How we sabotage our own community education work (and how that ends)

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Feb. 2, 2017, 1:28 a.m.

If social justice movements had a life cycle, we’d be somewhere in the formative childhood years of one right now at Stanford. We’ve got our movement; we know what we are resisting against; we know we’re in it for the long haul. But we don’t really yet have a way to act on our own terms — a way to win the slow burn of bad news attrition. It’s scarcely been a week, and I’m tired. Many of us are.

It’s not just the content of the news — it’s what to do in the arid silences between headlines when we have nothing but the anxiety of wondering which basic tenet of our taken-for-granted lives will be sledgehammered down next. Op-ed writers around the globe are having a field day with this new administration; there’s always something new to write about, whether that be trial coups, flashy betrayals or rogue National Park Rangers. And yet, these stories do little to expand our capacity as a social movement while taking what free time we have and making us feel like we are doing something by reading an article or two a day.

This doesn’t change the fundamental powerlessness of our burgeoning social movement, and it’s taking physical, emotional and spiritual tolls on us all. We are activists, not a militia — if we remain a reactionary movement, our actions will burn brightly but fade swiftly. To survive, we need wood (or maybe solar panels), not oil.

Many activists know that part of the answer lies in education. By encouraging members of our social movements to learn about large and complex issues of power, privilege, identity, history and change, we create more effective change-makers, empower new leaders and contribute to the sustainability of our work. Many of us at Stanford believe and often reiterate the idea that “education is the great equalizer” and vigorously work to improve the educational systems and resources around us to be ever more inclusive, representative and relevant.

If these are truly our goals, then as activists, we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.

Activist-led community education at Stanford is incredibly ineffective. The massive over-saturation of campus event programming each day, fueled by 600+ student groups encompassing every topic under the sun, buries individual events under an avalanche of speakers, mixers, parties, screenings and advertisements. The huge collection of Stanford activist or social issue-related student groups fight to have their events stand out to compete for time from students who are already stretched too thin. Lack of any coherent partnerships or real collaborations (last-minute “co-sponsorships” don’t count) reflects the radio silence between different social issue networks and the difficulty in inter-VSO coordination. On top of this, each year, graduating leadership deals devastating blows to the experience, knowledge and overall functional capacity of these student groups.

The result is an environment where disorganized and far-flung student groups individually expend huge amounts of time, energy and resources to create the same set of perpetually under-attended events each year, while the students who could most benefit from this community education work rarely show up. Paradoxically, activists often exacerbate this disparity by restricting access to social issue networks and activist communities to only those who already possess a certain degree of knowledge. “Go learn for yourself and come back when you get it,” we say, then unironically celebrate the mountains of leftover pizza after our events.

Together, this combination of factors hurts our broadly defined movement. The lack of institutional memory leads to organizers endlessly recreating the wheel, the lack of formal resources impedes onboarding and learning for otherwise motivated individuals, and the lack of coordination between different student organizations prevents true collective action from occurring.

The Stanford Organizing/Archiving Resource (SOAR) project aims to address a number of these problems. As a project led by students and supported by staff from a range of community centers and offices, SOAR aims to collect and archive the educational resources created and recreated each year for use by the entire Stanford community. Our goal is to create a repository of accumulating educational material that can reflect the organizing and community-building work of student organizations and provide an accessible history for future generations of students and staff alike. Our first community meeting is today at 9 p.m. in the Women’s Community Center.

Personal plug aside, SOAR won’t address all the problems above. In particular, Stanford students still desperately require a means to communicate and coordinate outside of email threads and Facebook groups. We still need to strategize and come up with plans of action for effective change in the coming months and years — what SOAR aims to do, though, is to expand the notion of “we” to make this organizing work accessible for any person at Stanford. This is the ultimate goal of community education, in my opinion: leveraging the experience and wisdom of student leaders to empower an entire community.


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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