Alive With Activism

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.

It’s no surprise that Swarthmore students are activists. Swarthmore is a school that is historically known to be progressive. It is a place known to be at the forefront of issues, often emerging as a leader among peer institutions during controversy. We pride ourselves on being more than talk. From the Race to Action: Ferguson remembrance to the “Carry That Weight” protest about sexual assault on campus, Swarthmore has already seen its share of activism this year. It’s the perfect combination: students are passionate, informed, and ready to champion their cause. This spring is no different, with a variety of causes being tackled. Which issue came first is irrelevant when one considers that the current issues dominating campus discourse—divestment, disassociation from Hillel International, and housing policy changes—are all culminating in action at once.

Divestment is an issue that has been pursued some time now by Mountain Justice. Since Thursday, March 19, many Swarthmore students, along with alumni and professors have begun a sit-in outside of finance offices with “no plans to leave.” Recently, the scale of the sit-in has grown, graced with the support of Christiana Figueres, current UN Climate Chief and Swarthmore alumna class of ’79, as well as the guest appearance of Bill McKibben, founder of and arguably the most preeminent environmentalist currently.

The call for colleges across the nation to divest began at Swarthmore, but ironically we were not the first college to divest. Swarthmore touts its Quaker idealism, focus on sustainability, and its role as conscientious global citizens, but the board has yet to show a strong front and support this cause completely instead allowing our endowment to indirectly support the fossil fuel industry.

The exact financial impact that divestment would have is unclear, with some opponents showing that it may not be beneficial while other proponents argue that it will not necessarily be harmful. Only direct action and actually divesting will answer these concerns. Yet, the symbolic weight of divesting endowment funds from companies that profit from using fossil fuels is more than enough incentive on its own. The divestment movement, ultimately, is more about shifting power and attempting to change the broken system we live in. It’s breaking the fossil fueled consumerism that controls our lives. It’s a powerplay. It is a symbolic movement mainly after all.

The energy coming from MJ’s sit-in is propelling and inspiring other activist efforts and movements on campus. Some of the same people involved in MJ took the initiative to call attention to the changes in housing policy and start campus dialogue. The direct stance MJ is taking now with the sit-in as well as other initiatives seeks to polarize the campus. MJ is asking, “Whose side are you on?” Those who prefer to remain neutral and uninvolved will soon be confronted.

With pressure on the board of managers and the spotlight on MJ, other groups now have a channel in which to execute their own activist efforts. This is because all the buzz on campus concerning controversy facilitates a positive feedback loop. Activism breeds activist movements across disciplines. Acting synchronistically translates to acting synergistically. Groups can capitalize on the passion and active involvement of students. It is not mere coincidence that many of those involved with the sit-in were the same people who fueled the housing policy concerns. Often activist ideals overlap and it comes as no surprise when those people active in one movement are concurrently involved, or at least supportive, of another.

One of the additional movements concerns the newly named Kehilah, meaning “community,” which was formerly known as Hillel. Kehilah disassociated from Hillel International, making a strong statement about the integrity and commitment of Swarthmore’s Jewish organization to be a space open and accepting of all views concerning the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Since Kehilah is now an autonomous organization, no longer limited to permitting solely pro-Israel views, they can accommodate a much wider range of student views. The best part of this change is the way in which the Jewish community at Swarthmore came together. Judaism means a lot of different things to many people, whether it be religiously, culturally, or ethnically. The new name, Kehilah, was decided together, uniting in the opinion that the space should be as accommodating as possible despite individual differences in opinion concerning the actual Israel-Palestine issue. This open Kehilah will be a space where people will have the opportunity to become more educated with both sides discussed.

I had known of the name “Hillel” solely in the context of collegiate Judaism, and it remains an expansive organization. Thus, to disassociate and drop the easily recognizable name is not a light decision. It is a testament to the commitment and strong feelings students have to creating a truly open space. It comes as no surprise in light of Swarthmore’s emphasis historically on social justice and Quaker values.

Recently, though, it seems that these Quaker values have been challenged—especially in regards to housing. Concerns over the lack of transparency between administration and the student body have surfaced as a result of changes in housing policies. The decision to implement exclusively freshmen halls (three in Willets and two in Mary Lyons, or approximately 25% of all freshmen housing) without prior warning and community consensus has alarmed current, past, and incoming students. This is an affront on two counts: first, it violates typical Quaker values for consensus decision-making; and second, it disregards the Swarthmore culture of having integrated halls to facilitate community amongst all classes.

The inherent value of having upperclassmen friends for guidance, advice and diversification has been emphasized. Integrated halls is something Swarthmore proudly cites as unique to our campus relative to other institutions. The presence of welcoming and enthusiastic upperclassmen allows freshmen to integrate better into the Swarthmore community. Experienced peers encourage newcomers to become involved in extracurricular activities early on, help them expand social circles to peers beyond their own grade and inform them about the school both academically and otherwise. Such factors as knowing people that can teach freshmen about Swarthmore academics and culture quickly establish a sense of belonging. This is crucial to freshmen to feeling accepted, welcome, and confident so that they can then make Swarthmore their own and have a sense of pride in calling themselves a Swattie.

The lack of information at first, even to people such as RAs in leadership positions, about the change was concerning. Concealment of information makes students assume the worse. Further, without communication these changes seemed sudden and sweeping. Neither the logic behind such choices nor the greater goals were extensively elaborated upon, leaving students to be informed by word of mouth and through unconfirmed rumours. Now, there is opportunity to have open dialogue and ask questions at open OSE office hours. Yet, this is only after clear student opposition and over 500 signatures on a letter expressing concerns. Would such efforts have been taken otherwise to clarify and make the reasoning behind the changes clearer? In retrospect one can only speculate, but I would speculate without evident pushback from students any objections would be falsely seen as minority opinion thus making such a response on behalf of the OSE unnecessary.

I don’t have to be directly involved in or fully supportive of any particular cause to appreciate that Swarthmore creates an atmosphere that fosters challenging the status quo, constantly seeking justice, and starting dialogue in areas where others may choose to be silent. The prestige and respect the name ‘Swarthmore’ garners makes it such that even as a small community our voices, decisions, and actions are heard loud and clear.

These events have given students the chance to unite in solidarity. What we do matters. The success of such efforts as the sit-in or opposition to housing changes is crucial. With so much support of the student body, alumni and faculty, a lack of response will speak volumes of administration. Activism gives students the opportunity to directly incite change and shape the environment they are a part of. It is important that this college – our campus and our home—has the capacity for positive change and is a place that listens to its student body. If there is no room at Swarthmore for student-driven change, it isn’t the Swarthmore that we all came here to be a part of.

Correction (4/2/15): A sentence implying Mountain Justice was the impetus or primary organizing force for the spring of discontent was removed.


  1. Dear friends,

    I am impressed by what’s happening at Swarthmore, and visited on Friday. I’d like to invite Christiana Figueres to speak in Philadelphia at Friends Center about the fossil fuel divestment issue and a climate change treaty, this fall.
    If you can provide me with her contact information, either email and phone or address by snail mail as well, it would be truly appreciated.

    Thanks, Ed Aguilar

    (I am Pennsylvania director of the Coalition for Peace Action.)

  2. “It’s the perfect combination: students are passionate, informed, and ready to champion their cause.” Calling many Swarthmore activists, particularly those MJ nuances, “informed” is a woeful misuse of the word. Zealots are inherently unable to rationally process contrary information. Your piece is just one more example of the closed-minded, radical and ultimately fruitless advocacy that Swarthmore all too frequently produces. Quaker values primace consensus, not obstinate and petulant demands, which the MJ “sit-in” and general campaign certainly qualify as. Your position was considered and rejected. Move on.

    • wait…so do you believe that fossil fuels are contributing to climate change or no? Science, thankfully, is based on objective principles.

  3. I don’t understand why activist types are so keen on finding intersectionality between movements that have literally nothing to do with each other. I’ve seen people honestly try to conflate the divestment movement with the civil rights movement, as though both environmental injustice and racial injustice stem from the same cause. (Also one involves disenfranchised minorities protesting the miserable conditions they were (and continue to be) forced to live in, the other involves mostly “privileged” people with a guilty conscience who get off on telling others how to live, while smiling cheerily holding signs to show off to their Facebook friends – but I digress).

    I’m sorry but despite what many Swarthmore students seem to believe, the cis-hetero-patriarchy is not responsible for every problem the world has ever seen. For better or for worse, when the same group of people is behind every student movement on campus, trying to phrase every battle as a “with us or against us” issue (and saying you can’t be “with us” unless you also agree with us on X, Y, and Z), it makes it hard for people to actually agree with anything that they’re saying. Whether or not this is a rational attitude to have is a different debate; the fact of the matter is that this attitude exists and is prevalent, and if you want to effect meaningful change then you have to be aware of it. Because of this, I think that there is merit to keeping social justice issues separate. Some people agree with X, but perhaps not with Y; you at least want the X’ers to campaign for X, if you really care about X so strongly… I think the constant emphasis on “intersectionality” and “us-or-them” mentality is ultimately counterproductive. My 2 cents.

  4. New evidence strongly suggests that the “Carry That Weight” protest supported yet another highly public false accuser. Too many activists insist we divorce our intellects from their cause du jour by, for example, insisting we “don’t blame the victims” and we “believe survivors no matter what.” It’s dishonest and ultimately destroys their validity.

  5. One counter-intuitive effect divestments might (!) have is that these assets get cheaper temporarily, thus making them better investments e.g. for hedge funds etc. In the end, by divesting you give away voting rights at the AGM etc. thus in the end maybe, just maybe, steering the power to influence decision away from those that might have voted in favor of a “sustainable” agenda.

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