Should activist student groups disband?

Opinion by Lily Zheng
April 13, 2017, 12:56 a.m.

If its admissions site is any indication, Stanford likes bragging about how many student groups it has. Our 600 student groups, Stanford claims, “enrich the social, cultural and educational experiences of Stanford students, influence the larger University community and enhance the overall diversity found at Stanford.”

“Diversity” and “enrich[ment]” aside, it seems increasingly clear that the recent explosion of interest in activism and social justice has created a strong contingent of new student groups.

Of our 600 student groups at Stanford, 50 relate to community service, 46 to cultural identity, 32 to social awareness, 18 to media, 11 to health and wellness and eight to politics. Many additional student groups and non-VSO student communities join these in creating a campus culture that increasingly seems aware of, if not actively engaged in, activism.

The realm of what could be called “social justice work” is no longer characterized by a small number of vocal students and student groups pushing back against an indifferent campus; maybe now, our problem is oversaturation. Everyone is interested in activism (and in reframing what they already do as activism) — in finding the ways in which their interests relate to a bigger picture of social justice and address some of the many issues and inequities in society.

It’s with all this in mind that I wonder if all this interest is making activism harder, not easier.

When activism was the sole purview of a dedicated core of activists (and I could count the major student groups and movements involved on my hands), a large focus was placed on mobilization, resource creation and campus-wide change. Burnout was common and intersectionality was rare, but communities were tight-knit and supportive.

The rapid creation of new student groups over the past few years has taken the core of activist mobilization, split it into a hundred pieces and scattered them across campus. Paradoxically, Stanford now has more events, more speakers, more projects and more interest around social justice and activism even as it has less collaboration, less coordination, less event attendance and less movement-building. Burnout is still common (though now it’s intersectional burnout), and our communities, organizing and work have become as scattered as our student groups.

The work of institutional memory and learning today is a tediously individual labor. Due to the small size of or lack of social movements, “learning from the past” looks less like movement-to-movement learning and more like movement-to-individual learning reliant on oral histories spread from person to person. When we consider that Stanford students are bringing an increasing desire to do activism into this environment where activist history is so tenuously intangible, we get well-intentioned activism that repeats the work (and mistakes) of the past without tangibly building on that work, all over campus with every topic imaginable.

I’ve talked about this problem before, and my suggestions then were to create a public repository of knowledge and prioritize coalition-building among our different organizations and movements. While I still believe in the necessity of these initiatives, I’m less convinced now that they will succeed without significant changes to student life. The problem with archiving and coalition-building is that both activities take time that we don’t have, and create results that we don’t benefit from immediately. Coalition-building additionally requires long-term planning (rather than short-term action), schedule coordination, time management and reliable leadership transition — all of which I can safely say Stanford students struggle with.

I am wondering now if a more politically effective student body would be one with fewer student groups, fewer events and more informal organizing.

With less focus on formal structures and procedures that encourage transactional interactions and elevate the Event as the fundamental unit of student life, activism would lose some of its structure and scriptedness, but possibly regain some of the flexibility that is needed to truly dream, strategize and work toward a collective future. Rather than the fast-paced, chaotic environment we have today where activist events happen every hour, we could have fewer but longer events, with more continuity in terms of both content and attendance. We could make movements that create their own leadership pipelines, advocate for long-term institutional change over more than four years at a time and hold their own institutional memory. Perhaps most importantly, we could bring the “collective” back into “collective action,” and come back together as a community of activists.  

I know that it’s hard to resist the desire to do something in response to our current political climate, especially as many of us juggle school, jobs and/or family responsibilities, and especially for the frosh and sophomores looking to get plugged into the larger activist community. Stanford provides an enormous amount of support for student groups, and I wouldn’t want any different, nor would I tell people not to form them. However, student group participation and movement-building, at least in today’s Stanford, are competing demands. As campus interest in activism continues to grow, more and more of us will have to make a choice.


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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