The Year in Review: Accounts of Activism

Due to the amount of work that goes into course work at Swarthmore, people may wonder how much time students can devote to extracurricular activities. But the time and effort that students put into campus activism exemplifies where many of their passions truly lie. This activism highlights inequality and oppression both on and off the campus, and is an ever-present part of life at Swarthmore.

“I think activism on our campus is important because Swatties will grow to become very influential members in their communities,” SPJP member Ahmad Ammous ’13 said. “With that comes a responsibility to understand and sympathize with many different topics and issues that influence the local community and the world at large. It is therefore important for Swatties to be well aware and educated about these topics.”

Not only do activists on campus gain skills and connections through their efforts, but the college community as a whole is enriched by its increased awareneness of the issues they raise and the ideals they promote. Some of the busiest activist groups on campus this year have been Mountain Justice, SLAP, and SPJP, all of which have made efforts to highlight various concerns and involve the broader community.

Mountain Justice
The student activist group Mountain Justice is committed to fighting climate change, supporting communities imminently threatened by fossil fuel extraction, and building a stronger coalition here on campus. One major initiative of the group its campaign in solidarity with efforts preventing mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

MJ originated in 2010 after students visited mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia over spring break. Upon their return to campus, they sought to continue to act in solidarity with the people they had met from these communities in the front-lines of the fight against harmful fuel extraction. However, Swarthmore is a long way from West Virginia, so the group sought to create a bold stance against fossil fuel extraction in a more general way.
MJ is currently working on a campaign demanding Swarthmore College divest from fossil fuel extraction industries.

According to MJ’s website, members “decided on a divestment campaign as a way for us to use the power and position we have as students to move our institution’s money to stop funding practices that harm people’s health and communities. By working on a campaign that targets extractive industries, including those practicing [mountaintop removal], we see ourselves as supporting the struggle of folks in Appalachia and in other frontline communities.”

Group members have worked to promote this campaign through a variety of methods. They have attended two separate board meetings and have another one coming up on May 4 that is open to the Swarthmore community.
“This year, the Board has charged the Social Responsibility Committee with focusing on climate change, but has avoided formal negotiation with students about divestment,” MJ member Patrick Walsh ’14 explained.

With such a big goal, Mountain Justice is in it for the long haul, and seeks to involve non-group members in its campaign. They organized trips to West Virginia over both fall and spring breaks. Trips were open to all Tri-Co students, and those who particpated talked with local residents and activists, got involved in local efforts, and built valuable relationships. MJ also seeks to engage the student body through individual meetings and though partnerships with other student groups on campus. On Thursday, May 2, MJ is hosting Dustin White, who will speak about his experience living in communities affected by and advocating against mountaintop removal, and a screening on the topic will follow. Leading up to the next Board meeting, MJ will also host a fun end-of-semester celebration with music, food and faculty who will speak briefly about divestment.

Next year MJ will continue to promote divestment from fossil fuel extraction, and hopes to encourage academic departments to write and sign letters in support of their goal. In addition, they hope to further build community networks both on and off campus, plan more trips to Appalachia, as well as to continue their dialogue with the Board of Managers.

SLAP (Student Labor Action Project)
The Swarthmore Labor Action Project, SLAP, is “an organization of students committed to justice and dignity in the workplace, as well as student-worker solidarity.” Working towards labor justice on campus, one of SLAP’s goals is to ensure that those working at Swarthmore College feel fulfilled, empowered, and content with their jobs and working conditions.

In order to fulfill these goals, SLAP advocates for subsidized co-pays on doctor’s visits, subsidized hospital visit fees, subsidized childcare, a rigorous living wage review process, contract parity, a grievance procedure, and an increase in the living wage to account for phasing out of the benefit bank. This past March, Swarthmore’s Board of Managers approved a new College minimum wage of $12/hour, up from $10.38/hour.
A living wage is the minimum pay level needed to meet basic needs. What’s considered a basic need is open to interpretation, and SLAP seeks to encourage Swarthmore College to have a more encompassing definition of the term.

SLAP’s current campaign is to convince the college to include childcare in the benefits for its employees, either through an on-site center or through subsidies allowing its employees to pay for childcare elsewhere. The group came to this decision after the issue came up in multiple conversations with staff members. Swarthmore students have pushed for childcare benefits in the past to no avail, but the importance of the issue has convinced SLAP members to reopen the campaign.

The group has sought to involve members of Swarthmore’s community through a variety of means, including last month’s “Chow and Chat About Childcare on Campus” event. This event aimed to encourage students to meet workers and to discuss issues of childcare on campus. In March, SLAP hosted a Staff Appreciation Pancake Breakfast with Swarthmore workers as another opportunity for students to meet the members of the Swarthmore community who work to take care of our school. SLAP also launched a photo campaign last fall, where students posed for photos outside of Sharples, and published an editorial in the Daily Gazette in April.

SLAP is currently working on creating a survey with the help of Swarthmore faculty and staff, and with the amount of effort both students, faculty, and staff have put into promoting childcare benefits, SLAP members are extremely motivated to continue their campaign next year.

“Next year, staff, faculty, and students are going to make sure that our community does a better job of living up to its values by finally choosing to provide meaningful childcare services” explained SLAP member Ben Wolcott ’14.

SPJP (Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine)
Students involved with SPJP aim to raise awareness about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the violations of human rights that have and continue to occur. The humanitarian group aims to create an open discourse on campus about the issues and events that are occurring in regards to this conflict through a variety of outreach methods.

SPJP seeks to educate and involve students on campus and annually hosts a screening of “Occupation 101”, a 2006 documentary that serves as an introduction for students to the conflict. SPJP has also hosted a hummus-making parlor party, a Paces takeover, and brought a number of speakers to Swarthmore. In the fall, the group put up 174 flags on the Kohlberg lawn to represent 174 Israeli and Palestinian lives lost in the Gaza conflict in October 2012.

The group also brought two lecturers to campus this year. They hosted Dr. Jonathan Kuttab, a specialist in human rights law and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who discussed how the Israeli occupation violates international human rights law on a daily basis. This past semester, SPJP hosted Sa’ed Atshan ’06, a lecturer at Tufts University who studies issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, sexuality and gender identity in Israel-Palestine.Through thoughtful choices of lecturers, SPJP has been able to attract students with different disciplinary interests.

This past semester, SPJP generated further interest in their cause through the use of more creative tactics. They hosted a slam poetry event, inviting Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi to perform. The event was extremely successful as it shed light on the conflict through a different, more artistic lens. You might have noticed a large wall in front of Parrish Hall blocking you from trotting down to Sharples after class last week. This was a simulated checkpoint barrier set up by SPJP to highlight other struggles beside the violence, brought on by the conflict.

“Our goal with this event in particular was to help Swatties understand a little bit of what it is like to be a Palestinian living in the occupied West Bank,” exaplined SPJP member Ben Bernard-Herman ’14. “Too often, empathy and interpersonal understanding are lost in complex political and social issues; I hope that the wall simulation allowed people to access some feelings of empathy for Palestinians who must go through checkpoints daily.”

Nest year, SPJP hopes to continue to create interest and concern about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Its members plan to continue inviting speakers and hosting movie screenings, with future plans to consider boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanction campaigns as well.

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