In the wake of the presidential election earlier this month, student organizing and activism on campus has swelled to address the concerns brought about by the proposed policies of the president-elect.
On Nov. 15, over 100 students crowded into the Scheuer Room for the first of two interest meetings dedicated to coalition building and strategizing about avenues for action both on campus and beyond. The second of these meetings took place two days after the first. The organizers of the meeting, Priya Dieterich ’18 and Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, hoped that these gatherings would provide a space to effectively channel the fervor for action that has grown within the student body in recent weeks and generate ideas about how to fortify the college community for the coming years.
“Aru and I independently had the idea of holding a meeting to connect different students who want to organize. When I found out about her meeting, we joined forces and co-facilitated these two meetings. I have seen and heard about — and personally felt — so much anger, frustration, and energy in the last week or so, and I wanted to help us collectively make the step towards concrete action,” Dieterich said.
In her description of the event on Facebook, Shiney-Ajay emphasized the intersectional focus of the meeting and the diverse motivations that brought students into that space.
“People from vastly different political and personal backgrounds stand against Trump — from groups focused on identity to groups focused on party politics. In order to effectively organize, we must, at least, be aware of various efforts. Tactical disagreement is encouraged,” she wrote.
A brainstorming session among the entire group was followed by small-group discussions in which more concrete action plans were formulated. Topics raised in these discussions included an increased institutional support for college staff, a student-led course derived from reading lists released by Black Lives Matter and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a renewed campaign for fossil fuel divestment, and a social justice academic distribution requirement.
“A lot of really great ideas were brought up at the meetings: [ideas] about how we can organize both on campus and off, about how to leverage our power and privilege as students, about how to responsibly and respectfully plug into existing activist work in our communities, about how to honor our commitments to social justice as an institution,” Dieterich said.
Among the plans voiced at the Nov. 15 meeting was a school-wide walkout scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 17 at noon. Swarthmore joined over 80 other colleges across the country in campus-wide walkouts, which were organized by students in coordination with Movimiento Cosecha, a nonviolent movement dedicated to protecting the rights of immigrant populations in the United States.
At Swarthmore on Wednesday, hundreds of students gathered in front of Parrish Hall to demand that the college become a Sanctuary Campus, thereby providing institutional support to undocumented community members. The specific stipulations of a Sanctuary Campus include measures such as a special advisor for undocumented students, financial support for legal procedures that undocumented students may need to undergo, and a commitment to protecting undocumented community members from law enforcement officials such as U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
Just after noon, in front of an audience of students, faculty, staff, and other community members, Jordan Reyes ’19 led the group in chants and served as a sort of moderator for the student speakers at the event, all of whom drew upon personal experiences as undocumented or Latinx people whose security is directly endangered by the Trump administration.
“This event was, more than anything, a showing of solidarity and support for any group that may be targeted in the coming months and years, more specifically the Latinx community and undocumented students,” Reyes said, following the event.
Wednesday’s walkout was just one of a series of actions that students have undertaken to pressure the college to become a Sanctuary Campus.
Killian McGinnis ’19 was responsible for drafting the petition for a Sanctuary Campus that has, at the point of publication, garnered nearly 2,000 signatures from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other community members. The petition will be presented to the Board of Managers at their upcoming meeting this Saturday, Dec. 2.
McGinnis says that the she is hopeful about the prospect of a Sanctuary Campus at Swarthmore.
“Students, faculty members, and administrators alike have devoted time and collaborative energy to thinking critically about what it would mean to make Swarthmore a Sanctuary Campus, and I would be surprised and disappointed if the Board’s decision didn’t reflect the widespread community support of the initiative,” said McGinnis.
In addition to creating the petition, McGinnis has been collaborating with a group of students who identify as undocumented and Latinx, co-led by Miguel Gutierrez ’18 and Ivan Lomeli ’19,
to formulate a faculty resolution to support the movement for a Sanctuary Campus. According to Lomeli, this resolution outlines the ways in which members of the faculty and staff at the college can continue to support the undocumented student population.
Lomeli underscored that the effort to make the college a Sanctuary Campus is critical to alleviate the acute threat that a Trump administration will pose to undocumented students, specifically pointing to the vulnerability of students who are protected by Presidents Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which President-elect Trump has denounced as an unconstitutional overreach of executive power, and which he has publicly promised to overturn. DACA allows undocumented young people who entered the U.S. before the age of 16 to obtain a protected status, work permit, and social security number for two years at a time after a lengthy application process that costs $465 and is most often underwent without an attorney.
“The undocumented population on campus, of which most but not all, benefit from DACA, worried about what would happen if their benefits were taken away. Many, including myself, were discouraged from studying abroad to prevent being stuck outside of the country in case DACA was removed,” Lomeli said.
Furthermore, DACA impacts a student’s life beyond their tenure at the college. Lomeli pointed out that, were DACA to be repealed, its beneficiaries would no longer be able to work legally in the United States.
“The list of workplaces that sponsor employees to citizenship is very small and not at all promising,” he said.
Lomeli stressed that the walkout, the petition, and the faculty resolution affirmed a feeling of support and solidarity from the college that was much appreciated, and he, like McGinnis, hoped that this support would translate into a formal decision by the Board of Managers on Saturday.
“The faculty and staff, along with the many people whose energy and hope have been put into this Sanctuary Campus movement, await the response of the Board of Managers. If the Board of Managers chooses to ignore our plea, it will have to silence more than just the undocumented students on campus as there is a community standing behind us,” he said.
In addition to the movement for a Sanctuary Campus, a diverse array of student groups on campus have organized other solidarity actions in direct response to the presidential election and in support of those who will be most affected by the election.
In one such display of solidarity, students and several members of the administration met on Wednesday to participate in a national day of Jewish resistance declared by IfNotNow, a movement of American Jewish youth dedicated to progressive political causes. Marissa Cohen ’17 and Mira Revesz ’17, who organized the action, stated that it was meant to call on the Jewish establishment, the U.S. government, and any other institution claiming to represent the interests of young American Jews to prioritize human rights and dignity above all else.
“We stood as Jewish students and allies to uphold the lesson of ‘never again’ for every targeted community and challenged our communal institutions to do the same. We ask these institutions to condemn Trump and Bannon and stand up against anti-Semitism and white supremacy of any kind,” said Cohen and Revesz in a joint statement.
While the spike in student mobilization is discernible to many in the college community, it is not without precedent. Professor of sociology Lee Smithey drew connections between the kind of energy he is currently witnessing to the spring of 2013, often called the “Spring of Discontent,” which was also marked by heightened student mobilization and activism, saying that he sees the two periods as united by a distinct sense of fear and threat. However, Smithey was careful to note that the stakes and the particular political conditions of the two periods are markedly different.
“The presidential election is a much higher profile, really world-historical event, so the concern and even fear among many people is more widespread. It has stirred concerns about student experiences as well as larger national political concerns. President-elect Trump’s rhetoric about ending DACA, for example, has brought these worlds together: our daily life at the college and national politics,” Smithey said.
Smithey also emphasized that this period of student organizing in the face of the election is still in its infancy, and will likely evolve to meet the urgent needs and concerns of that will become more apparent as Donald Trump takes office.
“It feels a little early to characterize what student mobilization, or faculty or staff mobilization for that matter, is really like or is going to be like,” Smithey said.
However, while acknowledging that the full picture of student activism has yet to come into focus, Smithey expressed cautious optimism at the ability of the student body and the Swarthmore community at large to address these needs in an intersectional, multidimensional way.
“I do recall being impressed during that first organizing meeting at what seemed to be a real willingness among the students there to work in cooperation with one another across different groups and different interests and different concerns. That will take careful work — to continue with that kind of strategic care — and I think it will be really interesting to see if we can sustain that.”
In the final weeks of the semester, the work of student organizers will continue to include, among other endeavors, phone banking against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the state-sponsored violence against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a solidarity march through the town of Swarthmore, and, no matter what the decision of the Board of Managers, the realization of a Sanctuary Campus at the college. Thus, while it remains to be seen how student organizing will adjust and respond to the impending presidential administration, the current climate of activism shows no signs of cooling in the immediate future.