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We Must, Because We Can

News & Features | February 4, 2013

Over the past two years, our television screens and the pages of our newspapers have been peppered with images of activist movements from across the world. From the Arab Spring protests to the Occupy encampments across the nation, activist movements reemerged to take a visible foothold on the public imagination. In Barack Obama’s inaugural address, amidst his defense of progressive government, the President paid homage to the activist struggles of “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” in the gay rights movement. The cultural conversation is abuzz with recognition of the role of activism in creating change, and students have again played a major role. While they may not have reached the hallowed nature of students at the forefront of the Vietnam War protests, today’s student activists have been leaders of the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, had a major presence in the Occupy encampments, and organized massively in the Quebec tuition-hike demonstrations.

The growing culture of activism has been reflected on campus, but activist movements are by no means new to Tufts, and currently takes on many shapes and colors. Campus-centric activists deal with issues that affect students’ lives, from racial and sexual identity to the culture of mental and sexual health on campus. Students are also active in the local community, engaging with educational institutions, the formal political sphere, and much more. And true to Tufts’ internationalist identity, campus activists engage in global issues from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to creating a more just structure of healthcare access.

According to many of the activists interviewed for this article, an activist is conventionally understood as someone who goes beyond what is required of them and conventional means to achieve social change. While Tufts students are active in a great deal of global and local movements, the focus of this piece is on campus-centric activism. For those unfamiliar with these definitions, the word “activist” itself can seem vague and alienating. “On college campuses, [the term] can have a stigma of someone who is self righteous or holier than thou, which,” said Dan Jubelierer, a member and co-founder of Tufts Divest, “does not at all describe the work that so-called activists do.” For Walker Bristol, president of the Tufts Freethought Society and a member of the Coalition Against Religious Exclusion (CARE), the term is an empowering one. “It means forgoing bureaucratic means in the fight for what you see as right, for social justice,” he said.

Tufts’ current culture of student activism has its own quirks, but it remains tied to and influenced by trends in national and international movements. The ideas of “horizontalism” and “intersectionality” are on the rise, prompting a new wave of networking and coalition building among modern activists. From Tufts Divest to the newly formed Consent Culture Network (CCN), groups focusing on various different issues have a horizontal organizational structure. Nate Matthews, a member of both groups, described a horizontally run organization as one “that does not have elected leaders or elected positions,” instead using consensus to make decisions. Horizontalism has been present in anarchist and other radical groups for decades, but it has seen increasing use on the Tufts campus in the past year.

This structure has increased in prominence in global movements, most famously seen in the Occupy movement, but also in the Arab Spring protests in Egypt that preceded it and the Quebec student demonstrations that followed. Brandon Archambault, a member of the horizontally organized Coalition Against Religious Exclusion (CARE), sees horizontalism embedded even deeper into the culture. “Our generation grew up with the internet and things like Anonymous … we’re much more familiar with the idea of consensus because we inhabit a different world.” Alexa Stevens, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), cites the Occupy movement as the inspiration for SJP’s horizontal structure, adding that “especially for student movements, it’s very important that you’re not trying to impose an ideology onto people and then make that their reason to act, but instead … they are part of the decision-making process, and therefore they’re more willing to act.” Bristol sees the Occupy movement’s legacy scattered across campus activism. “We’ve seen the hand signals from Occupy used everywhere, even in classes,” he said. ‘The movement helped bring people together and realize the interconnectedness between all their oppression.”

This idea of interconnectedness is increasingly referred to as intersectionality, a term that first emerged in the social justice movement in the late 1980s. The concept of intersectionality refers to the overlap between different systems of oppression, arguing that they all influence each other. The idea itself is not new—activist icons from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King often referenced it in their struggles—but it has been manifested in new ways on campus. Jubelierer stressed how the fossil fuel divestment movement was based on an understanding of the intersection between issues of climate change and social justice. “Climate change has a rap for being almost exclusively a white, upper-class issue for folks who have the resources and the time,” said Jubelierer. “But it is becoming clear that it is almost entirely about social justice, racial, economic and environmental justice issues … [its consequences] are going to be born on the backs of the people who did least to allow it.”

Despite the increasing conception of intersectionality, activists still find that the networking of campus groups has a long way to go. “There are so many committed groups, but this is also sometimes our greatest weakness,” said Stephen Goeman, a member of the CARE. “Those who might be interested in questions about free speech or freedom of expression … might not also be interested in equal wages, or issues that the Tufts Labor Coalition might address.”

To combat this fragmentation, many activist groups have begun building wider networks and coalitions. Organizations such as the Tufts Anti-Authoritarian Collective (AAC) and the Consent Culture Network (CCN) were formed last semester. AAC evolved from the Tufts Occupiers, and seeks to be a space for left-wing and radical students to organize, regardless of issue area. CCN, on the other hand, is focused on a single issue—combating rape culture—but was formed as a coalition of over a dozen groups invested in that issue. Jubelierer hoped that Tufts Divest would be able to grow by tapping into campus networks, but added that “there’s different political goals that are sometimes in conflict between different groups … navigating those differences is really important, but not always easy.” Tufts Divest is also hoping to hold a concert in the spring that highlights various student groups and their intersectionality.

While many of these features are new to the current student body, the light institutional memory of a university makes it difficult to tell whether these are cycles repeating themselves or not. Certainly, similar organization tools have existed in the past. In 2000, Tufts Students Against Discrimination formed as a horizontal group (although the term was not yet in vogue), seeking to protest the same issue that CARE does today. The next year, a leftist student publication called Radix was formed, whose members were breathily described in the Tufts Daily as “not hav[ing] official titles or positions, due to the magazine staff’s organization, which … is touted as ‘non-hierarchical.’” For Archambault, however, the possible cyclical nature of these developments does not detract from their importance. “You get new students every year, that’s the thing with academic institutions: they have limited memory. For freshmen, it’s going to be a new thing! Some of these ideas have been in the pipeline forever, but it’s new for people at Tufts now.”

As activist networks continue to grow around campus, many wonder whether there is an “activist bubble”. “I see a lot of the same faces,” said Bristol, who reports on activism on- and off-campus for the Tufts Daily. Archambault expressed similar concerns, saying that social justice activists can sometimes get “stuck in an echo chamber on campus.” Logan Cotton, a TCU senator and member of the Pan African Alliance (PAA), said that while campus activists could sometimes be a “self-selecting group,” offering an explanation for why this might be. “I think that when you begin seeing structures, you don’t want to have to deal with people who just want to get coffee with you, because it’s not your job to teach them … it’s really important to have those conversations, but therein a bubble begins to form, because people want to be in a space where they can have the conversation casually, at level seven rather than level one.”

Despite concerns about forming a bubble, activists generally reported being well-received by the student body at-large. According to Matthews, the response varies based on the activity involved. “People always come to teach-ins and informational events,” he said, “but marches, not so much.” With any activist campaign, however, there is always some backlash. Cotton cited the example of PAA’s years-long campaign for an Africana Studies program, during which, he said, “it was a hard realization that it’s not about convincing everyone … it’s about creating a space where people who want to hear and listen to what you have to say can do that.”

The administration’s response to student activism has been even more mixed, depending on the issues and administrative bodies involved. Tufts Divest has been invited to meetings with the administration and the Board of Trustees. “They seemed to take the threat of climate change seriously … but there’s going to be a lot of dragging of feet,” said Jubelierer. “[They] need to realize that we are building a climate movement. We are ready to go further on our own.” In 2011, the push for Africana Studies escalated beyond negotiation with the administration and occupied Ballou Hall, leaving with an agreement on the creation of a new program. “It’s a shame that it took 40 years for Africana Studies to become a reality,” said Cotton. “We needed to really do some radical stuff to make it so that everyone was listening.”

“[Members of the administration] are very friendly and receptive people personally,” said Matthews, “but when it comes to actual change, they get very scared and reluctant and hesitant and … they start mumbling about committees and bylaws.” Bristol concurred, adding that “there is an incredible amount of out-of-touch-ness … administrators see our petitions and our direct actions, but sometimes they don’t understand the weight of these things.” Archambault stressed that administrators should not be seen as a single entity. “Legitimate activism recognizes that it’s dealing with independent parties,” he said, “but being part of an activist movement, you are by definition telling the powers that be that they’re doing something wrong.” Ruby Vail, president of Tufts VOX (a Planned Parenthood affiliate group) and a member of Students Acting for Gender Equality (SAGE), expressed concern that the administration was not addressing important issues such as sexual assault. “With a lot of the issues we’ve addressed in SAGE, they’re really uncomfortable ones that no one really wants to admit are issues,” she said. “No one wants to think about [sexual assault] as an issue at Tufts, when of course it is. Tufts isn’t radically different from any other university.”

Despite the sometimes uphill battle facing Tufts activists when they encounter the administration, students consistently stressed the uniqueness of college campuses for activist efforts. “We have a lot of influence in this world,” said Bristol. “As a private liberal arts college with a large endowment, we can make ourselves heard.” “Tufts makes intellectuals,” said Cotton, “and the unintended consequence of that is that you’ll make some radicals and activists as well.” Vail emphasized how activists can really make a difference on campus. “[In 2006], the Primary Source published a scathing article on the Sex Fair as if it was something promoting promiscuity and STIs … now it’s just something that people see as a little out there,” she said. “Sometimes we tend to diminish what we’re doing … but it’s important to realize that these groups have really made a difference at Tufts.”

Although his speech was a paean to the possibilities of good government, Barack Obama’s inaugural address contained a creed that most activists could relate to—“while these truths may be self-evident,” he said, “they’ve never been self-executing.” Whether this is a new era for campus activism or it is a cyclical reemergence, Tufts students today find themselves in unique moment. Across movements of all stripes, the idea of intersectionality is taking hold, often manifested through horizontal organizing or a focus on coalition building. And amidst all of the frustration that drives activist movements, students find themselves empowered by their role on campus. Jubelierer expressed a sentiment embedded in the accounts of nearly every activist interviewed for this article: “I really do think we can win,” he said. “If our momentum builds, I think we can win this semester.”