Celina Su

Position: Professor
Campus Affiliation: Marilyn J. Gittell Chair, Urban Studies, Graduate Center / Professor of Political Science – Brooklyn College
Research Interests: Participatory and deliberative democracy, civic engagement, and political participation; Community development, urban politics and decision-making, Civil society, especially grassroots organizations, Public policy, especially politics of social policy

Personal website: http://celinasu.net

Celina Su is the inaugural Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, as well as Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College. Her academic, pedagogical, and creative work focuses on everyday struggles for collective governance, centering economic democracy and racial justice. Grounded in specific struggles and with specific communities (e.g., in education organizing in the South Bronx, refugee public health in northwest Thailand, and participatory budgeting in New York City), Celina’s work seeks to engage critical, bottom-up perspectives across geographical locales and disciplinary lines.

As an engaged scholar, Celina has published three books, including Streetwise for Book Smarts: Grassroots Organizing and Education Reform in the Bronx (Cornell University Press) and Our Schools Suck: Youth Talk Back to a Segregation Nation on the Failures of Urban Education (co-authored, NYU Press). She has been interviewed by media outlets such as NPR, PBS, the BBC, and The Nation, and her writing on political participation has appeared in venues such as Harper’s Magazine and the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog. From 2015 to 2018, she served as Lead Co-Chair of the URBAN Research Network, a coalition of 1,800+ scholars and activists committed to community-based research, social change, and democratizing knowledge production. Her honors include a Berlin Prize, a Senior Democracy Scholar fellowship at the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and a Whiting Award for Excellence in Teaching. She has served on NYC’s participatory budgeting Steering Committee since its inception in 2011 and on the board of People Powered: Global Hub for Participatory Democracy since its launch in 2019.

As a writer, Celina’s debut full-length collection of poetry, Landia, was published by Belladonna* in 2018. Her creative work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, n+1, Boston Review, and other journals. She has received numerous fellowships, including grants from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and Jerome Fund/ Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, and residencies at or scholarships from Ucross, Millay Colony, Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf. She is also the author of two poetry chapbooks, Plurality Decree (MIEL Books, 2015) and Beyond Relief (with Ariana Reines, Belladonna* Series, 2013).

She also co-founded Kwah Dao, the Burmese Refugee Project in 2000, and served first as Executive Director and then board member until 2016. Using a participatory model of community development, the Project helps over 200 Shan refugees in northwest Thailand access education, health, and legal services. She is especially proud that, as of 2020, some of the original Burmese refugee “kids” served by Kwah Dao now serve as Executive Director, Treasurer, and Lead Teacher.  Celina received a Ph.D. in Urban Studies from MIT.


2009. Streetwise for Book Smarts: Grassroots Organizing and Education Reform in the Bronx. New York: Cornell University Press.

Book website

In Streetwise for Book Smarts, Celina Su examines the efforts of parents and students who sought to improve the quality of education in their local schools by working with grassroots organizations and taking matters into their own hands. In these organizations, everyday citizens pursued not only education reform but also democratic accountability and community empowerment. These groups had similar resources and operated in the same political context, yet their strategies and tactics were very different: while some focused on increasing state and city aid to their schools, others tried to change the way the schools themselves operated. Some coalitions sought accommodation with administrators and legislators; others did not.

The events Su describes began with a series of stabbings in Bronx high schools during the 2003-2004 school year. After this rash of violence, several grassroots groups cited the need for additional safety patrols. Mothers from one school spoke of how they had previously protested until they got extra officers, a fairly scarce resource in New York public schools, at their local elementary school. Others asserted that not all the safety patrol officers already in place were treating students humanely.

Parent organizations and school officials battled over who was to blame for the school violence. Did a police presence solve the problem, or did it exacerbate the schools’ violence-prone conditions? Members of different groups proposed and mobilized behind a range of remedies. These divergent responses shed light on the ways in which the choices made by each organization mattered. By learning from Su’s close observation of four activist groups in the Bronx, including Mothers on the Move and Sistas and Brothas United, we can better understand strategies that may ultimately lead to better and safer schools everywhere and help to revitalize American democracy.

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