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Passing It Down: The Challenges of Preserving Institutional Memory As A Student Activist Group

Campus | February 5, 2018

In May of 2015, a small huddle of tents stationed near Ballou Hall interrupted the smooth green of the Academic Quad. The students gathered there were members of the Tufts Labor Coalition, a student group that “promotes community and solidarity between Tufts students and campus workers,” according to their Facebook page. In 2015, it had been announced that Tufts planned to fire about 35 members of the janitorial staff after learning that the university was paying more than similar schools for cleaning services. Janitors and members of TLC organized together to convince the administration to postpone the layoffs until the spring of 2016, giving the janitors’ union and Tufts’ facilities contractor, DTZ, more time to renegotiate contracts. The group launched a campaign that culminated in a week-long hunger strike and occupation of space near Ballou Hall. Yet, after no agreement was reached with the university, out of concern for students’ health, and with the semester coming to a close, the hunger strike was ended. With most students unable to remain on campus after the end of the school year, TLC members packed up and went home for the summer. Now released from the media microscope that student activists had successfully placed them under, the administration took advantage of an empty campus to pursue their initial agenda. That August, four janitors were let go.

The TLC hunger strike is indicative of the inherent limitations of student activism that, by nature of the academic calendar and the four-year-degree system, has a very short window in which to accomplish massive goals. When students are only on campus for six months out of the year, and most graduate the university after four years, it is difficult for advocacy and activist groups to maintain momentum and preserve institutional memory. Student activists then must expend extra energy in order to both achieve their goals and ensure that knowledge, tactics, and relationships are passed down from upperclassmen to new recruits.

When students have so little time on campus each year, current campaigns are often given priority over the collection and preservation of institutional knowledge. While this strategy enables groups to focus all of their energy and resources on one movement, some student activists feel these campaigns could have benefitted from more knowledge about past movements. Anna Gaebler (A’16) is a TLC alum who graduated in 2016 and participated in the 2015 hunger strike. Gaebler felt so strongly that the entire movement could have benefitted from more intimate knowledge of past TLC strategies and techniques that she completed a senior project on that very campaign, crafting a student activist’s guide to contacting the media. “During that campaign I had no idea what I was doing, and it would have been really helpful if someone had given me a guide that said ‘okay this is how you call a reporter, this is what you say, this is how you talk to them about your issue,’” she shares of her motivation behind the project.

Gaebler further said that at the time of her graduation, the group had no official procedures in place to preserve TLC knowledge and memory or pass that knowledge down to new members, and current TLC member Lindsay Sanders shares that there still isn’t. Part of this is due to the ever-changing flow of students involved in the organization. “We’re a non-hierarchical organization, so people step up and do work when they feel they have the capacity and are moved to do so. And that means we have a lot of rotation in our membership base in who’s showing up to meetings and who’s taking notes and who’s facilitating,” Sanders shares. “…so trying to have a more structured orientation, I don’t know if it would really work for us, because we have so many new people coming in so often and at different times.”

And these high turnover rates for membership often effect the momentum and spirit of campus movements. Anissa Waterhouse, a senior, was involved in campus activism with the Indict Tufts Movement, which worked to support Black Lives Matter and highlight the ways in which students at Tufts were complicit in systemic racial injustices and violence against Black people. But, after returning from a semester abroad in Ghana to find the We Are The Three Percent Movement underway, Waterhouse suddenly felt personally disconnected from the new leaders of the campaign, which brought demands to the university to increase the percentage of Black students and Black faculty members to 13 percent, among other things. “…Coming back being like, well I really strongly organized for the Black community my sophomore year, like I come back my spring semester my junior year, and it’s completely different,” she says. “Maybe not a completely different movement, but there are different people organizing with completely different styles, and so I felt very disconnected from that movement.” She goes on to relate that while she was completely in support of the movement itself, due to preservation of her own health, Waterhouse elected to not continue in campus activism after returning abroad.

Activist groups that have formed more recently have an easier time. United For Immigrant Justice, a student group advocating for the rights of undocumented immigrants in the Tufts community and formed in 2013, have managed to maintain energy and momentum by the nature of their relative youth and due to the results of their activism. Senior UIJ member, Emma Kahn, still remembers the early days of the group’s formation. “My year was there when [UIJ] was first there, so our institutional memory is we were there as first years, and we saw the policy changes that happened and we were involved in policy changes and we were friends with the founders,” she says.

In 2015, a campaign for educational equality for undocumented students launched by UIJ resulted in Tufts’ decision to consider all undocumented student applicants as domestic applicants, and to offer these applicants financial aid if necessary. For Kahn, who was involved in the campaign and remembers when the group was mostly made of students who were not undocumented, this victory lent UIJ a momentum that hasn’t slowed. “We’ve actually grown in energy over the years,” Kahn says. “I think the biggest reason is because when UIJ was founded, there were no open undocumented students in the group, partially because Tufts wasn’t open about accepting undocumented students. And every year since then, we’ve had the majority of our students enter UIJ saying I’m here because I am able to attend this school because of UIJ’s campaign.”

But for groups with longer histories, organizing without benefitting from the knowledge and strategies of past members proves more difficult. “We…were brand new to anything resembling organizing, had no mentors who are older than seniors…to guide [us] and help our organization figure out our strategy and what we were doing, and so I think resources could go a long way,” Gaebler says of the struggles particular to student activism. To Gaebler, those resources should include both a history of TLC’s past successful campaigns, and general information about how to organize.

And it is not only organizing strategies that are negatively impacted by the difficulties of preserving institutional memory at a four-year university. For groups like TLC, which rely on strong partnerships with laborers and unionists, the graduation of leaders often means the end of key relationships. “So when people graduated, then the relationships that organizations had with those individuals were often severed,” Gaebler shares. Sanders says, though, that during the most recent organizing around janitorial contract negotiations, TLC was very successful at implementing a formal shift system, where students would visit custodial staff members during their shifts in order to develop friendships between students and workers.

The academic calendar also presents challenges unique to student activists who are often gone during the summer and for a month during the winter. During Waterhouse’s time with Indict Tufts, she felt that the group lost momentum after returning from winter break. “We didn’t want to organize over break, we wanted people to rest and take care of themselves,” she says. Sanders felt that the university purposefully used the academic calendar against them. “The calendar itself has been used against us in a lot of ways. The contract dates are often set for right when the semester ends, or when students aren’t on campus, which is sometimes intentional because they know there will be less people around to speak out against whatever happens,” she shares. Student activists not only have to work harder to achieve their goals under time restraints but are often fighting against and administration that is willing to use an empty campus to their benefit.

Working to effect change under such limited time restraints often necessitates the prioritization of current projects over long-term goals such as developing strategies to preserve institutional memory. “I think there’s also some potential for some awesome mentorship and passing on of skills between juniors and seniors and freshmen and sophomores,” Gaebler says, “but in the thick of it, when you’re focused on your goals, I think that kind of gets passed over sometimes as a secondary project and not really important, even though to sustain the long-term goals of the organization, it is truly important.”

Kahn agrees. “It’s just about the timing of campaigns, and like if they happen, and there are first years who are part of the campaigns, then like you can probably keep that for four years until those people graduate, but it’s kind of hard to keep that cycle,” she says.

Groups like UIJ at Tufts are beginning to actively work to combat the limitations of student activism through creating better strategies for preserving institutional memory. “We have a pretty comprehensive Google drive, we have a Tufts Box that we actually share with some of our administrative partners, where both entities, or all entities involved are able to keep track of things that we need to keep track of… we every GIM try to do a brief history, or things that we’ve done, things that we could keep doing,” Kahn says. And institutional memory doesn’t have to be a written record. For Waterhouse, it was key that underclassmen be included in organizing, so that they would be able to carry on the institutional knowledge after the upperclassmen graduated. “If there is a hierarchy in activism, it’s that we need to prepare the people younger than us to think about what they are going to do in the future and how they are going to mobilize when we’re not there, because there is constant change,” she says.

Though student activism presents some particular challenges for those involved, leaders are by no means pessimistic about their efforts to affect change. “[Organizers outside of college] have a longer-term vision of what change looks like and that forms how they organize,” Gaebler says. “But that’s not to say that the turnover that is inherent to student organizing means that it can’t be effective.” Indeed, from the successful campaign to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in place of Columbus Day, to the push to demand that Tufts accept and protect undocumented students, to the most recent successful janitorial contract negotiations, students at Tufts have continued to demonstrate that four years might be short, but it’s enough time to make a difference.