of UNSIF; more detail can be found in the UNSIF Handbook (


University Sin Fronteras (UNSIF) could not have arisen without the collaboration between two organizations that had already been holding their own classes and workshops on organizing and internal political education since the 1980s: the Southwest Workers Union (SWU) in San Antonio, TX and Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide (PS) in Atlanta, GA.  Both long-standing social movement organizations contributed the infrastructural support critical to the creation of the UNSIF.  They, therefore, became its first two anchor organizations.  Ruben Solis, after transitioning out of his position at SWU, took on the responsibility of establishing UNSIF.

In 2010, a group of activists met in a series of Tertulias (round-table talks) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We became concerned about the lack of qualitative connection between a new explosion of community activists and more experienced organizers, and among one another. Bridging the distinct histories and perspectives of three generations of movement activists would be difficult without a university developed by and for our social movements. Sending busy activists to schools that are outdated, racist, classist, and lacking in diversity would be wrong. We needed a new way to educate.

In 2011, we decided to try to meet that need by founding the University Sin Fronteras. A Board of Directors, made up of seven people from Puerto Rico and eight from the continental United States, developed vision and mission statements. As we began to create campuses in different locations, we decided each board member should represent an existing or potential campus. In 2012 the nine members of a new board established the basic concepts for our curriculum, pedagogy, and semester system. Our first classes, held in Atlanta, served as an experiment in applying those concepts. Some students from the first course helped plan the second one. Some practices, particularly the Round Robin process to encourage each person to participate in discussions (see more under Pedagogy), quickly became institutionalized.  By 2013, however, we realized that we were trying to expand too quickly, without giving each potential campus secure roots.  The third board, therefore, focused on strengthening our understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the existing six campuses in Atlanta (the Flagship Campus), Detroit, San Antonio, San Juan, Jacksonville, and Bemidji, as follows.

Atlanta- Project South. Atlanta has been the crossroads of Southern social movements, historical Black liberation, and resistance for hundreds of years. Atlanta is also the crossroads where the corporate superstructures that moved to the Sunbelt in the 1980’s married the Old Confederacy and attracted millions of working class migrants, bringing together Black and Brown communities. Atlanta houses the main offices of the University Sin Fronteras for those same reasons.

San Antonio- Southwest Workers Union. San Antonio has played the role of a military geo-political space of significance for the last 500 years, dubbed the North American Free Trade Agreement city as well as the Military City USA with more than 8 military bases located there and an additional 6 military bases (missions) held by the Spanish for 300 years. San Antonio is majority Mexican people who became US citizens when the border crossed them in 1848 (or how the NW of Mexico became the SW of the US). Thus Texas is a bridge between the South and the Southwestern United States that make up the ‘Global South’ within the U.S. This UNSIF campus is rooted in the need to decolonize the borderlands.

Detroit- East Michigan Environmental Action Center. The destruction and abandonment of the auto industry has decimated the Black working class who are now losing their pensions. Detroit has become ground zero of the neoliberal plan for U.S. cities: bankruptcy, school closures, gentrification, land grabs, and an emergency manager whose task is to dissolve, legislative bodies and due process, and to establish an economic structural plan with the goal of eliminating city services.  In Detroit it started with the privatizing of the water system and shutting off hundreds of thousands of people’s water connections. East Michigan Environmental Action Center brings together movement leaders across generations to teach one another the different ways neo-liberalism has changed the city of Detroit.

San Juan- Caribbean Institute. The colonial legacy of Puerto Rico began when Europeans set foot in what is known today as the Caribbean, first under the Spanish rule and later after 1895 under the rule of the United States. The place and space that the campus of the University Sin Fronteras holds in San Juan is unique.  It is the study of decolonizing in the very colony and how to resist under direct imperialism. Through the San Juan UNSIF, there has been a focus on publications from the UNSIF campuses and on improving communications among organizations by sharing political education materials. Reynaldo Padilla, the campus coordinator, is currently editing and designing a toolkit where the process of the UNSIF and the language of decolonization and dismantling racism in our lifetime can be communicated across multiple communities.

Bemidji- Indigenous Environmental Network.  The Indigenous Environmental Network anchors the newest campus in the University Sin Fronteras.  The Bemidji community holds the Anishinabee worldview, a model for self-identity and cultural ReGeneration[i], not just a strategy for success but of survival.  The reality of Indigenous people and the history of survival and resistance lie front and center on the Bemidji campus.  The student-participants come from a previous generation of parents severely impacted by the systems of racist anti-Indigenous policies that created boarding schools and the ideology that “the only good Indian is a dead one.” The decolonizing process includes identity, regeneration of culture as a weapon of survival, and revival of cultural ceremony and sober community.

Jacksonville- New Jim Crow Movement.  Florida was colonized by the Spanish empire and was an important state in the Confederate South. During the Civil Rights Movement, Jacksonville was the only city to ban Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s entry.  Within this history, there was Indigenous resistance to the Spanish and to violent racism. Today, Florida is a front-runner in rejecting immigration reform and voting rights, while upholding the stand-your-ground laws that led to the murder of Trayvon Martin. The New Jim Crow Movement spotlights the history of oppression in Florida, and analyzes the different methods that racism has presented itself in governing bodies and laws. They importantly remember the resistance of the Deep South through their courses and remember that the space, place and context are creating a new knowledge that is re-writing the narrative of Florida and the process of decolonization.

Pedagogy and Methodology of Emancipatory Education

UNSIF operates with collective knowledge.  Teams of adjunct faculty members frame the discussions, but we seek to learn from everyone.  The pedagogy follows critical education and circular learning, similar to the work of Freire (2000) and other critical pedagogues (for example, Apple, 2004; hooks, 2003; Lather, 1991; McLaren & Kincheloe, 2007).  Everyone shares their knowledge rather than self-defined experts presenting their ideas to passive recipients presumed by “the experts” to have no knowledge of their own. Instead of competing for who can come up with the most “correct answers,” we put everyone’s knowledge on the table.  Elders and youth learn from each other.  People with important knowledge and skills to share may lack school-taught skills such as writing, and we realize that education takes place in many ways and in many places, often far from a classroom.  We respect these special means of learning, particularly those that have served communities of color.

“Popcorn” pedagogy allows anyone to pop into a discussion whenever they have something to say and creates a form of free-wheeling brainstorming in which quicker, extroverted (not necessarily deeper) thinkers with loud voices and self-confidence gain more power.  We emphasize, instead, constructivist (Hmelo, Duncan & Chinn, 2007; Piaget, 1967) pedagogy in which everyone has knowledge to share.  In our discussions we go around the circle in a Round Robin to encourage each person to offer their thoughts and knowledge unless they wish to pass.  Participants do not raise their hands to show what they know. When we break temporarily into small groups, we use the Round Robin process to report back to the large group rather than having one person speak for each small group.

The classes aim to awaken a certain inquiry, accepting that we won’t be able to answer all of the questions during the class session.  Some mini-lectures, handouts, and other sources speed up the learning process, but mainly the session focuses on sharing what is in each person’s brain, sometimes after reading a short document.  At the end of the class, everyone writes a one-page reflection on a question that intends to link what was learned in class with what participants are trying to understand and/or do as activists, individually and in organizations.  One or more note takers document and edit the learning occurring in each class. After each of the classes in a course of study, we use the lesson-plan, the notes, and the reflection papers to create a synthesis of the cumulative shared learning and thinking, compiling these into a one-page summation of the course’s conceptual core value. All of the notes and syntheses constitute an archive of each semester at the campus.

Courses and Faculty

All seminars and classes refer back to the Four Core Curriculum Areas that serve as the frame

for specific content and they are: (1) the economic history of capitalism and globalization; (2) colonialism and liberation; (3) internal development and awareness of our selves, organizations, and social movements; and (4) emancipatory education, learning and culture based in liberation rather than oppression. For example, a course on “Contextualizing The Blues Tradition: African Cultural Resistance

To Transatlantic Enslavement, 1600-1850, ” examined the dominant narratives about enslavement and

resistance in the Americas, transatlantic relationships that fed the creation of blues music, and invited

reflections on a quotation by Amilcar Cabral, African revolutionary leader from Cape Verde and Guinea

Bissau —  “In what ways has imperialist domination in our present-day attempted at eradicating (directly

or indirectly) the core cultural elements of the oppressed people in the U. S. South?”

Course work for UNSIF is organized according to a semester system. Liberation Spring runs from January to May, Freedom Summer runs from June to August, and Emancipation Autumn runs from September to November. Seminars, classes, and courses during Liberation Spring launch the year, involving study that enables us to spring forward and flow into the Freedom Summer, which involves planning and carrying out hands-on action work within the anchor organizations.  Emancipation Autumn is more reflective and research-oriented, building on the lessons learned during the Freedom Summer as preparation for the next Liberation Spring.

The adjunct faculty volunteers as the teaching staff or professors at University Sin Fronteras. They are people who are committed to emancipatory education and decolonizing it.  Adjunct faculty comes from each community where we have a campus and are often part of the campus committee. The adjunct faculty’s role is to put together the lesson plan following UNSIF guidelines. They frame the topic for each class in the first 15-20 minutes of the two-hour class.  They ask the first question (“What is?”) and facilitate the round robin discussion.  Based on the shared knowledge coming from the round robin, the adjunct faculty uses examples to lead to the second question (“How does it operate?”).  Another round robin occurs in the small group and the adjunct faculty summarizes the discussion to lead to the third question (“upon reflection, what will you do immediately to implement the new knowledge starting tomorrow?”). In addition to supporting semester classes on a particular campus, individual instructors often present seminars to several of the campuses in support of organizing work.  For example, seminars at the Unite to Fight Institute in Atlanta in 2014 allowed people to work together while also making plans for their individual sites.

University and campus organization

Currently, eleven people serve as members of the board, representing each of the campuses, the anchor organizations — Project South (GA), Southwest Workers Union (TX), East Michigan Environmental Action Council (MI), Caribbean Institute of Social Movements (PR), the New Jim Crow Movement (FL), and the Indigenous Environmental Network (MN) — and one board member each from New Mexico, Minnesota, and Washington, DC.  A three-person executive committee consists of the president, vice president, and secretary.

Campuses.  A campus is held by an anchor social grassroots movement organization in a specific place.  Each campus represents the importance of the role of that particular space, place and processes.  The coming together of six campus sites brings together six places and spaces with a body of practice and knowledge that becomes part of the whole.  The University Sin Fronteras is what the six campuses bring together and the synthesis of the six places and people who make it real.

Anchor Organization.  We did not want to become a university involved only in study and knowledge, burdened by a super-bureaucracy, and lacking any clear connections to social change organizations. Through the anchor organizations, decisions about courses come from people involved in practice in the field rather than from an office of isolated scholars. Each of the local campuses and our university as a whole seek to support the activities of the anchor organizations, particularly by offering classes about their fronts of struggle.

Based on the history of working collaboratively to organize the first U.S. Social Forum in 2007, Project South, Southwest Workers Union, and East Michigan Environmental Action Council were the first three UNSIF anchors. Additional anchor organizations are required to embrace to the OLE framework, where all classes seek to enhance, deepen, and advance (O) Organizational Development, (L) Leadership Development, and (E) Emancipato­ry Education that serves activist organizations and their leaders. More importantly, they must demonstrate rootedness in the community, a reputation for building open, collaborative and converging spaces, and a base of relationships in order to ensure relevance and accountability to the community. These organizations also commit to selecting and supporting a campus coordinator from within its staff or community.  Most important is that these organization create entry points into social movement and collective action by communicating the story/narrative of the purpose and history of the UNSIF as an intellectual, political, and structural anchor that relates to the specific politics, climate, and culture of their location.

Anchoring the campuses in organizations involved in community activism makes it more feasible to understand the context for and needs of each of the communities served by a campus.  We develop a stronger understanding of what works in different contexts when people from different campuses engage in occasional joint meetings and classes, sharing campus materials, and other forms of communication.  Interconnectedness can also involve student and faculty exchanges, through travel or Web meetings.

The Campus Committee. The campus committee is composed of volunteers who were student-participants in the University Sin Fronteras courses and classes and want to get more involved.  The CC is usually about 12 people who give time to develop the campus and the campus curriculum.  The CC meets to brainstorm the curriculum based on needs of the local anchor organization and fronts of struggle, the core curriculum for the upcoming semester, the adjunct faculty to teach the classes, the time and place, as well as to assign people to bring snacks and to take notes, photos and videos for the entire course.

The Campus Coordinator. The campus coordinator is the anchor organization’s coordinator for the local campus of the University Sin Fronteras.  The campus coordinator is the overall coordinator and formal liaison with the Director of the anchor organization and the overall UNSIF office.  When there are funds available to UNSIF, this is a paid stipend position.

Notes, Reflections and Synthesis.  Formal notes are the record of the proceedings of the class, but moreover are records of the new knowledge-creation taking place in each of the semesters, classes, and courses of the University Sin Fronteras.  The notes become important for student-participants’ reflection and synthesis.  The notes are archival data on the process of decolonizing education, learning and the very roots of epistemology.  Notes are shared with student-participants.

At the end of each class, participants create a one-page reflection paper written during the last 10 minutes of a two-hour class. The reflection answers an essential question (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Participants reflect, put name and e-mail address on the one-page paper and turn it in.  It is digitized, and returned to the student-participants.  All one-page reflection papers are compiled into one narrative and which also is returned to the participants.

The synthesis is a written summation of the knowledge shared, discovered, or created and its meaning.  The synthesis is a collective process that goes deep into the essential meaning of the lesson(s) to the knowledge identified and created knowledge, into the roots of knowledge. The synthesis process allows for new knowledge to take the place of old assumed knowledge (decolonizing), and establish a new radically different infrastructure supporting a raceless society.

The impact of UNSIF

Since 2013, UNSIF has served 910 student-participants on the six campuses, as well as 255 additional participants at special events that were designed to increase exposure to UNSIF and to articulate its future, the Southern Movement Assembly of 2014 and the Educational and Organizing Institute in May 2015. Over the 9 semesters that University Sin Fronteras has held classes, more than15 faculty members have practiced and refined the following 2-hour classes that constitute the core curriculum: Racism & violence: Healing racial trauma; Emancipatory education & decolonizing pedagogy; Sovereignty of the body & self-determination; State violence & globalization; Health & healing (decolonizing the medical industrial complex); Black radical tradition in the U.S. South; Action, power and systemic change; Environmental racism and climate change; Labor, migration & the globalization of capital; Cultural liberation and systemic social change; Colonialism & decolonization; and The prison industrial complex and ReGeneration of formerly incarcerated movements.

Over the course of 4 years, participants across all campuses began to articulate five leadership development themes that connect with local organizing and activism: the autonomy of the body (in all of our relations); anti-racism (re-membering the body); emancipatory education (the pedagogy of liberation); historical regeneration; and decolonizing as a theory of change. These themes are described as follows:

Autonomy of the body. Dismantling racism and decolonizing our lives starts with the body (the person). Sovereignty is the opposite of the systems of oppression, therefore liberating the body is central to dismantling oppressive systems.  Making the body whole regenerates and re-members the body and starts the healing process. This decolonizing process breaks down racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc.

Dismantle racism within our lifetime.  Remembering our bodies and communities and making them whole breaks down the colonial social construct of racism and white supremacy, and the New Confederacy, and permits healing from racial trauma and violence.

Replicating emancipatory education (liberation and freedom schools). Cultural practices are embedded in everyday work and life in every community of People of Color, Indigenous, and poor. Cultural development is based on knowledge creation and shared knowledge rooted in the practices established by these local communities. UNSIF courses serve to replicate this knowledge.

Regeneration of our shared histories.  Shared historical knowledge of movement history and liberation allows for the inclusion of every people’s knowledge not just the victor or the colonizing occupier. ReGeneration offers self-awareness and self-identity through historiographic knowledge.

Decolonizing the theory of change (and practice). The process involves answering fundamental questions such as how the decolonizing process of UNSIF dismantles the systems of racism, how we build a new social order and culture, and how decolonization leads to and build liberation.

Through the last four years of the University’s work with Project ReGeneration, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we have documented significant transformative impact.  We have established a theory of change and practices that assert the possibility and reality of dismantling racism in our lifetimes rather than a task to leave for future generations. We have changed social justice group dynamics from a didactic approach to round robin collective discussion, analysis, decision-making, and synthesis, and coordination. We have witnessed major shifts in our practice by developing collective consensus rather than voting, and we use more organic participatory methods in large group decision making with racial justice lens at the center. Emancipatory education has become critical to healing racism rather than holding “training” sessions or workshops. Situational analysis methods of planning and action, including the “Before, During and After” analytical methodology are now part of many more social movement spaces.  Shared curriculum and an archive of UNSIF courses and materials are available to all six campuses. Finally, we are proud to have established a student- to-faculty leadership development pipeline that encourages intergenerational relationships between older and younger social movement leaders and analysis sharing, specifically around historic and contemporary understandings of race and racial healing.

The future of UNSIF

We expect to expand UNSIF but only after consolidating what we have and clarifying the processes we follow. We are assisting organizations that wish to establish a campus by working with them to offer trial seminars appropriate for their contexts and by creating on-line and printed guides to our curriculum, our pedagogy, and our other practices.

The University Sin Fronteras Educational & Organizing Institute, first held in May 2015, was a three-day intense political education and decolonizing process, where all of the six campuses were represented by the anchor organization director, the campus coordinator, and a student-participant from each campus, and the UNSIF staff and board of directors.  Thirty-five people came together to synthesize the experience of the University Sin Fronteras 2013-15.  The institute also provided for adjunct faculty training.  Campus coordinators were able to cross-pollinate the work locally and gauge where they are in the mix.  The institute was led in a people’s movement assembly methodology of shared knowledge and collective theory and action (People’s Movement Assembly).  Given the success in re-energizing the campuses and strengthening the overall organization of UNSIF, we anticipate an annual institute.

UNSIF founded in Puerto Rico the Caribbean Institute on Social Movements (CISM), to promote emancipatory and decolonizing education and shared knowledge spaces in the Caribbean basin to connect as the Gran Caribbean to the South (US) and to the Gulf Coast including Mexico and Venezuela and up through the Antillean islands of the Caribbean. The mission is to build connections between the South and the Caribbean and Mexico.  A liberation/decolonizing Puerto Rico Tour is planned for September 19-25, 2015, focusing on Grito de Lares day which is Puerto Rico independence day.

By the end of 2015, UNSIF expects to create an Emancipatory Teacher Training School (ETTS) to meet the need of developing emancipatory educational teachers to imbed themselves in grassroots social movement organizations in order to grow liberation schools in many communities.  Emancipatory Teachers will be developed through the UNSIF institute for emancipatory teachers and liberation schools.

In short, the participants, faculty, and staff of UNSIF seek to recreate the university as a site of true and permanent liberation from all oppressions, one campus and one anchor organization at a time.


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[i] We refer to Re-Generation in three ways: a way to link people across ages and generations; a way to retell the historical stories of our peoples and communities; and a way to use these understandings of history to inform contemporary action


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