The Student Activist Handbook: Success, Failures, and How to Move Forward

This article is part of a series the Clerk is publishing reflecting on Charlottesville.

From my observation, activism on campus occurs in waves. Typically, it starts out with reaction: this can be either to a local or national issue, but it is pivotal to the beginnings of a movement. This is followed by mobilization, over social media or in affinity groups. Students decide to mount a protest, a vigil, a sit-in or some other response. Perhaps there is some recognition, or even concessions on the part of the administration, an acknowledgement of its own part in a greater system of oppression, a step in the right direction. But then, just as the movement forms, at its first signs of progress or resistance, it begins to crumble apart.

I can see Charlottesville becoming another event in this cycle on campus. But what can we do to push back? To prevent the cycle from continuing? I turned to the advice of mentors, former campus activists that inspired me. I interviewed them back in January, after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, but their words ring even truer today.

The students are Michael Furey ’17, Angelique Spencer ’17, and Ramelcy Uribe ’16. All were instrumental during their time at Haverford in bringing about crucial change to the campus, whether that was through Student Council, taking leadership in affinity groups, or even spearheading new groups on campus to bring about institutional change.

I wondered: What were the issues they were dealing with as students? How did they organize? Were they successful? What were their failures? And perhaps most importantly, why did they fail? What was at the root, the cause? How can students move forward?

What student movements were successful during your time?

Ramelcy: Well not during my time…[the most successful movement] was the BSL, that protest in the 70s that literally set the foundation for everything that students of color benefit from now at Haverford. The multicultural requirement, they created that. Demanded more faculty of color. Like all those things were created by them. And so I think that’s important because that’s the legacy we’re tryna to continue and uphold and honor.

Angelique: I don’t know…When we have these things executed, when we have the discussions afterward, it’s the same people that go to them, and not the people that need to be held accountable, and you can’t really force them to be there because that’s “so un-Haverfordian”…it’s not, it’s like fleeting changes, for things in the moment, it’s not anything long-term really. Even with the Diversity Task Force that’s been assembled, [for instance,] I don’t think there’s been anything going on or that…there’s no transparency about that. I don’t think there’s progress. They’ve been sending out emails in the past, but I haven’t seen any all year.

Ramelcy: I think during my time…I think TIDE was probably it? I think the fact they brought their changes on to the Honor Code, to include things about like race and gender, and just those intersectional things that should have been in there earlier. They did a good job of just having a focus group and talking to people and they went the route that’s super-Haverford. Like the Honor Code is that thing that people respect, so they just said, “Let’s put this in the honor code so that you can’t say we’re making this up. Let’s put explicit language in the honor code, let’s talk to the president, let’s talk to the dean, and make this happen.” I would say that’s pretty successful.

Michael: One example is the Ethos Food movement. They basically pooled their resources and gave a pitch to Kim Benston and said, “this is a great way to move toward more organic options in the dining center.” And then it came into fruition.

What are the root causes for a movement to fail?

Ramelcy: I think that we haven’t done the best job of creating movements that include solidarity or intersectional issues, and so I think that can deter people. But also, I don’t think you need to be specifically oppressed by something to be outraged by the oppression of others, know what I’m sayin? I don’t need to…be in a wheelchair to understand that Haverford has accessibility issues and that we should be moving toward making our campus more accessible. But I feel like sometimes students on campus are like “well this doesn’t apply to me, and so I’m not gonna go,” and I’m like that’s mad petty.

Angelique: Because it’s an echo chamber. I think in the context of Haverford specifically, a movement can fail when the conversation surrounding the issues that a certain movement caters to stays in that conversational phase. Like, it’s in the very Honor Code on how to deal with issues: confrontation, followed by a kind of jury, etc. We resort to conversation to resolve issues so much, that we just stick there. And it’s not the fault of the students, it’s the institution’s fault for not exposing first years and the like multiple ways to resolve issues. Towards the end of my senior year, I saw a shift in that over time, especially with the likes of BAC, Feminists United, BSL, and Rethink Incarceration, but if Haverford wants to be a part of greater social change, then it as an institution needs to get more creative on their methods of playing that role.

Ramelcy: The lack of resources and spaces for students… Because the assumption is that if you’re Black, then you have to go to BSL, and if you’re Latinx then you should go to ALAS, and if you’re Asian you should go to HAASA, and those spaces became like umbrella spaces. I mean, they were helpful in a lot of ways, but I felt there wasn’t enough structure given to them, they weren’t given much to support those people besides like Theresa and the Office of Multicultural Affairs which was already doing a lot, and so the structure that was supposed to support students of color was already lacking, and working from a deficit and that the students that were involved with running them were already involved with so many other things, and also…that there isn’t training, there isn’t facilitation training, there isn’t training for how to plan events, and how to brainstorm new events, to have people creative with their organizations so that their groups are sustainable and attract new people every year, because the thing about these organizations is, some years they’re really popping, and they got everybody on campus, and sometimes there’s only 10 people going, or less and that can be very difficult for the longevity of an organization.

Michael: I think it’s just been difficult for clubs and organizations to continue to work toward issues for sustained periods of time. Sometimes there is a lack of central organization working toward that goal.

Ramelcy: I think the reason when activism isn’t successful is because there isn’t enough people holding those people up, but rather pull them down because I felt like there’s always tokens in every graduating class, and like, I feel like I was the token for the Class of 2016, right? I think Renee [King ‘16] was one of those people. And other folks, and I just think that creates…. that does not create projects of sustainability in terms of the longevity of these projects but also people experience such intense burnout. Before I went abroad, junior year, fall semester, I was a wreck. An emotional wreck, and I was doing so much, like I was just ready…

How must activism on campus change going forward?

Ramelcy: Showing up for people is important. But also making our issues intersectional as well. So if we’re going to talk about racism on campus, let’s talk about how that shows up for Black folk, and Latinx folk, and Asian folk. It should always be “both and.” We should be talking about all those things, and people shouldn’t be waiting until they’re specifically named by the oppressor to show up.

Angelique: I think there needs to be a more active discourse about criticism, because criticism is what makes you better. How as activists, on campus, can we make a collective movement that creates effective change? Because we won’t be effective if we exclude people that agree with us.

Michael: It would be great if we could develop more ways within our curriculum for students to be involved in activism projects. One idea I’ve been thinking about is having another kind of independent study where students could take on a project, and get course credit for it. I think it would be something really valuable, because they are gaining life skills, which especially in our political times are really important. If the article is about how student movements form, and how they fizzle, then I think as a response we should develop more innovative ways for people to put these movements first, with their homework, because I think that’s what a lot of students really want to do and it would be great if Haverford provides that.

Ramelcy: I’m sure post-Trump, mad groups are trying to organize. But that isn’t always the case. Are people going to be as willing to organize and partake in leadership, in activism trying to organize when we’ve gotten used to Trump being our president? And if they are, what are the structures in place to support those students of color that are leading those efforts?

Angelique: [L]ean into discomfort. This isn’t a comfortable time. There’s no room for comfort anywhere.

Ramelcy: I think at Haverford, and even myself while I was there, we have a very narrow lens of what activism and what leadership looks like. And we just need folks that have time expanding what that can mean for us, for students. And not just folks that do it part time…because in a lot of ways we are recreating the same wheel that doesn’t work.

Conclusion

Overall, their words give me pause. The way forward seems clearer: movements at Haverford must become centralized. We must uphold those that lead, and sometimes that means even becoming leaders ourselves. We must become intersectional, and show up for one another when the moment arises.
I think Ramelcy raises a strong point referring to the BSL protest of the 1970s. The moment we are in now is part of a greater cycle of moments. At the same time, every fall the challenge is to make activism new on campus. Most of us have only 8 semesters on campus. In that time, how can we reimagine the work we do to create a better Haverford? For some of us, it’s not a choice—our lives are already daily acts of resistance. But Charlottesville should be a wake-up call. Haverford is a microcosm of the world. What isn’t working, what needs change here? As students, we need to see one another’s oppression as personal, that we are inextricably linked by our shared institution, its history, and the circumstances of our all too real present. In other words, we need to see that if Haverford, the Honor Code, doesn’t work for one of us, then it works for none of us.  

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