Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Letter submitted by Swarthmore Overlaps
The “campus community” is sinking into amnesia. Already several weeks into the semester, and sporadic efforts to continue the work for institutional and cultural change have fallen short of the May mobilizations’ energy. Backlash and opposition build up from the Board of Managers and some of our fellow students, who tend to characterize “the activists” as monolithic and unwilling to engage with others. We feel the need to insist that this is a lie. Meanwhile, the incoming class is left stranded in vague references to the spring, scattered conversations on allyship, and no real sense of how to move forward. We feel the need to pass on our experiences to new students. In other words:
Enough revisionism and falsehood — this is our history and our truth!
This semester’s issue of Overlaps (coming to you in print this week) was compiled entirely in May by many of the graduated members of our diffuse and divergent activist communities, in their efforts to do the work of creating institutional memory right in the middle of their Senior Week. Recognizing the overlapping and convergent nature of the protests, the writing in this issue demonstrates that while the “activists” are never one unitary group or community, we were able to come together in coalitions and speak truth to power. This truth has been sitting in a folder for long enough now.
We would like to introduce this issue of Overlaps with some questions and suggestions. As we’ve re-acclimated to being at Swarthmore, we’ve asked ourselves, our friends, and our communities: how do we move forward? How do we use the events of the spring as a springboard for ongoing action? How do we take what we did last semester and use it to learn how to be more productive, resilient, thoughtful, communicative, and united in our struggles here? How can we, as students striving to make Swarthmore (and the world) a better place, with all our different backgrounds, viewpoints, agendas, and values, support each other, instead of organizing in ways that conflict with one another?
The rush of organizing that happened last spring ordered itself around boiling points. Enough painful, disempowering, explicitly bigoted and oppressive things happened that enough people dropped their homework for long enough to make this campus feel like a vulnerable place for everyone. All these factors aligned in a way that enabled (or forced) us to put our heads together, to approach the injustices in our social, political, and academic environment with the same rigor, determination, and passion that we normally apply to discussing social justice issues in our classes. We worked really fucking hard. We cried. We yelled. We were hurt, motivated, inspired, and sad, and we got together with our various groups and we got together in big messier uncohesive and often-conflict-ridden coalition spaces, and we organized. We organized to make noise. We organized to disrupt the normal operations of this college – in classrooms, in party spaces, in public spaces, in administrative, bureaucratic spaces. We organized forums in which to express our experiences, our values and beliefs to the people who seem not to have heard them (not to have heard us; not to have heard our predecessors). We disrupted a Board of Managers meeting because the issues that were literally keeping us awake at night (for many nights, and weeks, in a row) were not being addressed by the power holders of this institution. We even organized – sigh – multiple forums for “constructive dialogue” and discussions, and pushed for more of them in the future. We wrote, spoke, argued, commented, Liked, down-Liked, voted, signed.
Then, summer came. We went back to our home states and countries. We traveled. We worked. We interned. We rested, breathed, nourished ourselves and our communities, let ourselves be taken care of in spaces that sometimes seemed safer than the one we left and sometimes seemed a whole lot worse. Immersed ourselves in worlds that, while overlapping in so many atrocious ways with the one we live in at Swarthmore, still felt incomparable, removed, and distant. Three months passed. Some of us read and wrote e-mails to one another, making plans, scheming and dreaming about how to follow-up a spring of such disorienting, disempowering, and occasionally surprisingly liberating, events. Some of us stuck together and lived, worked, or organized around similar issues to the ones that were being navigated in the spring. But lots of us didn’t. Lots of us slept, watched stupid amounts of Arrested Development, made our way through the stacks of art magazines, zines, and sci-fi novels that we had stockpiled over the course of the semester, and tried to forget how quickly three months pass by.
We came back in September wearing the same shoes we wore in May, only to find that the terrain was all different. A quarter of our friends, comrades, haters, and commentators were gone. A couple hundred new and painfully hopeful faces seemed to be everywhere, everywhere reminders of how much work would need to be done to bring “the community” closer to being on the same page about how important all of these issues were and are for us. It turned out that what was enough to bring us together in struggle in April and May was not enough to sustain our energies and our passion into the autumn.
Many of us are already burnt-out from the first 6 weeks of school, and the weight of the weeks to come is heavy, draining, exhausting, and sometimes disillusioning to our belief that we can, in fact, effect change here. At the same time, though, we ask ourselves, what would it feel like to bide our time, waiting for another boiling point, another crisis, to force us to make this work a daily, living priority? It might feel like a betrayal to the commitment that each of us continues to hold, a commitment to our communities, our friends (those here and elsewhere), and the campaigns, movements, and actions we have participated in over the course of our time here. It might feel like deferring the dream of student power we could almost touch just a short semester ago.
“Student power” can be a too-broad, too-hefty, and sometimes too jargon-y phrase for what we’d like to see ourselves work towards this semester and in the semesters to come. In spite of these pitfalls, we think that past movements that have placed themselves under the umbrella of “student power” can offer helpful frameworks for us to think about the task(s) that lie ahead of us. A common trend that we have seen – over the long history of student engagement with administrative powers at Swarthmore, and over the much shorter but no less rich history of our own engagements with the admin and the Board – is a constant return to a state of disempowerment, no matter how much of a “win” a campaign or movement may have celebrated. A visual example of this, borrowed from “For Student Power”:
Instead, we want our organizing to build on the histories that came before us, to build off of our own experiences, and to create foundations for future activists to work from. To quote the article: “We want the activism and organizing we did last week/month/semester to act as another foothold to support the work we’re doing right now. That’s crucial no matter where you’re organizing, but especially when you’re organizing in an institution that has 100% turnover every four years. That’s where structural demands come in. By chipping away at concentrated power, we gain more access to the levers of power, and more avenues for strategic action open up.” We want our campus campaigns to graph out more like this:
There are hundreds of ways to organize on a college campus, and campus activism doesn’t always take the form of discrete campaigns, as these graphs suggest. We believe that a diversity of strategy is necessary to chip away at the power structures that prevent us from living in the ways we want, and that render our futures untenable. We offer our thoughts on student power as one possible way (one of many!) of moving forward as a so-called “student coalition,” in action as well as in name: through framing our demands in ways that challenge the very structures that Swarthmore is founded on.
If we view our work through a lens of student power, it becomes clear that we cannot win any of our various demands (which include, but are not limited to, demands for: institutional accountability; student involvement at all levels of College governance; support for students of color; support for survivors of sexual assault; divestment from fossil fuel extraction companies…) by “any means necessary.” If we win through closed-door agreements, prolonged bureaucratic debates in sub-sub-Committees of the Board, or processes that refuse to openly address student interests, we will not consider ourselves successful. Wins such as these do not create spaces for future student involvement and engagement – if anything, students burn out and grow tired of “engagement” after years of seemingly useless work through institutional channels, and the channels available to students often constrict in response to “wins.”
Sometimes it may make sense to put energy into Board meetings, one-on-ones with administrators, and work in committees – when it seems potentially transformative. But sometimes those processes feel futile, and we can empower ourselves to think beyond those structures, and think into the creation of alternate structures for student engagement and for getting our voices into the decision-making room. How can we create spaces for student voices to be heard that are both empowering and effective at conveying our demands? How can the work that we do put into pursuing institutional channels be geared towards changing the decision-making processes and the power structures of those institutions? How can we organize against injustice in our communities through structures that model what we want to see in the world? These are the kinds of questions that guide a student power-based strategy.
We have to work with who we are right now – and what that means in terms of our comfort levels with different approaches to shifting power. What we are certain of is that we don’t want to win in ways that compromise our identities and leave us feeling disempowered and burned out. Our organizing must be as impassioned as it is strategic; it must build on past organizing work while welcoming the shifting desires that we experience in the present. We have to be more creative, collaborative, and confrontational than the systems and structures that we oppose. As we move forward into this era of our discontent, we want Overlaps to be a space where the triumphantly emotional spirit that lingers on from May will be celebrated.
“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak”
— Gaston Bachelard
Correction, 10/22/2013: An earlier version of this letter incorrectly attributed the closing quote to Seamus Heaney.