Kaja Tretjak: scholarship with a commitment to social justice



Kaja Tretjak

Kaja Tretjak has been on the road, like beat author Jack Kerouac, who also attended her alma mater, Columbia University. Her road, like Kerouac’s, has been a frenetic tour, but unlike Kerouac, she took the reigns rather than hitchhiking – and now she’s ridden into Johnson State College, where she’s teaching as a visiting assistant professor in the behavioral sciences department.
Tretjak is teaching her passions: anthropology and sociology. In an email interview, she said, “My academic interests are heavily informed by a commitment to social justice — by an imperative to understand where various systems of power and inequality come from and how they thrive, as well as how people resist and change them.”

Tretjak majored in sociology and political studies at Columbia, concentrating on social movement studies. Despite studying at the prestigious university, Tretjak said those years’ valuable experiences were in the streets with community activists.

Those experiences included internships with NARAL Pro-Choice America, an organization opposing restrictions on abortion and supporting expanded abortion access, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Tretjak worked with community groups after the killing of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old from Guinea shot 41 times by NYPD officers. He was unarmed.

While in school, Tretjak co-founded Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER) to improve the campus’ handling of sexual violence. During her senior year, Tretjak and her SAFER co-workers established the group as a worldwide non-profit organization, as which it continues to operate today.

“I didn’t see a lot of connections between those experiences and what I was learning in school,” Tretjak said. “I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me then that I would go on to get a Ph.D. and work as a college professor. I would have told you that the academy is a bourgeois delusion hopelessly out of touch with the daily struggles of everyday people.”

After graduating from Columbia, Tretjak backpacked around the world for a year before attending law school at the University of California, Berkley. She hoped the degree would open doors, allowing her to get involved with ground-level social change.

“…I began to see the ‘activist vs. academic’ framework as a false binary,” she said. “You can be both — in fact, lots of people are, and they do incredibly important work.”

Tretjak developed an interest in the U.S. conservative movement, after encountering its opposition again and again.

“I began to focus my law school research papers on that,” she said, “and giving trainings for activists on the history, strategies and tactics of various conservative organizations. I found there is an important role for researchers in this arena, especially in doing work that activists on the ground were often too busy to do themselves, but interested in learning more about.”

Tretjak then worked toward a Ph.D. in anthropology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Tretjak said the faculty there focused on “political economy and the relationships between culture and power.”

“I began to really appreciate anthropology’s focus on everyday people,” she said, “and how the anthropological approach situates those experiences in a broader political economic context.”

While working on her dissertation, Tretjak became familiar with the resurgence of libertarianism, which became the focus of her thesis and her forthcoming book.

During her time at CUNY, Tretjak worked as a lawyer with a small firm and collaborated with non-profit organizations on a range of human and civil rights matters, including mass defense, representing protesters arrested for civil disobedience; representing asylum seekers and immigrant domestic violence survivors; and working on human trafficking and police violence issues.

Now she’s coming to JSC. Tretjak sought a full-time professorial position that would enable her to build meaningful relationships with students.

“I had lots of experience with huge bureaucratic schools, both as a student and as a teacher,” she said, “and found that environment lacking in important ways. Over time, I also became a committed advocate of experiential learning — ‘learning by doing’ — and the various ways in which teachers can meaningfully incorporate real life experience into the classroom. Experiential learning is a huge buzzword these days, but far fewer schools actually do it in practice. I was looking to work at a school that took experiential learning seriously, and where there was a genuine commitment to building close relationships with students. I felt an instant click with the folks from JSC — I think it was mutual!”

Tretjak is developing a criminal justice major for JSC. Next year, she’ll teach a class called Social Solutions, which she hopes will involve JSC’s Break Away initiative, in which students travel to engage in direct social service.

Tretjak is also hoping to resurrect and rejuvenate the Anthropology & Sociology Club as a student-run organization.

“I’d also love to supervise students in independent studies for course credit based on their interests,” she said.

It seems safe to assume the students would as well. Tretjak currently has a 4.8 average rating on the notoriously harsh RateMyProfessors.com – out of a possible 5.

“I try to really get to know my students, and meet their individual needs as much as possible,” she said. “I also strongly believe in building connections between class material and how it relates to real life. Why should we care about the concepts being covered in class? How do they affect us, and our world? My classes aren’t about memorizing facts and being able to regurgitate material. You can look all that up online. You can’t just look up critical thinking: being able to analyze information and different viewpoints to come up with your own ideas, based on educated opinions.”

Tretjak’s educated opinion will soon be published in her book, an ethnographic study of the U.S. libertarian resurgence.

Tretjak explained, “While libertarian ideas can be traced back centuries, and there were moments of heightened libertarian activity in the U.S. throughout the last half of the 20th century, it is only in the late 2000s that what participants term ‘the liberty movement’ took off on a massive scale, fueled in large part by former congressman Ron Paul’s presidential runs. The book investigates why libertarianism is so popular now, even though the ideas have been around for so long, and especially among millennials.

“When I present to distinguished professor types at academic conferences and show them photos of thousands of young people packing auditoriums to see Ron Paul speak, a lot of them just look at me like I’m crazy and have no idea what I’m talking about; but I haven’t met a group of 18-25 year-olds yet where most of them didn’t know who Ron Paul is.”

Tretjak’s book comes from more than 200 interviews and two years of field work primarily in Austin, Tx., the so-called “libertarian capital of the U.S..” Tretjak also compiled research in New York and Washington, D.C., and attended dozens of libertarian events both national and international.

Tretjak is a native of Slovenia, in the Yugoslavia; half of her family is Croatian.

“I was around ten years old when I moved to the U.S. with my parents,” she said. “They are both extremely committed to their family and to doing right by other people. They’re not big into political ideologies and activism; if anything, I think they’re disenchanted with those things as a result of their experiences with the former communist regime. Their focus is on treating other people well and helping in whatever ways you can in your day-to-day life. I think I learned a lot from that.

“They were also always tremendously supportive, and in that I’m very lucky. They moved to the U.S. with hardly any money, not knowing anyone here. They had no connections, and they knew there really wasn’t any way I’d be able to do what I wanted without doing well in school. They worked really hard to support that. I remember my first year in the U.S. very clearly. My dad worked for 12 hours at his job and then he would stay up with me at night, helping me translate Charlotte’s Web. We used a big red dictionary. I started school in the U.S. in the 4th grade, and that was the book the class was reading that semester. That was how I learned English.”

Speaking of, how does one pronounce her name?

“It’s pronounced Ki-yah,” she said. “It rhymes with Maya.”