On March 19th, Swarthmore Mountain Justice launched an extended sit-in as part of their campaign for Swarthmore College to divest from fossil fuels. Over 1,000 faculty and alumni and more than 970 students have endorsed divestment, and the sit-in has received over 5,400 signatures of solidarity. This level of dedication is truly inspiring. Mountain Justice and its many supporters have accomplished a great deal in bringing Swarthmore’s Board of Managers to the bargaining table.
But just as Swarthmore’s Board of Managers has long ignored the ethical and financial risks of investing in fossil fuels, so too have they ignored the well-being and autonomy of many members of our own community. By not providing adequate childcare support for many staff and faculty members on campus, Swarthmore betrays the principles of fairness, justice, and equality that it purports to uphold. Swarthmore Labor Action Project is working to change this. It’s time to channel the same energy behind the divestment movement on Swarthmore’s campus towards ensuring that all members of our community have access to affordable childcare.
SLAP launched its childcare campaign in early 2013, during the time infamously described as the “Spring of our Discontent.” The problem for many faculty and staff members is twofold: not only is childcare prohibitively expensive for many in our community, but just as importantly, there are very few childcare centers in the area, each with very limited space. The closest option, for example, is Trinity Cooperative Day Nursery (TCDN), a non-profit organization located in the Ville. Unfortunately, TCDN is expensive and has lengthy waiting lists.
To remedy this problem, our proposal has two parts. In the short term, the college must provide a generous subsidy for faculty and staff to use on childcare. But ultimately, we advocate for an on-campus childcare facility where staff and faculty could drop their children off in the morning and pick them up at the end of the day.
Such a center will be necessary to overcome the serious limitations in our community, as linguistics professor Donna Jo Napoli argued in an op-ed last year. There are many ways to accomplish this goal. One is to work with existing centers; TCDN, for example, has expressed interest in partnering with the college to operate an on-campus childcare center.
But the movement for childcare didn’t begin with SLAP’s campaign two years ago. Staff and faculty have been agitating for childcare support for decades. The Women’s Concerns Committee (WCC) was formed at Swarthmore in 1981 to focus on issues including sexual misconduct, maternity leave, and child care. In 1988, Swarthmore College’s Board of Managers set aside $300,000 dollars with the goal of building a childcare center on College Ave, but the center was never built due to concerns that tuition at the center would be too high for many of Swarthmore’s staff members. In the 1990s, the college decided to move the money into an income-bearing account, where it would accrue $10,000 per year.
In 1998, the WCC began discussing child care again, hoping to use this money to create a financial aid program for staff members seeking childcare. The College didn’t put this plan into place, however, and so the money still exists today—though not as much as there should be, because the college took the $10,000 each year out of the account and put it toward other uses. The WCC no longer exists, and now the responsibility of pressuring Swarthmore College to take action falls to our community as a whole.
While any campaign must agitate to gain concessions, Human Resources has been particularly responsive to SLAP’s work. While there were and will continue to be disagreements surrounding this campaign, we are encouraged by HR’s prioritization of childcare and the fruitful nature of our negotiations. Moving forward, we remain hopeful that HR will work with us towards the goal of securing a childcare subsidy for faculty and staff and eventually an on-campus childcare center.
That said, there are pitfalls we want to avoid. Discourse about activism on Swarthmore’s campus often falls into a conversation about whether the tactics of a certain group are appropriate. There is often a sense that the student groups that work closely with administrative offices are doing respectable work to better the college, whereas the student groups that have contentious or visibly antagonistic tactics are not respecting the much-invoked Quaker values of the College. It is true that SLAP has been working with HR frequently as we revamp a campaign around childcare and intend to continue that work; as a student activist group, however, we do not seek deny other groups legitimacy of the issues they raise or the ways in which they seek to make change within the institution.
No change-making work done at a bureaucratic institution such as Swarthmore College will ever be harmoniously carried out between decision-makers and those who are seeking change. Agitation of many kinds is almost always necessary for even the smallest of concessions sought during a campaign. The visibility of agitation often belies the many hours that are spent out of sight negotiating “respectfully” with any number of decision-makers. But there are reasons for optimism. With the current activism around endowment spending, in addition to the fact that the College has already set aside some money for childcare, we are hopeful that a promising solution—one that will provide access to affordable childcare for all members of our community—will be realized in the near future.