It’s no surprise that Swarthmore students are activists. Swarthmore is a school that is historically known to be progressive. It is a place known to be at the forefront of issues, often emerging as a leader among peer institutions during controversy. We pride ourselves on being more than talk. From the Race to Action: Ferguson remembrance to the “Carry That Weight” protest about sexual assault on campus, Swarthmore has already seen its share of activism this year. It’s the perfect combination: students are passionate, informed, and ready to champion their cause. This spring is no different, with a variety of causes being tackled. Which issue came first is irrelevant when one considers that the current issues dominating campus discourse—divestment, disassociation from Hillel International, and housing policy changes—are all culminating in action at once.
Divestment is an issue that has been pursued some time now by Mountain Justice. Since Thursday, March 19, many Swarthmore students, along with alumni and professors have begun a sit-in outside of finance offices with “no plans to leave.” Recently, the scale of the sit-in has grown, graced with the support of Christiana Figueres, current UN Climate Chief and Swarthmore alumna class of ’79, as well as the guest appearance of Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and arguably the most preeminent environmentalist currently.
The call for colleges across the nation to divest began at Swarthmore, but ironically we were not the first college to divest. Swarthmore touts its Quaker idealism, focus on sustainability, and its role as conscientious global citizens, but the board has yet to show a strong front and support this cause completely instead allowing our endowment to indirectly support the fossil fuel industry.
The exact financial impact that divestment would have is unclear, with some opponents showing that it may not be beneficial while other proponents argue that it will not necessarily be harmful. Only direct action and actually divesting will answer these concerns. Yet, the symbolic weight of divesting endowment funds from companies that profit from using fossil fuels is more than enough incentive on its own. The divestment movement, ultimately, is more about shifting power and attempting to change the broken system we live in. It’s breaking the fossil fueled consumerism that controls our lives. It’s a powerplay. It is a symbolic movement mainly after all.
The energy coming from MJ’s sit-in is propelling and inspiring other activist efforts and movements on campus. Some of the same people involved in MJ took the initiative to call attention to the changes in housing policy and start campus dialogue. The direct stance MJ is taking now with the sit-in as well as other initiatives seeks to polarize the campus. MJ is asking, “Whose side are you on?” Those who prefer to remain neutral and uninvolved will soon be confronted.
With pressure on the board of managers and the spotlight on MJ, other groups now have a channel in which to execute their own activist efforts. This is because all the buzz on campus concerning controversy facilitates a positive feedback loop. Activism breeds activist movements across disciplines. Acting synchronistically translates to acting synergistically. Groups can capitalize on the passion and active involvement of students. It is not mere coincidence that many of those involved with the sit-in were the same people who fueled the housing policy concerns. Often activist ideals overlap and it comes as no surprise when those people active in one movement are concurrently involved, or at least supportive, of another.
One of the additional movements concerns the newly named Kehilah, meaning “community,” which was formerly known as Hillel. Kehilah disassociated from Hillel International, making a strong statement about the integrity and commitment of Swarthmore’s Jewish organization to be a space open and accepting of all views concerning the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Since Kehilah is now an autonomous organization, no longer limited to permitting solely pro-Israel views, they can accommodate a much wider range of student views. The best part of this change is the way in which the Jewish community at Swarthmore came together. Judaism means a lot of different things to many people, whether it be religiously, culturally, or ethnically. The new name, Kehilah, was decided together, uniting in the opinion that the space should be as accommodating as possible despite individual differences in opinion concerning the actual Israel-Palestine issue. This open Kehilah will be a space where people will have the opportunity to become more educated with both sides discussed.
I had known of the name “Hillel” solely in the context of collegiate Judaism, and it remains an expansive organization. Thus, to disassociate and drop the easily recognizable name is not a light decision. It is a testament to the commitment and strong feelings students have to creating a truly open space. It comes as no surprise in light of Swarthmore’s emphasis historically on social justice and Quaker values.
Recently, though, it seems that these Quaker values have been challenged—especially in regards to housing. Concerns over the lack of transparency between administration and the student body have surfaced as a result of changes in housing policies. The decision to implement exclusively freshmen halls (three in Willets and two in Mary Lyons, or approximately 25% of all freshmen housing) without prior warning and community consensus has alarmed current, past, and incoming students. This is an affront on two counts: first, it violates typical Quaker values for consensus decision-making; and second, it disregards the Swarthmore culture of having integrated halls to facilitate community amongst all classes.
The inherent value of having upperclassmen friends for guidance, advice and diversification has been emphasized. Integrated halls is something Swarthmore proudly cites as unique to our campus relative to other institutions. The presence of welcoming and enthusiastic upperclassmen allows freshmen to integrate better into the Swarthmore community. Experienced peers encourage newcomers to become involved in extracurricular activities early on, help them expand social circles to peers beyond their own grade and inform them about the school both academically and otherwise. Such factors as knowing people that can teach freshmen about Swarthmore academics and culture quickly establish a sense of belonging. This is crucial to freshmen to feeling accepted, welcome, and confident so that they can then make Swarthmore their own and have a sense of pride in calling themselves a Swattie.
The lack of information at first, even to people such as RAs in leadership positions, about the change was concerning. Concealment of information makes students assume the worse. Further, without communication these changes seemed sudden and sweeping. Neither the logic behind such choices nor the greater goals were extensively elaborated upon, leaving students to be informed by word of mouth and through unconfirmed rumours. Now, there is opportunity to have open dialogue and ask questions at open OSE office hours. Yet, this is only after clear student opposition and over 500 signatures on a letter expressing concerns. Would such efforts have been taken otherwise to clarify and make the reasoning behind the changes clearer? In retrospect one can only speculate, but I would speculate without evident pushback from students any objections would be falsely seen as minority opinion thus making such a response on behalf of the OSE unnecessary.
I don’t have to be directly involved in or fully supportive of any particular cause to appreciate that Swarthmore creates an atmosphere that fosters challenging the status quo, constantly seeking justice, and starting dialogue in areas where others may choose to be silent. The prestige and respect the name ‘Swarthmore’ garners makes it such that even as a small community our voices, decisions, and actions are heard loud and clear.
These events have given students the chance to unite in solidarity. What we do matters. The success of such efforts as the sit-in or opposition to housing changes is crucial. With so much support of the student body, alumni and faculty, a lack of response will speak volumes of administration. Activism gives students the opportunity to directly incite change and shape the environment they are a part of. It is important that this college – our campus and our home—has the capacity for positive change and is a place that listens to its student body. If there is no room at Swarthmore for student-driven change, it isn’t the Swarthmore that we all came here to be a part of.
Correction (4/2/15): A sentence implying Mountain Justice was the impetus or primary organizing force for the spring of discontent was removed.