Life after finals: Nurturing a sustainable activism

Opinion by Lily Zheng
May 30, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

I still remember the way my middle school teachers always spent the last week of school warning of the perils of summer. “You’ll forget everything!” they threatened, and we students always nodded gravely until the final bell rang, nothing but our hard-earned freedom on our minds. Of course, our teachers ended up having a point — summer learning loss is a real phenomenon whereby students, especially those who are working-class, lose around two months’ worth of math and/or reading skills over each summer break. Teachers in the fall then must spend roughly a month reteaching the lost material, putting added stress onto teachers to make up for the loss of valuable teaching time.

It reminds me somewhat of what happens with student activism every fall: Emaciated student groups dust off their Google documents and agendas, take note of their remaining members and turn their collective eye towards recruiting new frosh. And once numbers are back up, it gets even harder. Continually teaching well-intentioned but inexperienced, or poorly-informed, students a praxis that is effective, knowledgeable and intentional is one of the hardest tasks most student activist organizations must deal with. And it isn’t made any easier by the fact that the seniors who led and inspired the organization in the past have now graduated, and new leaders must take their place.

What all of this ends up meaning is that the bulk of fall quarter is dedicated to maintenance — organizations scale down their external outreach and advocacy in favor of much-needed internal redevelopment. Leaders test out their new roles, members struggle to learn the knowledge they need to advocate well, and any momentum formerly held by the organization stops dead in its tracks. It’s hard to sustain movements when the organizations pushing them forward stop moving, and by the time student activists are ready to reinvigorate their advocacy, the student body and campus climate have moved on.   

This problem of multi-year sustainability might be the reason why campus activism is far more likely to grow throughout the school year than between school years: during the summer, activists — like students on summer break — lose touch with their work. As a result, activist organizations or movements are less able to create incremental change from the work of previous years, make use of expertise or resources developed over the group’s history or mobilize the student body towards sustained action.    

What are some things we can do as activists to answer these problems?

ONE: Document knowledge and strategy. Leaders of advocacy or activist groups can begin archiving essential educational materials, tips and tactics for organizing strategies and other important knowledge for the organization. Archiving and cataloguing brings important information (what is the Prison-Industrial Complex and prison abolition as praxis? What are the best ways to get funding for events?) from word-of-mouth education into a more accessible and durable medium. It allows new members to onboard more rapidly, existing members to refresh and update their knowledge, and most importantly, for the repository of resources created and compiled by any organization to organically grow.

TWO: Reflect on lessons learned. Summer is one of the best times of the year for consolidation, reflection and strategy. Student activist organizations and groups should ask themselves: What worked over the last year and what didn’t? What were the institutional, organizational and situational reasons why some initiatives worked and some didn’t? What lessons can be learned, and how can next year’s leadership act with that knowledge in mind? If summer is treated as a time for intentional action, then even a minimum number of meetings can sustain the organization’s momentum.

THREE: Start off strong. Beginning the year with thoughtful, well-organized events can set campus expectations for the entire year, and reinvigorate the momentum that (hopefully) remains from the previous year. Student groups can send the message early on that Stanford students not only care about but act against rape culture, occupation, white supremacy, transmisogyny, wealth inequity and structural oppression of all forms. For incoming frosh in particular, a strong first impression of campus activism can shape their expectations for the rest of their time here.

FOUR: Come together. The paradox of student organizing on campus is that we all call for “solidarity” and “intersectionality” and yet lack the knowledge to turn that intent into reality. The truth of things is that we are all far, far away from that idyllic place where we would like to be. It is too often the case that only disability justice activists actively oppose ableism, racial justice activists actively oppose white supremacy, class activists actively oppose wealth inequity.

Some part of it is just plain lack of communication: not every organization has knowledge of or access to the resources they need; organizations created around identity politics rarely share resources with each other. But the bulk of it is a harder problem to fix: oftentimes the work cannot be intersectional by default. Can an anti-sexual assault praxis using the threat of incarceration or state punishment coexist with racial justice via prison abolition? Can a queer or racial politic promising the “American dream” of monetary gain coexist with economic justice via wealth redistribution and anti-capitalism? These are the types of hard questions we need to answer if we value true solidarity, and given the recent salience of student coalitions over this past year, solidarity has never been more important.

Campus activism is hard. Activist and advocacy groups must balance their single-issue advocacy with ideological intersectionality, maintain relationships with the student body and administration and sustain critical knowledge and experience over the long-term. One summer of reflection can’t give us all the answers, but I have faith in the students who do this work, and faith in the potential of our future organizing. We’ve accomplished so much this year, and I want to hope that finals week won’t mark the end of that.

Let’s thank and celebrate those graduating for the amazing work they’ve done — it’s up to us to keep their fire alive.  

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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