In a few weeks, I will graduate. As I get closer to the end, and as I’m forced to think about my future plans, it feels a bit like resurfacing: we frequently joke about “the Stanford bubble,” but to me it has at times felt like a literal barrier between my life as a student here and the real world. I know I am not alone in this sentiment. Rarely, if ever, do our Stanford-sponsored classroom and extracurricular experiences bring us to pierce the bubble that encases us on campus. In particular, opportunities for practical training in human rights work or supervised social justice advocacy are virtually non-existent at Stanford.
I didn’t realize what my Stanford education was missing until spring break this year, when I got pulled into a human rights trip to Louisiana with the law school’s Human Rights Clinic, led by Professor James Cavallaro and Ruhan Nagra. Along with thirteen other undergraduates, I traveled to “Cancer Alley,” Louisiana, an area along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. We worked closely with a historically black community in St. John the Baptist Parish that has been mobilizing against a neighboring neoprene plant for the last two years. Suffering from seemingly staggering rates of cancer and respiratory disease, the community had asked the Clinic to design and implement a household health survey. We went door-to-door collecting health surveys from local residents. Our goal was to get an accurate record of the community’s health, in the hopes of finally understanding and exposing the link between the toxic air pollution and illness in the community.
Even though we were undergrads, we were entrusted with a level of responsibility I have never heard of in a Cardinal Course or on an ASB. Professor Cavallaro and Ruhan trained us thoroughly in preparation for the trip. Nevertheless, the 14 of us were the sole data collectors, meaning the integrity of the survey rested on us. It was our job to administer the survey professionally and record the results properly. Even more challenging was that we had to gain the trust of the community so that enough people were willing to talk to us—no small feat, particularly for those of us who had never before spent time in the rural south.
After I returned from the trip, it struck me that this was the first time Stanford gave me an opportunity — and the resources and training — to use my privileged position as a Stanford student to defend the human rights of those facing injustice. Stanford so rarely promotes social justice-oriented opportunities for undergraduates. Even the dozens of amazing activists on campus, many of whom have been agitating against injustice for years, receive little institutional support.
There is unmistakably a dearth of opportunities available to students looking to leverage institutional resources to make a tangible impact on social justice issues. When the university does facilitate student engagement with the world outside this institution, moreover, such engagement takes the form of “service” – treating symptoms instead of root causes – rather than social justice advocacy that aims to shift power and amplify the voices of the marginalized and oppressed.
On our last day in Louisiana, a group of local activists organized a crawfish boil in celebration of our work with the community. As we sat struggling to peel our crawfish, one woman got up and leaned on her cane at the front of the room. When we quieted, she thanked us for coming. Before sitting down again, she said, “I hope and pray that you’ll have an opportunity to come back one more time.”
I, too, hope that Stanford will send a contingent back. There is so much more work to be done along Cancer Alley and in countless areas around the world struggling against injustice. These communities, which too often have only small and underfunded groups of local organizers with whom to agitate and collaborate, would benefit enormously from Stanford’s resources and support. Moreover, creating more opportunities for undergraduate engagement with social justice and human rights work would enrich us as students and help us take our education out of the classroom. We can break out of the bubble, but only with Stanford’s help.
—Hattie Gawande ’18