Student activists discuss motivations, obstacles on campus

A sizeable population of students at the College is deeply dissatisfied with at least some aspect of campus life. Some seek to reform sexual assault reporting policies, divest the endowment from fossil fuels, raise awareness of police brutality or bring about one of several other changes. The variety of distinct causes encompassed by the term “activism” makes it difficult to describe a broader culture, or even common traits between different strains of student activism. This is the first installment in a series on student activism, which will attempt to do just that – to gauge the current atmosphere and culture of activism on campus by interviewing individual students, administrators and other members of the community.

Motivation

“Activism is the action of taking risks,” justin adkins, assistant director of the Davis Center, said. “With civil disobedience, there’s an underlying understanding that you risk being arrested. By writing an op-ed, you risk having people disagree with you. Standing up for what you believe in is risky.”

Campus activists risk being ostracized by their peers when they write articles or post on social media. They risk being punished by the College when they climb on buildings to hang banners. Many students, however, are willing accept these risks in the name of a cause. In many cases, they are motivated to do so by their own self-interest. They are often uncomfortable at the College and seek to create spaces they and others can occupy at Williams.

“It took me a long time to become comfortable and a lot of what I’m concerned about is why I had such a hard learning curve getting adjusted to Williams,” Susie Paul ’16 said. “I hope I can do something with my actions or my words that I put out there to maybe make sure another Susie Paul doesn’t have to go through what I went through my freshman year … I want to make the community safer for me and others like me, and if that’s selfish, then so be it.”

Paul has worked with the Feminist Collective (under its former name, the Women’s Collective), South Asian Student Alliance and Converging Worlds. Paul said that she felt unwelcome at the College because she is a first-generation College student, and was frustrated with the reporting process for sexual assault cases. She said that her interactions with students and faculty often reinforced the ways in which she already felt victimized. 

“What hurt me was when a dean in Hopkins Hall said ‘I’m always scared for women who drink because you never know what’s going to happen to them,’ which is both victim blaming and slut shaming. Those are the things that had me crying at the door of Hopkins. When I think about what hurt me the most, it’s the words from people I care about and respect and who I see over and over again and the way they’re reinforced when I get these words and these jabs,” Paul said.

At the same time Yazmine Nichols ’15 was matriculating to the College, her friend from the low-income neighborhood where she grew up wrote to inform her that he was entering the prison system. Nichols continued the correspondence and founded Converging Worlds to raise awareness of the prison system and to provide students the opportunity to communicate with incarcerated people.

“First, I realized that I’m privileged being at Williams, that I have access to an education that most people from my neighborhood don’t. Second, I had this epiphany and I knew that I wanted to open this up to the College and give others a chance to engage with people who tend to be marginalized in society.”

Isy Abraham-Raveson ’15, co-chair of the Feminist Collective, came to the College wanting to get involved with activism, but got more involved in her junior year.

“If you’re the person who’s always pointing out racism and sexism, then people stop talking to you. So I stopped being in my entry. [The entry] was one of the first times I felt very silenced as a woman. That made it very exciting to find a feminist community that wanted to listen to me and I wanted to listen to.”

Backlash

One of the most significant risks activists accept is criticism from students who oppose the causes they take up. During debates about issues such as Chance the Rapper’s planned Spring Fling performance, Bloomberg speaking at Commencement and the “Taco Six,” students, often on Yik-Yak or Facebook, accused campus activists of being hypersensitive or using inappropriate methods to raise awareness. In turn, activists suggested that this response stemmed from an inability to sympathize with oppressed groups and pointed to a reluctance of people with who identify with dominant cultures to admit to and forfeit their privilege.

“There are two distinct types of students not interested in activism,” adkins said. “Some care about the issues but won’t be actively involved in them. Each social movement isn’t for everyone and that’s fine, we don’t need or even want everyone to be an activist. I don’t even know what that would look like, and not everyone has to agree. It makes us better activists when we have people push back against us. Then there’s another level, people who say these aren’t issues we should be talking about as students. A lot of shifts and changes have come from student activism. And as far as saying Williams, or any place, isn’t a place for activism, that becomes very problematic.”

Some students disagree with the methods student activists employ. An op-ed posted to the Williams Alternative on Jan. 20, “Cyberbullying Isn’t Activism: The Limits of Social Media,” claimed “this reaction to ignorance and cultural insensitivity devolved into a vicious witch hunt. An opportunity to teach had somehow turned into an arena for cyberbullying.”

adkins explained that although micro-aggressions by nature are neither malicious nor intentional, they reinforce stereotypes and systems of oppressions that harm minority groups. He also cautioned that belonging to a minority group does not make someone responsible for educating others about what is offensive. Because people with non-dominant identity markers already suffer from oppression, the burden to educate should not be on them unless they willingly accept it. Defending one’s self constantly can become painful. Paul said that students have a right to speak out when something offends them and urged students to realize that it is understandable for victims of oppression to be emotionally upset by offensive acts. 

“I’m not saying that Taco Six was or wasn’t cyberbullying on the part of people of color. [Cyberbullying] shouldn’t even be the main topic of conversation and I don’t think it was. But I think that we forget that people who we’re talking to are people in and of themselves. I think when we yak about people who are trying to bring injustices to light and we call them names about behind their back, we forget that they’re suffering through and from systemic and institutional forms of oppression,” Paul said. “We think of them as hyperaware, hypersensitive minorities and that’s harmful to minority students and to those who are speaking out. I think we could all be nicer to each other and remember that we’re all students. Whenever someone comes out as an activist it doesn’t mean we can pigeonhole them into being the stereotype of an angry minority.”

Divest Williams’ activism elicits both offhand remarks about students who are annoyed by the groups many posters and banners and more thoughtful criticism.

“I think we deal with two different types of backlash,” Sarah Vukelich ‘16, co-founder of Divest Williams, said. “On one level, there’s emotional backlash. As humans, when our views are challenged, we have automatic neurological responses of fear and of protecting our worldviews. This kind of backlash can have a much more negative personal impact when it comes to issues of race, class and gender. With divestment it doesn’t get so fraught and hurtful, it’s just frustrating. But it’s also not an insurmountable obstacle. On the other hand, there’s intellectual backlash, like the op-eds that were written. It is helpful to have the financial concerns really thoughtfully expressed … But it’s frustrating because ethically divestment is not a two-sided issue. Although the details of how we divest are important, we can get trapped in the minutiae and it keeps us as a community from engaging in the crucial ethical arguments.”

One reason activists experience backlash may be because their goals require individuals to surrender some of their privilege.

“I think it’s insane to say to someone that they’re being too sensitive … because what people are asking for is basic respect” Abraham-Raveson said. “This is a place with enormous privilege, and privilege means being able to do whatever you want. People with privilege see the concept of a social honor code or someone saying ‘please don’t say that or hurt or offend me’ as having a little less privilege, and that’s true. To be truly anti-racist or feminist you have to be willing to accept a little less privilege and one way to do that is you can’t just say whatever pops into your head because that might be something racist. I don’t have any patience for that argument. What you’re arguing is that saying whatever you want is more important than not hurting people who are already systematically hurt and oppressed.”

Insensitivity

Many campus activists do not aim to change College policy or national law, and instead seek to educate peers about social injustice. They cited casual cruelty and insensitivity as some of the greatest obstacles they face and expressed a desire for students to simply be kinder and more respectful towards one another.

“It’s our job to create a safer environment for all students. We need to think about what we do and how we say things. It’s not a political issue, it’s a question of respecting your fellow students,” adkins said.

Nichols said that organizing the Die-In, an event last fall that intended to raise awareness of police brutality, was one of the hardest times for her at the College because some students did not respect what she was trying to accomplish.

“I was personally laying on the ground [to symbolize someone killed by the police] and someone almost stepped on me. I know a lot of people were actually almost stepped on. So for a lot of people that was a traumatic experience and when I found out about it I was angry too. I wasn’t aware someone almost stepped on me until another student told me they were having difficulty drawing around me because someone was almost stepping on me and the person doing the stepping was unwilling to move out of the way,” Nichols said.

Insensitivity in the classroom also has the potential to hurt students, and faculty are equally capable of doing harm.

“A lot of professors aren’t totally equipped to deal with issues of race, gender and class,” Abraham-Raveson said. “I was in an English class where we read ‘Lolita’ and the professor said, ‘Isn’t it darkly hilarious that her rapist becomes her father?’ And I said no, in fact I know people at this school whose rapists are their fathers and if they were in this class that would be deeply triggering and traumatic, so no, I don’t think that’s a funny joke.”

“I’m in Zambezi and I had a conflict with the Dance Department about makeup. I had just learned in WGSS [women, gender and sexuality studies] 101 about feminine beauty ideals and body policing. As someone with an eating disorder, that made so much sense to me. Then during tech week for Zambezi, someone in teh costume shop told me to put makeup on and I said ‘I’ll put makeup on if the boys put makeup on. If it’s about light reflecting off our faces then I’ll be happy to do it.’ She said she only wanted the girls to put makeup on, so I didn’t do it. For some reason they freaked out to proportions I have not seen from adults since I left high school. A Dance professor told me I was ‘fucked up’ … eventually we all put on makeup, including the boys, and they freaked out about that too. They just yelled and told me I was a bad person, a disrespectful person, a fucked up person.”

Apathy

There may be a large group of passionate and motivated activists on campus, but student support for their work may be limited. Nichols experienced this problem when she tried to organize a pen pal exchange for Converging Worlds. Of the 30 students who signed up to be pen pals, none followed through.

“Williams students prefer convenient activism. When people feel like they’re being inconvenienced in some way, they defer to academics. In this case, you have a chance to have a direct impact in someone’s life, but most Williams students would rather write a paper than write a letter to a pen pal, even though writing a letter is very simple and not time-consuming,” Nichols said. “The hardest time for a person behind bars is mail time. Because most people in that situation even if say they’re being verbally and physically abused behind bars, they’re looking to connect with someone on the outside. It’s really depressing and disappointing when the mailman walks by your cell and you realize he doesn’t have mail for you. When you have a pen pal it’s even more discouraging because you have this expectation of being able to connect with someone else. I don’t think Williams students realize that for people inside, a letter isn’t just an activity you do, it’s a lifeline. It’s not just another club or extracurricular to put on your resume.”

adkins, however, did not think students at the College deserve that reputation.

“I’ve never been sold on the idea that our students are apathetic,” adkins said. “They just do activism in different ways, and you can find evidence of protest changing the culture far back in Williams history. The Davis Center exists because in the late 1980s students of color occupied these administrative buildings and demanded a multicultural center … Latino studies wasn’t a major here until several Latino students went on a hunger strike to have it created.”