By Josee Smith
As a result of recent national events, including the shooting of Michael Brown, the increase in police brutality, the recent San Mateo Bridge takeover and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more and more Stanford students find themselves surrounded by different ways of getting involved in voicing their opinions about national and campus events.
While students are engaged with these topics in myriad ways, including showing up at protests, posting on Facebook or attending a talk or panel about a current event, these types of events have created a more active campus.
What is an activist?
For some students, the term “activist” has taken on a certain connotation that makes it difficult for them to apply the term to themselves. When thinking about other students or people off campus who they have observed, some students do not feel like they can call themselves activists.
Shelby Sinclair ’15, co-president of the Black Student Union (BSU), tends to associate the term with important historical figures and names and feels hesitant to put herself into that category.
“It depends on how general you make the term,” she says. “Given my position as the BSU co-president, I would be remiss not to be engaged on some level in activist efforts. I try to keep myself informed to bring knowledge back to the members of my community.”
Dina Hassan ’15 similarly struggles with the use of the term “activist,” as she has been exposed to people who she describes as more dedicated and invested in their cause, and feels disrespectful towards them if she were to consider herself an activist.
Hassan says that to the extent that she cares about issues and is willing to turn out to support them she is an activist, but that “there are some people that I know that are so dedicated to it and spend all their time doing it, and this is the thing that makes them come alive…While I feel that it’s really important and I really want to be there, I consider myself to be a kind of person who really likes school.”
Adorie Howard ’17 also struggles with applying the term “activist” to herself but feels that it is more important for her to know what she is interested in and passionate about, and where her place is within those topics or conversations.
“For me, it’s about knowing where I’m welcome or not welcome, knowing my privilege, and knowing if I can be helpful,” she says. “Sometimes there can be this general atmosphere of ‘whatever this cause is, I’m going to fix it or make my voice heard,’ and that’s not always for me…it’s not about needing to be active…[but] about knowing my place, my passions, what I care about, what I have to offer, and my shortcomings within certain spaces.”
Though students might have trouble applying the term to themselves personally, many are able to get active on campus.
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“Activism” on campus
Nicole Follmann ’15 was first introduced to activism on campus through STAND, a human rights group where she learned about advocacy efforts, and an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) about international human rights, where she and other students were able to lobby.
“I can participate in different events, if not organize them,” she says. “I can learn from groups that are putting on events…showing up is important too.”
According to Sinclair, there are many different ways for people to become involved in activism around campus. “For some people, it might look like actually putting their body on the line; for some, it’s about creating spreadsheets and handling logistics; and for others it might be elevating actions on social media.”
Sinclair has also received emails from students asking about how to get involved with events happening around campus and she has been able to invite them to different meetings in order to see what sorts of projects the BSU and other groups are working on.
“I tell them to ask around and talk to their friends, figure out who coordinated this, who organized that,” she says. “A lot of how people learn might be through word-of-mouth.”
According to Howard, she previously expressed her opinions on current issues by writing things down and engaging with others, but during her sophomore year, she has been trying to turn these concerns and conversations into actions.
“It’s been about educating myself about these topics and having informal conversations, talking with people through email and getting linked to someone else, so I talk to them, and now it’s about implementing and turning the conversation into something concrete,” she says. “It’s been informal conversations, formal events, and getting connected with like minded people.”
For many students, this year in particular has seen an even greater surge of active engagement on campus, possibly as a reflection of national events.
“From last year to this year, there’s been a strong cultural change towards action,” Howard says. “It’s a reflection of the nation especially around issues of race and police brutality…People are tired of waiting for change.”
For Sinclair, she has also noticed a dramatic shift in the campus atmosphere this year and feels that Stanford students who engage with the issues fall into three categories.
“There’s a solid contingent of people who choose to engage with efforts in the real world that are most pertinent to them and that they care about, but it might not look the same as what I care about,” she says. “I think that’s okay. There’s also a solid contingent of people who are engaged with issues that I care about; they’re well-versed and read a lot but they don’t necessarily speak up. And then there’s a third group of students, who are super vocal and super active and are finding ways to bring conversations to campus.”
This increase in student involvement and engagement with issues on and off campus has led to some conversations about how different groups can support each other and work together.
Space for intersectionality
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For Howard, the way in which students and other players have come together to support the Black Lives Matter movement has been interesting to watch develop.
“The movement has involved people of all different races, all different ages, different physical abilities, and sexualities,” she says. “I think that’s really beautiful. One of the first demonstrations I attended was the Slow Down for Mike Brown event. It was a really hot day and I was out there with a sign not saying anything. It was just really hot and I was thinking to myself that all of us are feeling that way, so there was this large sense of unity in seeing so many people stand together for something so much larger than us. It was the first time I felt a part of something larger than our campus.”
Howard also finds it important to think about what groups might not be able to have their voice heard and why that might be. She also tries to think of ways that she can help them be heard.
“The sexual assault movement is epitomized by white, cis-gen, straight, middle class females, and other voices are silenced,” she says. “It’s about questioning why that is, since in my personal experiences and relations, I know that these are not representative of all the people whom are affected….Even with the ‘Carry Your Weight‘ mattress movement across the nation, there is so much privilege in the idea of it, ‘what about the people who can’t support the weight or who don’t have that platform?’ It’s about taking a step back and evaluating that.”
By engaging with these topics and staying active on campus, Stanford students have found a voice for themselves on national issues, even though Stanford has not always been considered a place of strong student activism.
Activism’s competition: apathy or busyness?
According to Sinclair, Stanford students might not seem as engaged in current issues as students from other campuses because of the multitude of other facets of our lives.
“We don’t always appear to be activists who are going to put everything on the line for the sake of a cause because there are other things that students are preoccupied with, like their course load, student groups, campus jobs or even financial aid,” she says.
According to Follman, when Stanford is compared to other schools, it can be tempting to say that Stanford students aren’t actively engaged because the engagement is not to the scale of schools like Berkeley. However, she feels that students are getting more engaged in recent years.
“Student groups have been making an effort to make it clear that we haven’t always been apathetic…there’s a deep history of activism,” she says, citing the 1994 hunger strike led by Chicano activists on campus.
This surge in student involvement in protests, demonstrations, and engagement with current events has led to conversations about the role of the University in this space.
Sinclair has felt that the University tries to be responsive to the needs of student groups and to find ways to help those groups.
“Activism can be draining for students– physically, emotionally, and mentally– and the University does a good job of showing they are there for us,” Sinclair says.
According to Sinclair, part of this support is having a clear and open line of communication. She says the university’s number one concern is the safety of students. Still, “they don’t interfere in a way that would stop things from happening.”
“Stanford supports students interested in social change but I think it would be really excellent to have more guidance and support for students who are interested in [activism],” Follmann adds. “This is a great place to learn about it and be involved with it and it could lead to a career but it’s not that easy.”
Contact Josee Smith at jsmith11 ‘at’ stanford.edu.