Oberlin Activism Endures
What is activism? When college junior Molly Danielsson was asked, she replied that it was “volunteer work to promote [one’s] ideals.” She went on to cite labor as a critical component, reinforced by Oberlin’s ubiquitous adage “Learning and Labor,” which emphasizes the close ties between intellectual growth and civil service.
Oberlin is indisputably an institution built on a foundation of social consciousness through direct action, but as the 200-year anniversary of its establishment nears, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the status of activism that has always set the tone for campus life.
One school of thought says that activism is declining. According to Beth Blissman, director of the Center for Service and Learning, recent estimates show that 1200 students are involved in civic engagements, which she finds disappointing. She also recalled a 2003 CSL survey revealing that the main obstacle preventing student participation in community service activities was “lack of time due to academics and lack of time in general.”
While many students take courses concerned with community-based learning, or participate in political organizations, “many people don’t think of community service as activism,” Blissman said.
She also insisted that students are not seeking creative and efficient ways to add service components to other activities.
“ExCos should think of how they can share their ideas with the community,” she suggested.
College junior Arthur Richards is also of the opinion that activism at Oberlin is insufficient. He attributed this insufficiency as a failure to challenge the status quo, as well as general smugness and predictability. He said that Oberlin activism has been reduced to yearly marches and they are just “business as usual.” As a veteran grass-roots organizer and community service participant, Richards said he expected Oberlin to be a hotbed of activists, but when he arrived, he was “hard-pressed to seek these people out.”
However, Richards found that when he began coordinating volunteer opportunities to alleviate the devastation in New Orleans, the response was overwhelming.
“Countless students came by,” he said. “We raised almost $3000 in the first three weeks.” Furthermore, in the next months, Obies continued to offer thousands of hours of volunteer service, from working in medical clinics, gutting houses and assisting residents with anti-eviction campaigns and legal support.
So maybe activism at Oberlin has not fallen so far from its historically activist tree. Throughout this school year, students have consistently shown commitments to creating and reviving organizations with political agendas.
One such returning organization this semester is the Oberlin Peace Activist League, which has not met in several years.
“It was huge,” said first-year Eric Wilhelm. “Many ideas were thrown out, including creative approaches to education, encouraging discussion, outreach in communities and counter-recruitment.”
First-year Joshua Birch conquered his disappointment with the lack of an animal rights group by working towards reestablishing it himself for this coming fall. In the meantime, he is gauging interest by offering the Animal Rights 101 course through the Experimental College.
“When there are more immediate issues like the Iraq War and the Supreme Court nominations, they put [animal rights] on the backburner,” Birch said, adding that he hoped the new group will be discussion-based as well as educational.
The reemergence of the Oberlin College Republicans can be seen as a success story for an organization once thought defunct. College junior Jonathan Bruno is one student who led the effort to resurrect the group.
“When we first started floating the idea around [to bring it back],” Bruno said, “we were asked, ‘What are you, crazy? This is Oberlin.’”
Bruno cited two major reasons for the success of OC Republicans. “[One] necessary condition for success is to have some interest within the student body,” he said, which was evidenced by the 35 to 40-person turnout at the first general interest meeting.
Strong leadership is the second factor that has helped. From the large numbers at their first meeting, OC Republican President and college fifth-year Barry Garrett said that a core group of members who now head the organization emerged with steadfast dedication to revitalizing the organization.
Exploring activism from the perspectives of cynics and devotees alike may
seem to complicate the matter, but perhaps this ongoing debate is really just
another extension of the old Oberlin spirit: to care about something, even if
that means carings about not caring.