This has been a very reflective week for me. For one thing, unlike the people I've been friends with for the last four years, I'm not graduating yet. I decided to take an extra semester here at Oberlin because I have unfinished business, both academic and extra-curricular, in learning and in labor. Now, as the year winds down into its bittersweet finality, it's hard for me to avoid feeling uncertain about the future. Knowing I'll be back here without my best friends, being unable to totally connect with their graduation anxieties, having to sneak into senior events because my name isn't on the official list of graduates--these things create a blend of existential vexation which I can only hope will be resolved with time.
In keeping with the theme of reflection, I just finished an op-ed I wrote for the Oberlin Review, the place where I learned almost everything I know of journalism--about campus newspapers. This meta-meditation came about after the Student Finance Committee decided to cut the Review's budget by more than a third, throwing into doubt its traditional printing and salary schemas. My initial reaction was, frankly, outrage. "How could the SFC undercut campus media like that?" I thought to myself. "Don't they understand the importance of journalism?"
But as it often does, writing became my trusty relief outlet. I talked with editors of newspapers at Yale, Wesleyan and other peer institutions, and discovered that the Review is actually somewhat unique in paying all of its editors, and in being funded by the school. From the editor-in-chief of The Grape (Oberlin's alternative newspaper), I heard the unexpected opinion that student editors should be satisfied with the benefits of a padded resume, and not expect wages. From editors at Brown and WashU-St. Louis I realized that a newspaper's financial independence from school funding could mean something more important: journalistic independence from institutional oversight. And I even got a quote from Michael Duffy '80, who said he always felt lucky that the SFC gave so much money to the Review when he was a budding young journalist there.
Here's an excerpt from the version of my op-ed that ran in Headwaters:
As a former Review editor myself, it pains me to write this part. When I was first hired as an editor, the promotion itself was all I needed; the pay was icing on the cake. It was a modest amount--some $35 a week--but as I began to spend upwards of 15 hours a week working on the paper I felt ever more justified in earning that money. Being an editor requires stamina and attention to detail. It's an exhausting job if you're doing it right. It's hard for me to say with certainty that all of my colleagues and I would have worked as hard as we did without getting paid.
At Headwaters, the nature of our topics and audience put us in a separate category. Nobody gets paid, but we have been able to attract editors regardless, because people here are passionate about environmentalism. We have yet to run an advertisement in our first two issues, though not for lack of trying. We are grateful to receive funding from SFC, as well as generous donations from organizations like the EnviroAlums, Sustainability Office and the Environmental Studies Department.
From what I have seen at the Review and Headwaters, a lack of stipends can be linked to a lack of expedience and efficiency in production. I think that the closer a position is to feeling like a job, rather than a volunteer duty, the higher it will be prioritized in the student's schedule. Also, when you can pay people to do the dirty work--advertising management, distribution, fundraising--it opens up more time and energy for the editors and writers to do what they're best at. From the experience of building up this magazine this semester, we can authoritatively say that this is no small factor.
It is hard to say how much stipends could improve the diversity of our staff, but as it stands now, all of us are white, and most of us are female. Of course this is likely also a reflection of Oberlin College demographics, and possibly even of the modern environmental movement.
As a magazine we hope to find more sources of revenue in the near future. Besides not offering stipends, we still lack an office or even a single piece of equipment we can call our own. But we are confident that with a semester of solid work to show, we should be able to qualify for grants, attract advertisers and woo donors.
As with the Review, not having the amount of money we desire simply means we have to work harder to get to where we want to be. That learning experience is why we're here after all, right?
While I started off feeling outraged that the Review would be losing support, I ended up seeing that it wasn't the end of the world; it was instead the beginning of a necessary evolution. I believe that the paper will emerge from this challenge stronger than before, thanks to the dedication and ingenuity of its staffers.
Speaking of reflections, watching a video of yourself being interviewed is a flattering but humbling experience. A friend of mine, Ava Henderson, and her friend (and Headwaters artist) Rachel Saudek recently put together a video for an environmental studies class in which they interviewed different types of people from the College and town about their personal beliefs on climate change. Entitled "Gathering Local Perspective on Climate Change," it's an eight-minute look into the environmental beliefs of everyone from a ten-year-old kid to a hairstylist to a college professor. They asked about ... well, you should just watch the video. I'm the bearded guy with the monotone voice and the mindblowingly profound comments!
On Saturday morning I spoke on a panel called Greening Oberlin: Student Perspectives and Activities. Hosted by my friend Pete Sabo '11 and EnviroAlums co-chair Carl McDaniel '64, the panel featured a few of the many students working to effect environmental change at Oberlin: a member of the Resource Conservation Team, which does projects like redistributing students' unwanted belongings to those who want them at the end of the year and improving composting efforts on campus; a student who helped establish a vegetable garden at Johnson House that will be worked by students and sell produce to Campus Dining Services; a leading member of the Coal Working Group, which is working to get Oberlin to stop running on coal power; a member of the Green Edge Fund, which finances sustainability and energy efficiency projects on campus; and Headwaters co-founder Erika Zarowin, who is helping start up non-profits in environmental urban revitalization.
The panel provided such a special opportunity for us student activists to see that we are not alone; to the contrary, we are part of a long line of Oberlin activists optimistic at heart and proactive in spirit. Among the many questions asked of us by the primarily alumni audience came advice and even pleas to never succumb to the creeping influence of cynicism. One man who graduated in the early 1960s stood up, he said, "not only to be better heard but also to salute you." He said his generation fought for civil rights, the next one rallied against the Vietnam War, and now we're mobilizing effectively on the most important issue of our time.
Another alum I met at the end of the panel discussion is now a professor of environmental history at the University of Michigan. We chatted for awhile, and he told me that a friend of his from his Oberlin days had left halfway through his senior year to work on the 1960 campaign of... John F. Kennedy. For the last few decades the man has been an environmental lobbyist, and soon he may be the subject of a Headwaters interview!
This celebration of our and other Obies' non-academic achievements brought me to the realization that, while manual labor at Oberlin is a thing of the past, the school's "learning and labor" motto still fits well for many of us. The original form of student labor was in the construction, maintenance, and support of the College around its 1833 founding. But it soon became apparent that putting students to work in the fields for four hours a day was inefficient both economically and educationally. "To discuss first principles became their pastime," wrote President Fairchild. "They rested on their hoes in the cornfield to look into their inner consciousness, and the manual labor cause suffered in the interest of philosophy." While extra-curricular and academic activities certainly steal time and energy from each other, at Oberlin we like to think that the two reinforce each other to make the world a better place.
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December 2, 2021