Loading icon

Worth the Pain: The Emotional Toll of Student Activism

Opinion | September 23, 2013

Their battles have been won across history: divestment from nuclear warfare and Apartheid, the founding of the Africana Center, and the later establishment of the Africana studies program. A class poet declares that he is “a homosexual” onstage at commencement in 1969, and students occupy Bendetson in 2000, forcing then-President John DiBaggio to denounce anti-gay discrimination. The student activist community at Tufts, through interweaving the myriad experiences of the underprivileged and harnessing their extraordinary strength, has been responsible for great change. But for the singular activist—with her own journey, her own blood and tears to spill—that beautiful success comes at an inescapable cost.

She came to Tufts with a caring mind. That made the first part easy: She was already willing to put any effort to help those around Her before doing anything that She thought would benefit just herself. She had respected the activist community, and now She had the time to get involved.

“It’s a very different community than the sort I’ve been a part of,” said Jordan Dashow on being part of the Coalition Against Religious Exclusion (CARE). “Knowing that there are other people who are just as, if not more, passionate for fighting injustice…it really restores my faith in the student body.”

At first for Her, it was once or twice a week for each cause, although most of the organizers clearly worked on their own time, too. But those individuals with the greatest presence in the meetings She’d begun frequenting spoke with a sort of fatigue in their voices. Their passion was unmistakable, but they were getting older. Seniors had been at “this”—fighting for curricular change, policy change, cultural change—for years now. And although just as passionate, the enthusiasm expressed by seasoned activists, compared with that of leaders in community groups and academic fields, wasn’t quite as optimistic.

Stephen Goeman, an alumnus of Students Promoting Equality Awareness & Compassion (SPEAC), ascribed his own fatigue as the result of “success in activism being really hard and really hard to gauge, and more often than not met with vocal outrage.” Pretty soon, She experienced that vocal outrage firsthand. When She would mention how She was involved in the cause of sexual assault prevention, She suddenly felt the burden fall on Her to defend against every attack challenging women’s rights activism or notions of “rape culture” from her peers. How can they expect me to know everything, She thought, I only just got involved. She put herself on a fast-track to understand the issues as deeply as those She admired.

Coming to that deeper understanding isn’t just challenging, though—it’s violent. “People actively disbelieve that [various forms of injustice are] a problem,” Goeman noted. “They put up cognitive barriers to shield themselves from seeming like they’re complicit in a system of oppression.” Brandon Archambault, a founding member of CARE, reflected that the activist spiritual journey often begins with a pressing desire to imitate your idols and for these idols to reinforce your ideology. But ideally, “You don’t do things for approval.”

Upon realizing that fact, She became utterly self-questioning. She never really did break free from the thirst for validation, but as She came to an elaborate understanding of the work She was doing, it was less and less a necessary part of her experience. As the issue-at-hand became the overwhelming enemy, the stress of critically examining every step She took to ensure She wasn’t on the toes of those who inspire Her, or of those She was trying to liberate, diminished

Overwhelming: that the problem was all around Her, and no matter how hard She fought, there was no guarantee that She was making a difference. In Her work fighting sexual assault, She began to learn that more and more of those close to Her were survivors. She read the statistics—1 in 4 women on college campuses are raped—and it was baffling that muting this epidemic wasn’t one of the university’s top priorities. To many of Her friends, the problem was invisible—nobody talked about it, it wasn’t obvious in everyday life. But to Her—knowing the culture, knowing the faces of the survivors—it was undeniable.

“Some of these issues are really difficult to deal with,” recalled a member of Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP). “You don’t learn a little bit about sexual assault policy, you start and learn everything, and I’ve found myself less equipped to deal with it.” Leah Muskin-Pierret, another ASAP member, added: “It’s like fighting a menace with no face. You can’t really tally your successes.”

But She was caring. And the more She learned, the more selfless She realized She had to be, and the more She sacrificed for the cause. In publicly denouncing injustice, She essentially gave up prospects of working in government or mainline journalism—preserving them wasn’t worth being complacent to an unsafe campus environment. (Archambault commented: “You can put Facebook on private, but have publishings you write and are quoted in that people will find. You give up a lot of career options.”) She would stay up until the early morning, drafting e-mail proposals to Deans and designing posters for campus-wide campaigns.

When most of those emails went ignored, the posters vandalized or ripped down, She encouraged escalation, which only took more investment. Organizing a rally can take weeks. Composing an op-ed or building a website, even longer. While She felt reinforced when She left Her meetings with administrators, no tangible action ever seemed to result. They didn’t seem to know how to reform the (oppressive) structures they were a part of. After several administrative meetings of his own, Dashow noted: “It’s very difficult to influence bureaucracy when the bureaucracy itself doesn’t know how it works.”

A member of CARE, Rita (name changed for anonymity) remembered the academic toll she felt in the weeks after the instatement of the CSL policy: “I got two of the worst grades I’ve ever received. It was pretty bad. My only in-class final was open book, and I didn’t give a shit.” Rita recalls how in her own meetings with campus officials, she’d been cut off and interrupted if she ever implied that the administration was distant from the student experience. It bred an anxiety and helplessness unmatched by any exam schedule or job search. “I doubled my dosage of Prozac to stay alive.”

And then there’s the culture. Early on, She realized that the “activist” fighting oppression was, ironically, an oppressed identity of its own kind. She was called radical and uppity in the Daily, She was dismissed when she’d try to table or work. The academic pressure, the sleeplessness, the knowledge of the pain surrounding Her, the administrative dismissiveness—all compounded by the fact that she lived in a culture where her activist identity was not acceptable.

Soon, She was immobilized. She was afraid to speak of it to her therapist because she didn’t want Her counseling sessions to get political. The minor mistakes She’d make in her campaigning suddenly appeared apocalyptic.

“You hear about people who experience pain they don’t deserve, and that just becomes anger,” Muskin-Pierret said. “I think that’s why a lot of people I know have turned to self-harm. They’re filled with compassion, so you take it out on yourself.” And so She started smoking, at first just for relief but eventually because it felt as if She deserved hurt. Self-harm wasn’t logically valid, but it felt emotionally inescapable. And even Her fellow activists—who were sympathetic to Her feelings, politically and emotionally—didn’t know how to ask about the scars on her forearm, or why She shaved her head.

But one day, someone did. Someone could have been an administrator, a fellow activist, or another student—even one who was politically opposite. Someone gave her space—an extension on her paper, an understanding of her compassion-inspired torment, a promise to listen—and in that space, She could breathe. Someone else told Her that they shared Her pain and would be there to cry and vent. Someone offered Her strength. “All I can give them is my presence,” said Tufts Freethought president Katrina Dzyak, on supporting her fellow activists. “All I can be is more empowering for them.”

She had a caring mind. As many of us do: us students, us faculty, us administrators alike. Upon being made aware of the systematic oppression that tears at those around us, some of us haven’t a choice but to rise up. And in rising, we sometimes fall to the darkest places. This isn’t a call for action. This is a call for empathy. Activists in this community are driven by love, and for that they will tear at themselves—we owe them not calls for “civility” or “dialogue,” for those conversations are already happening in activist circles. We owe them our presence and the knowledge that it’s not just their likeminded activists who are there to empower them.

We are caring. Let’s not oppress those fighting oppression. Let’s love the loving.