Confessions of a Student Activist
Last semester, I finally got sucked into student activism. "Finally" because I was a bit of an idiot about social justice things when I came here, so it's taken me a while to get to the point where I can stop screwing up for long enough to do something useful; "sucked into" because taking part feels a little like voluntarily wading into a riptide. It's the sort of thing that's easy to care about and hard to stop thinking on.
I was peripherally involved in a body called 'the working groups' the semester before last, but the game-changing step didn't happen until the working groups held an open forum last October to update the campus on what they'd been doing since the spring. I wanted to know, so I went. At the end of the meeting, they asked if anyone could replace the people who had graduated; one of the positions that needed filling was the point person for the documentation and communication working group, and I figured, yeah, I blog, I do communication-ish things already, it makes sense, I believe in this, why not, right? Time to act on your beliefs, Ida.
That was probably one of my best decisions this year. Also, kind of the worst.
The working groups formed a year ago to draft a letter from the students to the college, proposing specific, tangible improvements in five areas: 1) the conservatory, 2) athletics, 3) natural sciences, 4) training and workshops, and 5) documentation and communication. The present-day working groups follow that five-way division, though the proposal has long since been released1 (and responded to by the college); at this point, we're a nebulous entity that is trying hard to stay relevant while also staying true to the original goal of working for institutional change. We're... not quite sure how to do that. This isn't exactly what we do now, and isn't our official policy (we don't have one), but: my personal dream is that each of the five working groups could be a space for students to bring relevant concerns/burdens/joys that need to be relayed to the administration. Whoever came to the meeting could start crafting an approach to that week's issues, and I, as point person, would take the whole bundle wherever it might need to go in the college hierarchy. That way, people can air their feelings, be heard, have a voice in the process of addressing them, and not be overwhelmed by the task of changing the institution all by themselves.
Unfortunately, the only person in my working group right now is me.
It's somewhere between "professor hasn't uploaded assignment due tomorrow" and "people who don't believe in evolution" on the frustrating scale.
I have big ideas for improvements! I want there to be open communication between Oberlin students and our Board of Trustees - better yet, collaboration. I want anyone interested in activism to be able to easily find out what's been done on the issues they want to work on; what's worked, what hit a wall, and who's involved in it now. I want an activist hub, in other words, and preferably an archive to go with it. I want more transparency about the way the college administration works, specifically about the power structure. And about all the dang committees! How many are there even?! I could go on, but it wouldn't be a good idea, because every time I try to think through a detailed, feasible path by which any of this might be accomplished, I end up with spaghetti for brains. It breaks me. I just don't have the resources.
There's another thing that makes me stumble before I even get started: should I be doing this work in the first place? The working groups came out of the Black community on campus, and who am I to represent them and their struggle? The goal is to advocate for anyone who's marginalized here, and that is pretty much not me. I have zero qualifications for this job. I'm literally only doing it because no one else is. Not because I'm a good fit. Not because I have the authority to be here. And that's a problem because right now, I, by myself, determine what projects are worth doing; I, by myself, decide what needs changing about documentation and communication on this campus. Which is absolutely not a judgment call I feel equipped to make!
Of course, what happens as a result of my stumbling around is nothing. And I don't feel great about that decision either.
My last remaining hope is to build some sort of momentum that will keep the working groups moving into next year. If my legacy can be that I kept something I believe in from dying, I'm good with that. Luckily, it just so happens that this week is the first annual commemoration of March 4th!2
Folks from all over campus have organized all kinds of events, and while this whole thing (both last year and next week and everything they stand for) is way bigger than the working groups, we're hoping that the commemoration events will remind campus that we exist slash need help. There are other goals there, too, of course - making sure everyone knows what progress has been made; making sure people who weren't on campus a year ago understand what happened and why; creating a space for remembrance; jointly creating better ways forward. Keeping the working groups alive is my big one, though. How often do you get the chance to look at what's crap about the institution you're part of and then actually do something about it? With actual results? The working groups are kinda special.
Of course, there are loads of other excellent activist groups on campus that function way differently from (and in many cases, much better than) the working groups. There are decades-old organizations; there are environmental activists; there's food justice; there are groups whose strategy is to make as much of a ruckus as possible; there's a group lobbying for responsible investment; there are associations like Asian American Alliance or Abusua that can do activism-type work but also other things... and if I knew anything about these groups except vaguely that they exist, I would tell you. File that under problems I want my working group to solve.
I'm unpleasantly reminded of the post I wrote a year ago, in which I publicly hoped that campus would not find closure and would not just move on. Obviously my hopes held for some people - me! - but I feel very much like the climate on campus is an oblivious one. There's a very real chance that no one will pick this up after my fellow organizers and I have graduated, and the entirety of March 4th (and working groups along with it) will become just another dusty piece of Oberlin lore. What I mean when I say "first annual commemoration week" is "dear god please let this become annual."
So consider, gentle reader, where you are currently engaged, and especially consider where you are not. Your support of places in the latter category can make all the difference. (If you are a reader who is on campus as this commemoration week happens, I have a special request: please show up. Your peers have worked insane hours to make these things happen - please don't leave them hanging. Just this week, leave your apathy in bed when you get up. Care deeply, all day; be vulnerable; listen; speak your truth. When the week is over, go back to your insular life, if you like. Being open is hard work, totally, no one can keep that up forever! But can you imagine if we all engaged with each other for a week?) Too often, I think, our response to being overwhelmed by the world leads to habits of disengagement rather than habits of community-building, which is ultimately a much stronger strategy.
Let's see if we can't reverse that.
2. If you don't have a solid grasp of what happened on March 4th, 2013, start by reading this summary, maybe listening to some recordings from that day, and then reading some discussion from various perspectives; uplifting, critical, and cynical (which are labels I apply from my own perspective). I have also written two blog posts situating myself in relation to March 4th, which I invite you to read. Most importantly, talk to real people about it.
If nothing else, understand that "March 4th" acts as a convenient keyword that points to everything all the way from institutional oppression in general down to specific ways oppression has been enacted by Oberlin College over its entire history, including the person walking around in KKK robes on March 4th, 2013. To invoke that day is to invoke an old, complex beast that was instantiated in a certain way that morning.