By Lily Zheng
What does “resilience” mean at Stanford?
When I think of the word “resilience,” my thoughts first go to “The Resilience Project,” a multi-year initiative started back in 2010 with the aim of helping students get help with, withstand and reframe experiences of failure. I think next of “Stanford, I Screwed Up!,” an annual event marked by performances through song, dance, poetry and prose to acknowledge and celebrate “epic failures” in all of our lives.
Resilience, it seems, is an internal virtue that we can cultivate, an insurance of sorts to protect us from the rare — but potentially devastating — experiences of failure in our lives.
In activist communities, resilience of this sort seems rare. Rather than hear stories of activists who failed and recovered, we’re far more likely to hear stories of others who failed while interacting with activists and how devastating their failures must have been to them.
Stories of this sort are bread and butter among activist communities. As topics like race, gender, class, religion and sexuality have become more commonplace in classrooms, residences and other facets of student life, so, too, have unspoken norms arisen to govern how those topics are discussed. In almost every space where I have seen these discussions occur, informal divisions pop up between “those who ‘get it’” and “those who don’t,” whether or not these divisions reflect actual people in the room.
I recall a class that I took on race in America: Students with activist experiences — myself included — banded together, adopted a high-minded superiority and scoffed at the students in the class whom we believed knew less. In my efforts to appear already knowledgeable, I downplayed any experience of actually learning from that class, acting instead like anything the professor said was simply a fact that I had known all along.
I recall a conversation I had during my frosh year: A few acquaintances and I derided activists and activism. We agreed loudly and conspiratorially that “the activists” just didn’t get it, and that we frosh, of course, did.
I can think of a dozen more examples, but the point I’m trying to get across is this: In conversations about social justice and activism, I believe we have increasingly derided the ignorance of others, oversold the appearance of group consensus and overperformed our own knowledge or “wokeness.” In doing so, we protect ourselves, blend into the group and minimize the chances that we will ever find ourselves on the wrong end of so-called “epic failures.”
Individuals looking to learn more about social justice and activism, in this climate, will face high barriers to entry. They will see only those people who “get it” and those people who “don’t,” with nothing in between. They will hear, however, the constant sea of gossip we share about Activist A who acted woke but wasn’t, or Activist B who said a transphobic thing, and I told you they weren’t a good activist, and so on and so forth.
When activists make mistakes — especially if they are visible activists, and they make big mistakes — we put them down, and by doing so, raise those who remain up a little bit more.
What is learning supposed to be like for newcomers? Should we expect them to join our groups, keep their heads down and wait it out until they can act like the rest of us? Or, as I’ve seen in the past, should we wait for their inevitable first mistake and shame them for it until they leave of their own accord?
I don’t think this framework of student activism — as done by communities of students who “get it” and get it right — is how it ought to be. Rather, we should work to create communities of students who “want to get it” and frequently get it wrong in their learning process. We should prioritize, celebrate and acknowledge the learning that happens among people of all experience levels, and to make room for the experiential learning that comes, yes, from failure.
An ideal community to me is one that keeps its eye on its vision of justice and provides the support, love and collective strength to move its members toward that vision, even if the path is nonlinear, and backward steps happen as often as forward ones.
Sure, the burden for this work falls in part on existing activist communities, but it’s also indicative of something bigger at Stanford: our failure to recognize that resilience itself is not reserved for “epic failure” failures, but is, in fact, a far more important skill for dealing with the everyday failures that come from being a learner in a complex world. We ought to embrace these sorts of everyday slip-ups and faux pas as signs that we are engaging with the world, rather than as status markers that signify our belonging in a social group.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.