Fighting the Power: Reflections on the State of University Activism
When people hear “Wesleyan,” they often think of radical hippies marching outside academic buildings, students passing around petitions on Foss Hill, or undergraduates storming the administration in pursuit of more fruit at Usdan. Yet many would say times have changed since the days of rampant activism that defined the University’s reputation in the sixties and seventies. Nowadays, student activism takes different forms on campus, but it still faces some of the same obstacles activists have faced throughout the University’s history.
“I think certainly the campus was very politically engaged when I was a student and remains engaged today, although the modes of participation are different than the 1970s,” said President Michael Roth. “The work of our students, whether it is in Kenya, in Teach for America, working in various levels of public service or government work, remains very high.”
Whether it is the Environmental Organizer’s Network (EON), FemNet, Spectrum, or the Wesleyan Democrats, the University is home to a diverse activist community that covers a broad range of issues.
Students leaders face a variety of issues in organizing movements on campus. One challenge many have had to conquer is the lack of communication between different groups. A few years ago, students started a project called WesUnity intended to unite all the activist groups on campus under one website that would share organizing news and events. Though this project failed to materialize, it led to more talks about creating a more cohesive activist community.
“When you’re trying to get things done there isn’t a lot of time to think about your larger goals, the overall way that you’re doing things, and what kind of value your methods have—so [the discussions] are really helpful” said Allegra Stout ’12, a co-founder of Wesleyan Students for Disability Rights, a group focused on creating a physically and academically more accessible campus for disabled students.
Over the past two years, students have been hosting informal discussions around campus to discuss activism and combat the growing gaps between different groups.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating to see campaigns start and fall apart relatively quickly,” said Dan Fischer ’12, a member of Students for a Just and Stable Future, a group targeting environmental issues around Connecticut. “I’d like to see united and sustained projects that last for years, make an impact in Middletown, and substantially contribute to larger movements.”
Another problem facing the activist community is ensuring that the activism on campus extends to broader problems outside the University’s borders.
“I wish that more groups recognized that the way to make progress on their issue is through the political process or by persuading people who don’t go to Wesleyan,” said Bradley Spahn ’11, the President of College Democrats in Connecticut. “I think too many activist groups focus on shows of solidarity on campus that don’t affect the off-campus world.”
Some students even contest the term “activist” as an inherently privileged word, a title they feel uneasy accepting.
“A lot of my friends who call themselves activists at this school discuss what activism means, who can claim the title of activist and why it has been a historically white thing to claim and a privileged thing to claim,” said Zak Kirwood ’12, a member of the Committee for Investor Responsibility, a group which monitors the practices of companies the University is invested in. “I have an issue calling myself an activist because I think it’s kind of presumptuous.”
Yet despite these issues, the University has worked closely with students to ensure that activism stays strong and continues to be a major part of campus culture.
“In my experience, the administration has been willing to see that these issues are important and they want to help in any way that they can,” Stout said. “There is also something to be said for the more radical version where you go in to the administration and demand what you need right now. But I don’t really see that happening.”
The University Organizing Center (UOC), a space at190 High Street that first opened in 2004, is the most concrete connection between student activism and the University. There have been access issues with the space for the past couple of years, but after cleanups and renovations the Center is now fully functioning and open to students Monday through Friday from noon to midnight. Students involved in the UOC believe that it could become a center of activism that connects many groups on campus.
“This space could really become a place where groups are meeting and students are talking to each other and running into each other and hanging out,” said Meggie McGuire ’12, the UOC intern. “I want to make the space accessible and also something that’s used by a diverse group of people. It could have a really amazing flow that would facilitate dialogue between groups that aren’t necessarily talking to each other and that could create a stronger activist community.”
The University also pays certain interns to run student activist events and groups, but some believe it may negatively affect how students volunteer their time to fight for these causes.
“I think that these internship positions are in direct opposition to activism in some sense,” said Joseph Cribb ’13, the campus Queer Resource Center intern. “People think there’s someone in charge of that now and someone there will do it for us. The whole idea of activism is supposed to come from a place of wanting to empower oneself for the purpose of a common goal, which is completely the opposite of an institution giving money to a student to do this for other people.”
Furthermore, many student activists are wary of the University’s intentions for funding and supporting activism on campus.
“Sometimes the institution takes over student desires and interests into their own self-sustaining thing,” Kirwood said. “A lot of time they say they want to help but you have to think of what goals they have in mind and what image they want Wesleyan to have.”
Regardless of the University’s intentions, many students share the sentiment that the impetus for change has to come from the student body.
“Activism has to happen semi-organically,” Cribb said. “People can push it here and there but if you want sustainable activism, people really have to want it and feel it. I don’t think it’s something you can do lightly, or just do activism for the sake of doing activism.”
Though many are critical of the state of activism on campus, other students still feel that the University continues to outperform many other smaller schools’ activist efforts.
“When I go to other colleges, I see a lot more interest in establishment politics and less interest in particular causes,” Spahn said. “I think students here are really interested and passionate, and there’s much more interest at the grassroots level.”
“If you’re comparing it to many other top liberal arts colleges, then maybe Wesleyan is more active than most,” Kirwood countered. “But if you’re comparing it to big state schools where people come from a lot of different backgrounds and aren’t so obsessed with school and success, then I think those places have more activism, especially big schools in urban areas.”
Nonetheless, activism is a staple of campus life—one that to many students enhances and defines their four years at Wes.
“I found that activism really brings out the best in people—I started seeing this whole new side to everybody,” Fischer said. “People who aren’t normally artists are drawing posters, people who aren’t typically troublemakers start breaking the law, and people who aren’t typically outspoken start getting mad as hell.”