“Activism” is a loaded word. It brings to mind both selfless advocacy and selfish savior complexes, both unifying commitment and divisive action. The more politically fraught the focus, the more difficult it becomes to approach advocacy in ways that build community rather than divide it, that respond to actual needs rather than imagined ones. It is a challenge our refugee advocacy group has faced over the past year, and by sharing our experiences, we hope to begin a dialogue around action-oriented activism; there are students leading fantastic social impact initiatives all across campus, and we have much to learn from one another’s insights.
Refugee Advocates is our campus chapter of the national No Lost Generation network. Founded last year by Jonathon Burne ’17 and Bushra Ali ’17, Refugee Advocates aims to support those affected by the global refugee crisis through education, in-kind support and fundraising. Last year, with the invaluable help of our advisor at the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA), Colin Ovitsky, we interviewed local refugees for a “Refugees of the Berkshires” film, hosted movie screenings and panels and presented to several hundred high schoolers in Pittsfield, promoting dialogues around refugees both on campus and in our broader community.
As it has become clear that refugees will not be resettling in Pittsfield in the near future, our group has broadened its focus to respond to the community’s desire for education surrounding immigration. In the fall, we helped lead a professional development day for local teachers, presented to over 600 middle and high school students, hosted events on campus and created a document outlining ways to help refugees without leaving your room. A primary goal has been to form connections with local community members, and we particularly appreciate both the Berkshire Immigrant Center and the Four Freedoms Coalition for embracing and guiding our efforts.
Our approach is not perfect, and we have realized that we remain somewhat disconnected from the community in which we are situated. Moving forward, we hope to foster more two-way conversations with local residents and directly address their concerns and questions regarding refugees and immigrants. We have also realized the importance of engaging with parents because of the influences they exert on their children.
Meanwhile, we hope to host events on campus that explore career paths related to advocacy and social impact. We have noticed a trend in which students engage in social justice clubs or organizations extracurricularly, but few consider careers that continue this important work beyond college campuses. Most on-campus recruiting events fall under the categories of consulting, finance and other private sector work. In the spring semester, we are planning to invite back to campus Burne, our group’s founder, who is currently an Immigrant Justice Corps community fellow at the National Immigrant Justice Center. We are also inviting a local writer, Jana Laiz, who was a caseworker at the International Rescue Committee working in refugee resettlement, to give a lecture on her career.
In a TED Talk given by Sisonke Msimang, an activist and writer on issues of human rights and migration, she talks about how stories are limited; “Stories can create an illusion of solidarity,” Msimang said. “There is nothing like that feel-good factor you get from listening to a fantastic story where you feel like you climbed that mountain or that you befriended that death row inmate. But you didn’t. You haven’t done anything. Listening is an important but insufficient step towards social action.” Action-oriented activism fills the gap between the stories that make our hearts wrench and our privileged Purple Bubble in Williamstown.
Julie Geng ’19 is an economics and Arabic studies double major from Shanghai, China. Emma Lezberg ’20 is from Pittsfield, Mass.