What Did I Learn from Oberlin Anyway? Despair and Defiance.
Violence and grief are everywhere this month.
Grown Americans screaming for endangered orphans to be sent back to their home countries, where they daily face assault or death.1 The deliberate bombing of Gazan civilians in schools and hospitals.2 A passenger plane shot down, killing hundreds, including infants and AIDS researchers.3
Even the machinery of justice itself seems broken. The impossible news of the Hobby Lobby ruling4 eclipsed the act of stunning hypocrisy in which the Supreme Court justices ruled that buffer zones in front of Massachusetts women's health clinics were illegal;5 its own buffer zone — five times larger — remains intact.6
Amidst all the pain of the world, what's an Obie to do?
I turn back to the lessons Oberlin taught me, beginning with this:
Evil is all around us.
You are complicit in the systems of evil, from which you benefit.
In the suffering of the underprivileged, in the grief of mothers and the starvation of children, I am involved. I'm not saying it's my fault that much of my food and almost all of my clothing has been made by slaves,9 or that I ate cows fed corn from cropland that could have fed humans,10 or that my family's tax money funds warlords. I didn't know. But I know now.
The culture of Oberlin encourages self-reflection, especially on matters of privilege. 12 Racism, classism and sexism all directly benefit me even as they impoverish all of us.13 I have been further privileged to have been spared — so far — the direct effects of climate change.14
Some say privilege-checking goes too far; I disagree. I can't say that this knowledge has made me any happier, and I hesitate even to claim that it's made me more effective. Although I am less likely to do harm out of ignorance, I am more likely to be paralyzed, knowing now that that I know very little. But I believe that it is necessary to know that I have blood on my hands.
However: it is somewhat disingenious — and worse, counterproductive15 — to focus only on personal responsibility while letting industry off the hook. The webs of inequality and injustice are vast. They are woven not only by the ignorance of "average Americans" but by the machinations of the powerful, many of whom work hard to conceal their actions.16 It's not just a matter of cleansing my own hands. I know we must work together to force the mighty into the river and fish the impoverished out of the flood.
I don't know.
But Oberlin has taught me:
We can make change. You can help.
This is not a matter of fact, but of faith. I refuse to believe that there will always be children working to exhaustion to make toys and clothes for luckier children elsewhere. I refuse to believe that poverty is necessary to wealth, that famine and plague are inevitable.
This faith trembles and quakes in the face of climate change. I don't care. I have to keep fighting.
Oberlin has given me many, many models. Gloria Steinem, Ishmael Beah, Wendell Berry, Toni Morrison, Janet Mock, Philip Rutter: as an Obie, I've had the honor of seeing, in person, these heroes of our time.17 And my peers are poised to join them: from holding our own administration accountable,18 to promoting global justice, current students and recent grads are carrying the torch. Here is a very small sampling of the work my friends and peers are doing right now:
My friend Mia is the Development Officer at Sojourner House in Rochester, which provides supportive and transitional housing to women and families.
My friend Hilary cofounded the Mountain Garden Initiative, which helps schools in eastern Kentucky start educational gardens. Recently the Letcher Farmers Market became the first place in the country to provide "free meals cooked onsite from market vegetables" to kids, many of whom rely on free or reduced meals to eat lunch during the school year.19
My friend Anita is living in a small community of post-undergraduate women that focuses, through ten-month fellowships, on religious social justice work. (Because it's her home, I'm not giving details, but it looks wonderful.) She'll be working with an area nonprofit.
My friend John, firebrand and champion organizer, is currently working with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, which reduces violence and provides support to local peacemakers around the world.
My friends Ari, Sarah, Lila, Noah, Jamie, Rae, Ben, and many others are doing science of many types to understand and improve the world; Emily and Alicia are working in wildlife rehab; Ray, Eli, and Elizabeth are studying medicine. Many others, all of whom I cannot name,20 are doing vital work at home and abroad.
Contrary to Oberlin's former slogan, none of us is going to change the world on our own. We each work in increments. Will it be enough? Factually: I don't know. Faithfully: it has to be.
I defy the "realists," who try to balance profit with the life of the world, or who shrink into hopelessness at the state of things. I defy the powerful and the complacent, the cynical and the corrupt.
I am cynical and complacent myself sometimes, but looking to the peacemakers gives me hope, something to follow: candles on the water, shedding light.
Lately I've stayed up nights worrying about the world. I want to throw light into the darkness, too, but I don't know where to begin. Years ago I picked "climate change" as the worst threat and "farmer" as the intersection between my joy and the world's needs. I didn't consider justice work or social work because I thought I would hate an office job. Now I'm not so sure. Farming sustainably is important, but is it as important as labor reform, or animal rights activism, or drug rehabilitation? There is so much work to do, and I have the time and privilege to do almost any of it. So, I'm officially taking advice. Feel free to email me.
But on this I do not waver: the work must be done, can be done, and will be done. Despite everything.
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Footnotes and Sources
Adults courageously screaming at buses full of children
Most Americans support sheltering kids instead of rushing to deport them
July 24th: bombing of UN school deliberate
Ceasefire holding as of publish date
CNN's summary of the known facts
AIDS researchers on board
New York Times article on Hobby Lobby and corporate personhood
Boston Globe article about the ruling
The irony of the Court's decision
Edward Goldsmith on Famine
New York Times on the catalysis of epidemics
Salon article about the ubiquity of sweatshops in garment manufacture
Cornell article about the inefficiency of grain-fed meat
The events of March 4th catalyzed a campus-wide reflection. Here are responses by Paris, Dara, Margaret, Chinwe, Ida and Simba.
I think it's important when reflecting on the state of the world to recognize my position in it, and the ways in which systems of injustice advantage me personally. I became aware of them at Oberlin and the knowledge will go with me, reminding me to fight harder.
Racism is so pervasive that I don't know all the ways in which it has advantaged me, and it's impossible to figure it out: race and poverty are inextricably linked due to discrimination. If I were black, traffic stops would be between 1.8 and 3.4 times more likely to end in my arrest and 2.1 and 5 times more likely to involve the use of force, even though I would not be more likely to be carrying contraband.
Classism is not just wealth — it's heartbreakingly obvious that rich people (and I am one, although I didn't know it growing up) have better opportunities and higher standards of living than the poor — but also the pernicious idea that poverty is a failing of will, effort, or ability. I never knew that I believed it too. It's not like my parents raised me to be classist. We rarely talked about wealth; we volunteered to feed the hungry; we pay school fees for a girl in Guatemala, Diana, through a wonderful organization called Common Hope. But I believed that success is a product of hard work and ability, that that's all it takes. So I believed its darker corollary. Now I know better.
Sexism is trickier due to personal circumstances, but it must be mentioned, since it directly disadvantages 50% of the world's population (and, like classism and racism, indirectly disadvantages even the powerful, by depriving us all of the great things that underprivileged folks could have been doing if not repeatedly smacked down). I am aware of sexism in the world at large and in my own beloved field in ways that would have shocked pre-Oberlin me.
Perhaps the greatest advantage: to be living in the brief golden era of the fossil fuel industry, causes worse famine than ever seen before, and wreaks general havoc.
This incisive piece by Derrick Jensen maintains that living the simple life is not a sufficient substitute for political action. I highly recommend it.
GM concealed ignition defect, killing 12
It turns out to be really difficult to Google uncovered corporate lies if you don't already know the companies involved. These are just a couple I remember hearing about at the time.
Gloria Steinem: an in-depth article on Ms. magazine and Tess on Steinem's visit to campus
Ishmael Beah: Leslie Braat on a talk given Ishmael and his mentor Dan Chaon in NYC
Wendell Berry: a biography and my favorite of his poems
Toni Morrison: Yitka on Morrison's 2009 convocation and Chinwe on her 2012 visit
Janet Mock: her official website
Philip Rutter: Badgersett's website
Oberlin Transparency Project
Recent campaign to prevent OSCAns and people with smaller meal plans from suffering a reduction in financial aid
Summer feeding program first in nation
Some of them are working undercover or on direct action; those brave workers I definitely cannot name.
You can find more blogs about activism here and more about post-Oberlin life here. As well as the posts about March 4th linked above, some of the many excellent posts that may be of interest include: Ma'ayan's post about the visit of another luminary (not to Oberlin, alas, but not at all far away); Ida's reflections on her activism journey here (Confessions of a Student Activist) and here (A Happy End?); sounds of protest by Ali; and posts from five years out by Yitka '09 and Alice '09, both of whom are doing cool things.