Six weeks left in my undergraduate career at Stanford, and I’m finally beginning to feel like I’ve almost written enough Daily columns on activism. But not yet! You’ll only have to bear with me for a little longer.
For the past two years, I’ve been meaning to write a column on Inside-Outside strategy, or more colloquially, the general philosophy or strategy of organizing that prioritizes both those activists/advocates embedded inside political structures, and those based outside of them. I first heard the term “inside-outside” casually used by a staff member earlier this year, but the idea isn’t unfamiliar among student activists.
Understandably, feelings about this approach are mixed among both activist communities and the larger Stanford community. Some of us see it as an unacceptable compromise of our values to even interact with oppressive structures; others take the opposite approach and find extra-organizational tactics like direct action and civil disobedience to be the unacceptable compromises. Those who approve of the tactic may see it as a necessary-but-undesirable means to an end, or consider it instead a useful and valuable strategy in its own right.
Two years ago, I would have told you that the idea that change could occur from the “inside” was an oxymoron. This was at a time when campus activists clashed loudly and frequently with other students, staff, faculty and administrators on campus, and around the time during which I wrote that “[w]e have become used to the idea that no matter how many emails we send people in power, they will not listen.” It was a time of heavy tension, constant stress and the type of ongoing crisis that encouraged an us-them ingroup-outgroup enmity to form between “activists” on one hand and “everyone else” on the other. Suspicion ran rampant, mental health plummeted and collaboration and mutual problem-solving became first a distant dream, then a bitter joke.
I think, looking back on it, that we could have done things a little better.
I maintain, firstly, that many administrators with whom we talked seemed completely unequipped to communicate with us. We had our own language and vocabulary and they had theirs, and in the alarming political climate of the times, we saw any administrative slip-up or faux pas as evidence of ignorance at best, and malice at worst. Our error was, in my opinion, concluding from these administrative mistakes that an inside-outside strategy was useless. What resulted then was perhaps the biggest string of social movement organizing at Stanford in more than a decade, which I’ve written about to death in previous columns. We disavowed the institution, organized under our own power, and shook things up. That’s the mythos, at least.
I’ve learned over the last year that this is not what happened. At every point during the campus social movements of 2014, 2015 and 2016, assistance from the “inside” played a major role. Staff members helped convey to students a realistic assessment of the risks involved in direct action. Faculty devoted significant chunks of class time to the social movements growing on campus and across the country. Administrators worked, perhaps frantically and in a disorganized fashion, to understand what was going on and be receptive to campus movements (I maintain that, again, many did not do a very good job). Activists didn’t talk about these stories for two major reasons: firstly, because they did not fit into our philosophical paradigm that privileged our own bottom-up people power; and secondly, because we simply didn’t know that they had happened.
The first point is understandable, but the second point is what I believe is the single biggest obstacle to a successful inside-outside strategy at Stanford. What good is a strategy of collaboration and coalition-building when we only hear silence and horror stories from other parties? What other alternatives do we have besides direct action when the potential for inside institutional help appears so disappointingly dim? At the heart of the problem lies a glaring injustice: Students have no information on what staff, faculty and administrators can do and are doing, and are thus cut off from meaningful change attempts that utilize an inside-outside framework.
The central argument of any inside-outside strategy is that the inside work within the organization (transformation) synergizes with the outside work outside the organization (pressure). For Stanford to be a place where this can happen, we need to put our time and energy into strengthening the link between inside and outside (I have high hopes for this weekend’s Institutional Change at Stanford event to start this work, but it is far from enough). We are a campus with significant activist experience and high political awareness undergoing a once-in-a-decade leadership transition. If there’s any time to get things done, it’s now.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.