Over and over again, we’ve been told that Swarthmore’s advantages excuse its faults
told that a liberal institution is all we can expect
and a radical, emancipatory institution is impossible
so why bother?
In the Spring of 2013, many student issues came to a head simultaneously. Students protested Swarthmore’s inadequate response to sexual assault, a lack of institutional support for marginalized students, a series of urinations on the Intercultural Center door, and the College’s continued investments in fossil fuels, among many others. We mobilized as a host of individuals and student groups, then formed a coalition of need that prioritized our shared commitment to justice and challenged Swarthmore’s business as usual. A moment of unity across struggles culminated when we took the microphone at a Board of Managers divestment presentation on May 4, 2013. The italicized sections within this article are drawn from the collective statement we read when we took control of that meeting.
Over the past two years, “The Spring of Our Discontent” has become a legendary story that is told (or not told) very differently depending on who you ask. For some it was a single, isolated semester in which anger and hurt seemed to appear out of nowhere. For others, the story began much earlier—in the fall, or even years before. Today, turnover in the student body and administration threaten to erase the story and its complexities, which could result in a mis-telling of what occurred, similar to the bent and misleading narrative that has been created about black student activism in 1969.
Following the escalation of student protests in mid-May 2013, our energy dissipated into finals, graduation, and the summer. Those of us returning for the fall semester cautiously hoped that we would be able to continue our coalitional struggle for justice upon our return. At the first and only follow-up meeting in Fall 2013, students in the room concurred that we wanted Swarthmore to be a “transformative educational experience.” But then the exciting energy of the previous academic year seemed to vanish from public perception. Many of us saw that spring as a potentially liberatory moment, but where did that energy go?
Over the past two years, however, different collectives of students, faculty, and staff have led initiatives in line with the demands we made in May 2013. We appreciate the discussion groups, community initiatives, and proposals for institutional reform that have tried to enact the values we share. To take one example, we are glad to see the creation of the Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program by a group of dedicated faculty and staff as was proposed in 2010. But it is easy to lose the origins of changes we see on campus when the fights for these changes often draw on for so long. Two years have passed, and soon most of the students who participated in the spring of 2013 will have graduated. How can we understand where we are in the context of past activism and create continuity as a student body made up of different people every year?
In April 2013, President Chopp gave the semester its infamous name in an email to the campus:
“This is the spring of our discontent. Acrimony, hurtful accusations, and distrust have been expressed all around the campus. We are all tired. The community we love, at least most of the time, is fraying at its edges.”
Is this how we remember that moment? Is this how we want it to be remembered? Rather than a time of fraying, the sense of solidarity that grew from our shared momentum felt unique and full of possibility. Rather than cause a community to fall apart, those emotional, sleep-deprived days instead created a community; a community of people who mobilized other students, faculty, and staff; a community of people who supported each other through backlash, emotional trauma, and final exams.
To these ends, we want to share our own two-year-old memories of what happened in the Spring of 2013 and what has happened since. To do so, we are planning to put on a series of events, which will begin with a storytelling session by students and alumni involved in the 2013 struggle. We invite you to bring yourself and your questions to this event on Saturday, February 28 from 3-5 p.m. on the top floor of the Matchbox. The storytelling session will be followed by exhibitions, campus tours, and footage screenings throughout the semester.
Through these initiatives, we aim to share the stories of our activism with current students, and to archive them digitally for future access.
we bother because it matters
because our safety and that of others depends on it
because our privileges were won by past students who spoke up against injustice
who made trouble
we benefit from their struggles as future students will benefit from ours
We believe that we inherit the student struggles, from the Black Liberation effort of 1968-9, to the struggle that resulted in the creation of the Intercultural Center in 1992, to the “Unity, Safety, Respect” solidarity campaign following defacement of the IC in 1998, as well as to innumerable invisible, unremembered, unarchived mobilizations of structurally marginalized students, faculty, and staff throughout Swarthmore’s history.
we are here together because we refuse to choose a preeminent struggle
our struggles are interconnected
they can all be won when we elevate the student voice
We refuse to believe that only a splintered, respectable, issue-based student pressure group can affect institutional change at Swarthmore College. We would like to learn from the unprecedented energy arising from that convergence of different student struggles, when we recognized how our struggles were interconnected even as we experienced tension and discomfort. If we cannot make our struggles intersect in the same way again, at the very least we hope to revive that energy of hopeful anger.
all students, we call on you to join us
faculty, we call on you to join us
alumni, we call on you to join us
yes, administrators and managers, we call on you to join us too
but hurry —
we are done waiting.
-specters of discontent
The above piece was submitted by Sanaa Ali-Virani ’15, Laura Laderman ’15, Bryan Chen ’15, Joyce Wu ’15, Gabe Benjamin ’15, Laura Rigell ’16, Nathan Graf ’16, and Peera Songkunnatham ’15