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Reimagining campus organizing

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An internal contradiction permeates leftist campus activism: Campus activists aspire to a future we ourselves must build, but we find ourselves constrained by the bubble, by a college identity and by the landscape of the University itself. College activists are moved to action by the push of an ideology that their organization collectively endorses, and the fact of this endorsement should direct our attention to the central purpose of progressive activism. 

We have imagined an alternative, improved future, situated it as the ambition of an ideology that enables it, and staged a personal and collective commitment to it. Fulfilling this commitment frequently necessitates transcending the enduring borders of the University, but we find ourselves stuck within them. 

One popular response to this contradiction is to turn our attention inwards. We identify a more limited alternate future that we can actualize within those constraints, and use those constraints as the impetus for this new type of action. We briefly ignore that our ideologies aspire to a transformed world, and we concern ourselves with improving Stanford instead. For now, our community is self-contained, and there’s plenty to occupy ourselves with here. 

This contortion inwards, this primary focus on the happenings of our own University, is a perfectly justified impulse with bizarre consequences for college activism. It commands that we campus activists validate and affirm our organizations against one other. This command steals our attention, and wastes our resources. 

I once found myself in White Plaza staring into the face of the quintessential Stanford College Republican-bro, separated only by the width of the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) table, and the length of the brim of his MAGA cap. While he and his comrades staged arguments mostly for an audience of passersby, and while I accepted nods and smiles of solidarity from my classmates and peers, I asked myself: “Who is this helping, what am I doing here and what does this teach me about campus organizing?” The only relationship DSA had with our visitors was our shared association to the University. That association, then, is the only explanation for expending energy on one other. In the moment when I was sitting at that table, alternating between arguing and returning nods, I was performing this turn-inwards. 

In my case, the consequence of that contortion was wasted energy. In other cases, the contortion produces a body of student activists with stunted imaginations, eclipsed aspirations and distorted motivations. When campus activism turns inwards, it suddenly emerges as a platform for making friends and, worse, for asserting our public identities as activists. The extent of our commitment to our work becomes a proxy for its capacity to satisfy our social and personal needs within the University. In other words, the social need of making friends, and the personal desire for a stable public identity, overtakes the landscape of college activism.

These consequences leave us college activists enormously dissatisfied. The consensus is striking. We feel restrained and alienated from our missions. We all solemnly shake our heads at the state of affairs. It appears that we have collectively identified this decay, and resigned ourselves to it as if it were inevitable. 

By reminding us of the things we aspire to change, coronavirus has revitalized the motivations of activists across the world, and this incitation has found a home with Stanford’s student body. I was floored by the mutual aid efforts initiated by my peers after being evacuated from campus. Stanford Students for Workers’ Rights have achieved incredible feats in organizing for workers affected by the pandemic. Suddenly, in light of such clear passion, I question the sustainability of our resignation to the decay. 

The limits of that resignation have been evident from the start — campus activists are dissatisfied, but never dispirited; restrained, but never settled; we are incredulous, but never jaded. A capacity to imagine an improved state of affairs is precisely the quality that each of us share, and this imagination necessitates that we finally ask the question we’ve been orbiting: What is a future for campus activism that we might aspire to? What is its character, how might it change us and when will we build it? 

Fragmentation poses a massive limit on all activist work on campus, and it perpetuates the discussed character issues: When an aspiring activist searches the catalog of campus outlets for meaningful social change, diversity and fragmentation beget the feeling that one is first and foremost joining a social club. Once they have chosen a club and effectively decided which niche element of leftist activism they would like to pursue, they have committed their time, energy and manpower with an excluding discretion. The ethos of “prioritization” substantiates this discretion, and our work is duly inhibited by it. 

When we are prepared to mobilize, we cannot solicit the time and energy of everyone who is sympathetic to the issue at hand. We have all committed ourselves elsewhere. Perpetually elsewhere. Diversity of specialty is valuable for campus activism when it is expressed in our base. The instant this diversity finds its expression in our outlets, we incur all of the restraints of fragmentation.     

Instead, we should prioritize integration. Merging all of our leftists organizations would give us immediate access to every sympathetic student on campus. It would arm us with a committed, passionate, versatile and numerous base. This base would transform the nature of our work: It would augment our productivity, and its mutuality would remedy the cultural constraints of campus activism. Working in collaboration with the entire body of student activists on campus would alleviate us of our impulse to turn inwards — we will cease to seek distinction from other activist-oriented organizations, which will enable us to direct our attention beyond our own campus. 

The central leaders of activist organizations might have reasonable hesitations to this proposal. Many of them have dedicated considerable energy toward making their groups distinct and independent, and they have done so with good reason — distinction and independence afford organizations the notoriety and respect that might make an aspiring activist choose them. The fact of this choice is a contradiction: It commands us to compete for the energy and attention of our student body, despite our mutual interests, and our mutual need for the whole of the student body.

Professor David Palumbo-Liu and his students in the class “Scholarship and Activism for Justice” have already initiated the process of integration by prioritizing coalition-building, but it appears that this coalition will still preserve the multiplicity of our organizations. One option for a coalition of leftists on campus is having our key players and student leaders meet separately to coordinate our projects, but this option worries me: It would create an internal, nonproductive hierarchy where student activists compete for the opportunity to represent their distinctive organization. This, like any measure that preserves multiplicity, would perpetuate the issues of fragmentation. 

A full integration of the leftist groups on campus would call for substantial adjustments in the ways we organize, but once we commit to those adjustments, we will open ourselves to an entire cosmos of new possibilities for campus activism. Sub-committees focused on specific issues can connect with local organizations and plan new projects, and they will have the entirety of leftist activists on campus to report back to. We will shatter the bubble that once constrained us; we will obliterate the limitations that once restricted us, and the culture of campus activism will be renewed by our unprecedented capacity. The resources are at our disposal. We are numerous, energized and eager to mobilize for change. We ought to deliver this change together. 

Contact Jessica Femenias at femenias ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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