On December 1st, STAND (a student group based on a movement to end mass atrocities) hosted a discussion forum regarding the role of activists and how students can be activists at Swarthmore. The meeting started with opening remarks by Professor Mark Wallace, followed by a period for small group discussions, and, finally, a group deliberation on what activism at Swarthmore entails.
Wallace, a professor of religion and environmental studies and a member of the Interpretation Theory Committee at the college, framed the discussion by providing his definition of activism. Drawing from Aristotle, Wallace differentiated between acts that are good in themselves and acts that are a means for good ends. As some participants noted, acts that are good in themselves include helping refugees, feeding people, and active listening. These acts, Wallace contended, epitomize activism.
“This is what Aristotle described the ‘good life’ as. A life that gives you a sense of peace, happiness, joy, and wellbeing,” Wallace said. For Wallace, an activism-centered life does not include acts that are means for achieving good, such as accruing wealth and making occasional donations to charities.
Wallace proposed that this lifestyle could be implemented at Swarthmore. “Swarthmore advertises itself as a distinctive place in America where activism and higher education come together,” said Wallace. From feminists Lucretia Mott and Alice Paul to LGBT activists like Carl Wittman, Swarthmore has a history decorated with activists advocating for eclectic causes.
Additionally, rigorous academics plays an integral part of the Swarthmore experience. Wallace pointed out that education without civic engagement is useless. “A full education is like an airplane — you need both wings to function,” he said. “You need to classroom work for sure, but you also need to blow away the walls of the classroom and engage yourself in the wider civic good.”
As for how activism manifests in Swarthmore today, some active student groups — such as STAND and clubs in the Ecosphere coalition — adhere closely to Wallace’s definition of activism. Wallace used these student groups as a platform to provoke a conversation about what constitutes as true activism. He asked, “What other commitments do we have? Do they count as activism?” Specifically, he compared STAND’s genocide/atrocity intervention work to tutoring a dyslexic seven year olds in an underprivileged classroom.
Here, Wallace introduced a caveat to activism: service is not activism. The Top Soccer program, Dare2Soar, and Chester Youth Court do not qualify as activism because they are more geared towards service. “Activism isn’t volunteerism, or doing good, or service,” Wallace said, “Activism is entering into someone’s life for a mutual transformation.” He urged that the defining activism in terms of service should be purged from our vocabulary, as it can be debilitating and toxic.
Another problem that is evident at Swarthmore is communication across activist groups, said Wallace. At this point, Wallace brought up Ecosphere, a coalition of different clubs seeking environmental justice. While clustering may be an efficient solution for Ecosphere, the same cannot be necessarily true for activist groups that deal with race or religion.
Finally, Wallace questioned whether the college is truly hospitable to activist causes. “Sure it’s in our mission statement or heritage, but does Swarthmore really do that?” he asked. “The intense academics cause a myopia [in which] we cannot see wider concerns, both in the immediate and global communities.”
Recent pushback from Swarthmore’s Board of Managers by deriding student activism as mere “empty gestures” questioned the administration’s true receptiveness towards activism. “Is the college a healthy, robust, productive medium for activism?” Wallace asked. With these questions in mind, students split off into seven groups and began discussing the points brought up by Wallace.
After the small group discussions, the participants congregated for a plenary discussion. Rachel Flaherman ’16 began by calling into question Wallace’s exclusion of service as a means for activism. “What is the point of defining activism? Many groups define activism differently,” Flaherman said. “For example, J Street has political goals, which may not necessarily be ‘good’ acts in it of itself.”
Echoing this sentiment, Joyce Wu ’16 said, “The idea of activism as actions that are good in and of themselves doesn’t take into account how we can’t really determine if anything is absolutely good. In any case, activism is never just one action — you can take an action, but it’s just part of a change-making process, and nothing will ever be perfect.”
Other students discussed Swarthmore’s negligence to allocate space to allow for intergroup collaboration. While individual activist efforts may raise awareness for disparate causes, convergence is key to building a more holistic vision for activist causes. As one participant mentioned, “Interdisciplinary activism is key. There is no magic bullet that’s going to solve all of the problems.” The spaces on campus to allow for these discussions prove to be limited. Beyond the Lang Center for Civic Responsibility and the Intercultural Center, both of which are not focused on intergroup activism, there exists no defined space on campus for these types of talks.
Participants also felt weary of the school’s involvement as activists in the surrounding Swarthmore community. One participant said, “A lot of students come to Swarthmore so that they can become activists in their home communities. At the same time, we are actively complicit in taking resources away from other people. For example, where does all our trash go? What provides us with energy?” Another participant disliked the practice of sending underqualified students to tutor in Chester.
To conclude the forum, Wallace summarized a lot of the tensions and points addressed throughout the plenary discussion. He said, “There is a lot of energy, pain, hope and disagreement about what to do. We should have further dialogue about the issues addressed by this group.” STAND member Timothy Hirschel-Burns ’17 is creating a listserv to reach out to students interested in continuing these talks on activism.