Change you can believe in

Fact: a civically active lifestyle can confer long-term health benefits.
Just look at John McCain, my friends. After 40 years of service to his country, McCain is still able to endure a grueling presidential selection process at the early-bird-special-followed-by-bingo age of 72.

So, my friends, after all the screaming of “OBAMAAAAA” in the middle of the night has died down, the big question buzzing in everyone’s overstuffed heads is, “What now?”
Post-election, post-“beerack” party, what will you do with your official Obama stand-up cardboard fold-out or your deluxe talking Barack Obama bobble-head? You may still have the rabid urge to affect change, but how, as a mere college student, will you do it?

My answer may round a little anti-climactic to you, but stay with me.

Local politics.

It might conjure up images of local community access channels featuring yawn-inducing school committee meetings – complete with that nagging guilt for being so bored – but these decisions made on the local level, though not glamorous, are as critically important to the well-being of our community as decisions from D.C. or Beacon Hill.
Go volunteer for the Williamstown Council on Aging. But you’re interested in public health? That’s ok; help the Health Board. Tax Law? There’s a tax collector. Conservation? Great. Cemetery and Parks. Though not all departments will be looking for help, it will nevertheless be eye-opening how much we overlook the immediate and direct effects of town government on the daily lives of residents.

In fact, this is a point greatly stressed by President-elect Obama. By recognizing the importance of activism from the ground up, he acknowledges the power of everyday interaction. Town government, being the level of government closest to the ground, is the closest public manifestation of this concept.

Local activism doesn’t have to be just that though. You don’t have to martyr yourself by helping some seniors or picking up other people’s trash. An alternate possibility can have direct tangible benefits on you and Williams students in general. By this I mean getting involved in local politics to improve the quality of life of the student body. As a group that resides in Williamstown nine of twelve months for four years, we should be able to have a say in how the town is run on matters that affect us.

Today, as I see it, the biggest way that local activism can bring real tangible results is by improving student’s access to goods at fair prices.

The town should introduce market-based measures to lower prices. Goods on Spring Street are grossly overpriced, probably due to the fact that the space zoned for commerce is so small that competition is limited. As a result, students who find themselves too busy to make the trek out to North Adams, which is very often, are stuck with buying at higher prices that they can ill-afford. Businesses recognize this all too easily. This problem is even worse for first-years, who are not allowed to bring cars to campus – though this is the College’s fault. The town should relax its laws and allow more competition on Spring Street to provide relief.

Opponents of this attitude may argue that bringing in more business (which will probably be chain stores) will damage the “culture” of the town. However, greater competition does not necessarily involve the specter of big business. One proposal floated last year, the establishment of a College grocery store, was withdrawn after objections from Spring Street businesses (a question that still perplexes me – why do we care?). Furthermore, a “culture” that effectively puts the economic burden on a segment of the regular population is hard to justify in this modern age. Simply put, the current state of shopping on Spring Street is unfair to students.

As a matter of fact, let me raise the ante. The College should actively represent us to the town to help us affect some of these real changes. Though students may not qualify for any sort of official capacity in governance, the College, as a central part of the town, has considerable muscle that it is unwilling to flex, a Lennie Small of sorts. As the episode with the grocery store shows, too often, it seems, it is passive in advancing our interests. That needs to change.

We’ve all heard horror stories about how colleges grossly mistreat their towns – this is probably why the college does not want to wade into these waters – and I’m certain that some residents will see the changes I propose as threatening. But it does not have to be this way. Our President-elect says that “only together can we solve our problems and heal our differences.” I am confident that this is not a zero-sum game and it does not need to be treated as such.

Mo Zhu ’11 is from Belmont, Mass. He lives in Brooks.

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