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A nerd goes to Washington

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The rain pounded us and we slipped in the mud.  When I held up the protest sign, the cold water poured down my sleeve and ran all the way down to my socks.  I nibbled on a soggy sandwich and asked myself why the heck I was standing here.  Why did I spend the last two months planning and organizing buses to take students and Swarthmore community members to the March for Science?  Why was I standing in the rain in a distant city with a plastic sign scrawled in Sharpie? The answer, for me, was fear and hope.

Fear.

I’m scared.  I just lectured in Bio 2 (our introductory biology course) on extinction rates and global warming.  I went to the scientific literature, preparing to write my lecture for Bio 2 from scratch with an open mind.  Even without global warming, the outlook is bleak as a result of environmental destruction.  Add in global warming, and we really are on the precipice of a sixth mass extinction, one that could surpass the extinction that killed the dinosaurs.  Let that sink in for a moment. Humans are killing off species at a faster rate than the extinction triggered by a six-mile-wide asteroid.

And yet, we can’t even get the people in power to listen to facts.  Climate change is a problem, vaccines save lives and do not cause autism; these are facts that are scientifically verified, tested, retested, and yet the current administration and many in Congress act as if these are debatable and subjective ideas. The solutions are complicated and we need people of all perspectives working on smart answers that solve the biological problems while also doing it in a fair and socially just manner.  The political conversation should be about how to deal with these problems, not about the fundamental scientific facts.  For me, one of the main messages of the March was a plea for rational, fact-based decision-making from our government.

I’m a nerd, and perhaps I’ve read too much dystopian science fiction, but my inner Orwell tells me to be very worried.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when the current administration put a gag order on our scientific agencies, but I still reeled from the news. When governments hide the truth, it is never a good sign.  Government scientists dedicate their careers to serving our country through their knowledge and expertise of the natural world.  We need to know what they are discovering and how it could impact our country.  Our tax dollars pay their salaries and now they aren’t even allowed to tell us what they are finding. The recent proposed budget cuts to scientific agencies are also terrifying. Cutting the budget of the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent will slow the development of the cure for cancer.  Gutting the EPA will keep us from understanding the effects of fracking on drinking water.  How can we stop global warming if the Department of Energy’s research into alternative fuels is cut by 44 percent?  How are the science students I’m training going to find jobs if research is no longer a national priority?

And so, I asked the local chapter of Sigma Xi for funding, emailed bus companies, bought all the rain ponchos at Target, hung up posters, and stood in the mud because I am afraid of the future of science and of our democracy.

Hope.

I love science.  I love the nerdy facts, the awkward people, and the goofy fun that happens when people spend hours and hours to help each other add one more number to a spreadsheet just to answer a rudimentary question.  I love the excitement people get when they discover something new, no matter how small.  I love that scientists gasp out loud when beautifully elegant results are unveiled at a conference.  I have hope that if we are smart enough and loud enough and if scientists can effectively share our love of discovery with the public, we can actually save the world.

I hope that the energy generated by the March for Science and similar acts of resistance inspires students to spend their lives making a lasting impact.  Swarthmore students go on to do great things.  One of the speakers at the podium was Christiana Figueres, an architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the previous Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. She was also a Swarthmore anthropology major who graduated in 1979.

I hope that the March for Science gets more Swarthmore students to vote.  In the 2012 Presidential election only 46.7% of Swarthmore students voted, less than the average of similar schools.  If there is one thing that should motivate Swarthmore students, it should be avoiding getting an F, even for voter turnout.  Come on! The issues surrounding the March for Science are important. They require everyone to pay attention and make informed choices about who is granted power. And it’s not enough to show up only for national races; we should be packing the polling stations for local elections too.

I hope that once finals are over (or maybe during reading week), students call or write to their local leaders.  I hope they can find common ground with those with whom they usually disagree.  Perhaps enough letters will convince a senator that science is good for jobs, good for democracy, and good for our health.  This weekend (while writing my final) I am going to write Senator Toomey and lay out why funding the NIH is important for the economy of Philadelphia.  This is not because the economy is necessarily my most pressing concern, but because I think it is a subject where there is common ground between us.

I also Marched for Science because I am hopeful we can make science into the universal enterprise it should be.  At the March, there were signs that read “science is universal” and “science is for everyone.” Although this should be true, science is hardly universal; billions of people don’t have access to the findings of science, its beneficial products, or even the chance to get a basic education in science.  We still have serious biases in our hiring and publishing practices. Systems of privilege and differences in economic opportunities to continue make success in science an uphill battle for many.  When the March for Science was announced, these problems came to the fore and forced the community to publicly address them.  The March organizers drafted principles of diversity, acknowledging that science is struggling with its own internal troubles even as we protest against science deniers. And there were hints of change at the March that gave me hope that we will make science better. Many people carried signs celebrating the contributions of scientists who have been ignored because of their identity, others proudly claimed their own identities on shirts and signs, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook coalesced around solutions for greater inclusion and outreach to the underserved.

This is not to say we won’t be discouraged. Even small acts, like organizing buses for a march can wear you down.  Many more people signed up for the buses than showed up at 6 am on the rainy day of the march.  I began to get discouraged, and then I tripped over a small child.  One of the faculty and her partner had brought their son, a self-reported 5 and 1/3 year old. I asked him why he was here.  He replied, “I want to be a biolologist when I grow up.” That did it.  I packed away my frustration and decided to be hopeful.  Hopeful that we can make the world a place where there are enough species left for him to study, hopeful that his findings won’t be censored, hopeful that his leaders will make fact-based policies, hopeful that science will be well funded, and hopeful that when he is a biolologist, science will be an inclusive enterprise where everyone is welcome.

References

Current administration puts a gag order on scientific agencies

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/24/epa-department-agriculture-social-media-gag-order-trump

Proposed Budget cuts to scientific agencies

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/trumps-first-budget-analysis-and-reaction

Principles for diversity at the Science March

https://www.marchforscience.com/diversity-principles/

Students to march on Washington for climate justice

in Around Campus/News by

On April 29th, Swarthmore students will be marching around the White House, along with thousands of other protesters, for the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. Although the march is a national event, Mountain Justice, Green Advisors, and the Sustainability Office are working together to send three buses of students to the march and a student convergence the day before.

Indiana Reid-Shaw ’17 was part of a group of students who worked to send students and staff from Swarthmore to the first People’s Climate March in New York City in Sept. 2014. By coordinating with the larger 350 movement, an environmental organization, and getting funding from various departments at the college, the group was able to send 200 students and staff to the march.

“The first PCM was a huge success, and therefore we are using the same tactics to garner interest,” Reid-Shaw said.  

These tactics include advertising on dorm halls, sharing slides with professors, and running an interest meeting along with Mountain Justice. September Sky Porras ’20, a member of Mountain Justice, headed this interest meeting and is leading the effort to bring people to the march this year. Porras believes that, despite negative rhetoric about protests, the march is an important occurrence.

“I think that the People’s Climate March is super important right now. I also know there’s a lot of discourse about whether protests are effective or not. For me personally, I think that protests even though they’re made up mostly of people who are already engaged. First off it lets people feel like they’re doing something and being part of something, and second, leads them to engage with other organizations, … so it’s definitely teaching people how to be leaders in their communities and how to elect people who are good for climate justice. And then of course third, everybody who’s in D.C. at the time is going to see this. So if you don’t think this is a big deal, it’s gonna seem like a very big deal,” Porras said.

The college’s Sustainability Office, while supporting the college’s decision not to divest at odds with Mountain Justice’s recent referendum, is working with Mountain Justice and the GAs in this effort.

“We take seriously our role of serving as a liaison between students and the administration and supporting all student sustainability groups on campus. Thus, we look for opportunities to engage constructively with Mountain Justice, including our collaboration on the upcoming People’s Climate March,” Nathaniel Graf, of the office, said.

Reid-Shaw is also excited about the collaborative effort.

“I am excited about this partnership with Mountain Justice because I get the sense that some people think of these two groups as approaching environmentalism in opposing ways. I think both of our groups’ foci are essential and should work in tandem,” she said.  

Along with the march itself, many students will be attending a “student convergence” on Friday, the day before the main event. At this convergence, various organizations such as 350 will be hosting workshops on both climate justice and social justice more generally.

“It’s going to be a bunch of students, we’re going to be taking those workshops, we’re going to be interacting with other students and other student organizations, I know we’re going to be meeting up with a lot of people who have other divestment movements, so that’s going to be a lot of fun,” Porras said.  

Although the 80 people who have signed up for the march this year are fewer in number than before, there is excitement about the opportunity to learn at the convergence.

“I was actually really excited to see so many people who aren’t super involved in MJ or the GAs already being excited to go to the student convergence, and I was like woah, that’s really cool, because I don’t know if I wasn’t involved if I would want to put myself out there. So I’m really like wow, that’s really great,” Porras said.  

According to Porras, in past years, some of the panelists at the People’s Climate March and convergence have been less than optimal. With the help of Stephen O’Hanlon (year), she looks forward to a more improved experience.

“Apparently … there were a lot of questionable panelists, who were, I don’t know, just very white-centrist ideas … yeah, (this year), it’s not going to be that,” she said.

Reid-Shaw remembers the “contagious energy” at the last march in 2014.

“The energy was contagious at the last PCM in 2014. It was empowering to walk with so many people all with a common interest for climate justice, but for so many different reasons. I talked to a beekeeper, an environmental justice advocate, and an indigenous activist. I remember feeling the power of the people as we marched by Times Square and all of the corporate buildings,” she said.  

However, both Reid-Shaw and Porras believe that the new Trump administration makes this 2017 march, which will be held on Trump’s 100th day in office, particularly important.

“I …  think it’s pretty poignant that it’s on [Trump’s] 100th day in office, and we’re going to be marching around the white house very loudly, so yeah I think protests and specifically this protest being so large, and in DC, and on that specific date, it’s just a very very good way to connect channels of people,” Porras said.

Reid-Shaw agreed.

“On April 29th we will march again, but this time in DC and to the White House to demand climate justice for people of color, workers, indigenous people, immigrants, women, LGBTQIA, young people, and more! As the Trump administration and their fossil fuel allies threaten communities and our future, we need to show up in force in DC to demand a renewable economy that works for all,” she said, “Our goals are high.”

The buses to D.C. have the capacity to hold about 150 people, and look to bring a large presence of students to the event.

 

Women’s March Floods Capitol with those who Refuse to be Silenced

in Campus Journal by

On Saturday morning, I woke up to a blaring iPhone alarm and a pitch-black sky that stretched over campus.  Ambling down the Wharton stairs, I made my way to Magill Walk where a smattering of stars was more visible than the thinning tree branches arching overhead. I arrived at the train station where six of my friends and I caught the 5:56am SEPTA to Jefferson Station. Once there, we picked up a Greyhound to D.C. that was filled exclusively with people attending the march.

In total, the Washington march required one thousand more buses than Trump’s inauguration, and over one million people flocked to the capitol to protest the new administration. Across the United States, over three million attended marches, and the protest spanned six continents, totalling to over five million marchers worldwide. This extraordinary turnout exemplifies so clearly how a substantial portion of people across the globe understand the dangers that stem from complicity towards the discriminatory policies—policies America’s new administration has promised to enact.

It is important to acknowledge that both the original name for this march—The Million Woman March—and its current title—The Women’s March on Washington—were taken from Civil Rights marches, initially without proper acknowledgment of that fact. Further, at the initial organizational stages, the march’s founders were not as inclusive of People of Color and members of the LGBTQA+ community as they should have been, adding those women to the planning process retroactively instead of including them from the beginning.  It is for these reasons that I was initially hesitant to come to D.C. Even after deciding to go, I was ready to approach the event with a severely critical eye.

But when I arrived at the intersection of 4th and Independence, the crowd was a beautiful conglomeration of Black, Non-binary, White, Brown, and Transgender women that formed a breathtakingly heterogeneous sea of femininity. There were men too—both old and young—who were protesting alongside their sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.  This march would not have achieved the success it did without participants from every race and gender. Feminism doesn’t work unless it is intersectional, and I sincerely hope future organizers of protest movements will take that fact into account.  I hope that the white women who showed up Saturday will understand how important it is for all of us to be at the next Black Lives Matter protest; we don’t win unless we ensure that none of us get left behind.   

One aspect of the march I would like to critique is the personal attacks the event spurred on the Trump family.  While I admittedly laughed a bit at the “Free Melania” signs littering the crowd, in actuality, they are extremely counterproductive.  Personally, I would not marry Donald Trump, but we cannot simply assume that the woman who chose to do so is being held hostage by her husband. Statements like those, and the SNL writer’s words concerning Trump’s son Bannon, are neither productive nor mature. Sinking our cause to the level of petty, presumptive statements only renders it less worthy of serious attention.

Swarthmore was well-represented at both the D.C. and Philadelphia protests. The Lang Center sponsored three buses filled with 144 students and faculty members to the capital. They also provided 225 round trip SEPTA tickets to students attending the march in Philly. Many who were not able to get a seat on one of the Swat buses went anyways via car, bus, train, or van. Even some Swatties currently abroad attended marches in their respective locations, such as Paris and London.

Eliza Wainwright ’19, who attended the march in Philly, thought that the protest left something to be desired.

“While it was really exciting to see so many people out there, I noticed the crowd wasn’t very diverse. The speakers were a lot of white, cis women. Overall I think [the march] was a good experience but it’s hard to have a provoking inclusive dialogue with people from all the same backgrounds. It didn’t necessarily spur any new dialogue,” she notes.  

While Shivani Chinnappan ’18, who attended the D.C. protest, acknowledges that the march was not perfect, she decidedly affirms that its successes should be the greatest takeaway.

“When people thought the march wasn’t being very intersectional, the organizers took steps to make it more intersectional, and that was huge. There was definitely diversity amongst the groups, and there is always room for more, but the fact that the organizers made motions to correct their mistake and increase inclusivity is enough for me to be fully behind the cause,” she said.  

Chinnappan also stresses that in addition to being exciting and energizing, the march sparked important, educational dialogues.

“Even for the people who didn’t think about intersectionality, you were there and you saw the signs. I saw that first hand when someone asked our group what ‘intersectionality and feminism’ meant. And we were happy to explain,” she confirms.  

Overall, Chinnappan found her march experience to be both positive and productive, despite the jam-packed crowds and inability to move.

“The turnout was unreal, and the expanse was global. It would have been nice to hear the speakers, but I was there, showing my support, and I was happy to do that,” she states.

Sometimes, all you have to do is show up. Sometimes, that’s enough. On Saturday, enough people showed up to pack the streets of DC so tightly they nearly called off the march. I felt a surge of pride when they informed us the crowds had flooded the streets, providing nowhere to walk. It didn’t matter that we were hundreds of yards from the stage. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t see the screen. It didn’t matter that we went hours without moving. We were there.

Notwithstanding, as incredible as the march was, it cannot serve as the culmination of activism concerning the Trump administration. Simply showing up was everything on Saturday, but it is imperative that we continue to do so and begin to do more. It is critical that all of us resist governmental decisions with which we disagree by way of writing letters, signing petitions, campaigning for 2018 Congressional candidates, and getting to the polls at every possible opportunity.

It was past 2:30am on Sunday morning when my friends and I finally returned to Swat. Campus was as dark as we left it, the sky a deep blue crosshatched with streaks of black. We could barely keep our eyes open, yawning frequently while shuffling sluggishly back to our dorms. We had been gone 21 hours and were exhausted. Still, climbing the stairs to the third floor, my smudged, tattered sign dragging listlessly behind me, I couldn’t help but smile. It was a glorious exhaustion stemming from hours of exhilaration.

Regardless of whether those presiding over the buildings around which we marched take our protest into account, January 21, 2017 will be a day that over three million Americans will remember and one that will, undoubtedly, go down in history. Maybe it will change minds, maybe it won’t, but it will be noticed, and that is a fact of which each participant should be proud.

As Audre Lorde reminds us, “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”

The words of many are not welcome in our new president’s administration.  On Saturday, we spoke.  And that was just the beginning.

In Washington, alum finds “high” level employment

in Campus Journal by
Photo by Ian Holloway
Photo by Ian Holloway

We often hear that Swarthmore prepares its graduates for high level employment in white-collar sectors. According to Career Services, “among graduating seniors, the largest percentages have entered research and business careers over the past decade.” The numbers of graduates entering the agricultural sector are much lower and do not appear on the Career Services website.

Though Anders Taylor ’07 majored in Economics and Psychology and had no plans, upon graduation, to become a horticulturalist, in late 2013 he applied for a license to grow cannabis in Washington state. Much like any other graduate, he attributes his interest in his field to his time in Swarthmore. “My time at Swarthmore was a huge influence on my decision to pursue this path,” he stated.

With states across the country legalizing both medicinal and recreational cannabis, one is left to wonder how to enter “the business,” so to speak. For Taylor, being able to enter this burgeoning agricultural sector happened almost by coincidence. After moving to Seattle, he took a trip to see some Swarthmore friends who lived in the Bay Area. He called his dad, an environmentalist and a professor of religious ethics and environmental studies at the University of Florida, “to gloat because [he] was in these epic redwoods that he loves.” His dad got him connected with an environmentalist friend who lived in Humboldt County, in northern California. This “radical environmentalist” had been growing cannabis in California for a number of years.

Taylor was stunned. “I saw his little farm … and it definitely made me nervous, being in a situation where there was a lot of pot around, because I know the consequences that can go along with growing like that.” He spent the day on this farm, discussing how the Pacific Northwest is perfect for agriculture. The conversation was not about getting a license to grow until, eventually, “he just sort of suggested it,” Taylor said. “He floated the idea and I was like yeah, ‘I think I might be able to fund this thing’ … he didn’t seem to think it would cost too much money so it seemed like a pretty good business venture.”

The licensing process for recreational marijuana in Washington state falls under the Liquor Control Board. There are three types of licenses: producer licenses — the type Taylor has — processor licenses for those processing and packaging marijuana, and retailer licenses for those actually selling. There are very strict regulations according to these licenses. For example, a business is only allowed to grow on, at most, half an acre of land. This structure made it possible for start-up growers without a lot of capital to enter the business in Washington. Uniquely, Washington made it legal to grow outdoors, which is illegal in most other states where either medical or recreational cannabis is legal.

Yet, despite legalization on the state level, Taylor was often met with resistance from communities that were uncomfortable with the idea of a cannabis farm near them. “Even in counties where there was overwhelming support for legalization of recreational marijuana use,” the resistance was so much that “some counties set up moratoriums on growing cannabis.” So he moved about an hour and a half north of Seattle, “to a county that has a much longer history of growing pot, you know, out in the woods basically, and has a much more welcoming attitude about it.” His company is called Sweet Leaf Sowers.

When discussing his plans to grow cannabis, Taylor states that he is often surprised by how welcoming and interested people are. The only somewhat discouraging reaction he had was from family members asking, “Are you sure you want to be a farmer? Farming’s hard!”

Ironically, it was exactly someone’s bad reaction that piqued his interest in cannabis in the first place. During his freshman fall, in 2013, one of his good friends, Josh*, was arrested for possession on campus. Josh’s roommate, Lucas,* was able to comment. He remembers seeing his roommate being escorted to police vehicles as he walked back to his room from a night out. Yet, “No one is certain why or how the authorities were alerted,” he said. Lucas was able to raise $2,000 for bail, but Josh was still charged with a misdemeanor and could not remain on campus as he awaited trial. “His legal situation was a bit tough since he was charged with a misdemeanor. I believe [he received a] reduced sentence in a plea deal and was given probation for a couple years. This was typical of PA court systems.”

Instead of going to the RA or even Public Safety, someone called the police on Josh, which had dramatic consequences for him. “I saw a lot of injustice with respect to pot when I was on campus. To the credit of administrators, most of the time Swarthmore did a great job protecting students from what I see as an incredibly unjust drug war,” Lucas said.

Even Lucas remembers the interactions he had with administrators fondly, “Swarthmore was a different college during my first two years … there were some very understanding deans and they worked with him to do what was best for him. They wanted to work with him to make sure he was able to recover and come back focused to work on academics … Swarthmore was not so punitive when I was there and genuinely tried to help. Most other colleges would have kicked him out.”

Yet, for Taylor, what happened to Josh pointed out the injustices of a drug war that disproportionately affects black and brown communities: “Fortunately for him he was a white kid, that went to a great school, and so he got off really, really well, considering the amount of pot he got caught with.”

Taylor considers this event as the first step on his path towards becoming a legalized cannabis grower. He views his work as helping to change a system that he perceives as blatantly unjust. In fact, for any other perspective farmers out there, he’s looking for 21+ students interested in either interning or joining the farm this summer and hoping to “inspire students to make a difference.”

It seems that Swarthmore does more than one would expect to cultivate not only farmers, but also activists, amongst its students.

*names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

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