October 11, 2009
Is It My Job to Teach the Revolution?
By Xenia Markowitt
When I wake up in the morning and head to my job, I ask myself: Will this be a day I start the revolution? Or will I be called upon to stop it?
The question has become prescient over the past 12 years in my work at a women's center at a small, prestigious liberal-arts college. My favorite memory, of a student intern I'll call Cathy, illustrates the dilemma I face daily: Cathy had helped the center organize Sexual Assault Awareness Week, which included our Take Back the Night march and vigil. She had secured permits from our security and local police departments for marching and for use of a bullhorn; speakers for stops along the route; and materials to construct makeshift candleholders. The event had attracted hundreds of participants. A few days later, she asked to talk with me in my office at the women's center.
First I told her what an exemplary job she had just done.
"Thanks," she said. "But I have something else that I'm working on."
"We're going to take over the administration building," she said. "We're fed up with the administration dragging its feet on diversity issues, and we're going to have a sit-in."
Still I waited.
"I need to know what to do first. I thought you could help me. Should the first thing be to go and get a permit? Do I need a permit to take over the central-admin building? I'll need one for the bullhorn, I know. Should I go to safety and security first, or to the police department?" She looked up hopefully.
I started slowly. "Cathy, since you have used some language of the 60s, I'm going to, also." She nodded. "You are planning a sit-in and want to know if your first step is to get a permit?" She nodded.
"Cathy, first of all, if you're going up against the Man—don't inform the Man."
I waited while this sank in. Then I added: "And while I may not look like it to you, I am the Man."
Ever since uttering those words, I have pondered the role some of us play on college campuses. Many of us have positions that simultaneously require us to represent the institution as one if its officers, even as we hope to use our positions to agitate for social change.
To some degree, we have institutionalized social protest. Take Back the Night is a perfect example. When I was a college student, in the early 80s, it was a social-protest phenomenon. At my university, we chalked the outlines of a body on the sidewalk where a woman had been raped, and we wrote a message to that effect. The action involved only students, not administrators. Besides taking back the night from society, we were taking it back from the university. Take Back the Night now is a line item in my budget. It is one of my job responsibilities, and it could influence my job-performance evaluation.
Are we to blame Cathy for conflating the two events in her student-activist life—the one organized by the college to raise awareness of sexual violence, and the one she and her friends were organizing on their own? I'm not always sure I know the difference philosophically—just that one is my responsibility, and one may be my responsibility to suppress, or perhaps I should say reframe. That's what we often do, those of us with these jobs: We "reframe." Is it our job to teach activism? To some that would appear essential; to others counterintuitive. So I struggle with how to make that decision.
I explained to Cathy that the nature of campus activism had changed. After all, sit-ins, or building takeovers, were staged in order to get the attention of the administration. But getting the attention of the administration can be done on my campus with a phone call—even directly to the president himself.
I told her: "If you hold a sit-in, the deans are going to order pizza and sit down next to you and ask what your concerns are. Will you be ready to answer them? You can make an appointment anytime you want to see the president and voice your concerns directly to him. So what is the purpose behind your sit-in? What do you hope to achieve?"
That's my role, after all: to get a student to think about what she may want to achieve, and to follow through. It may not be as exciting as demonstrating, but volunteering for committee work is a more direct way to influence policy on my campus. It could be argued that such work is more strategic, even if it is a more tedious and solitary form of activism.
The random group of students did take over the administration building with a sit-in of sorts. They held a rally on the front steps, but they didn't interrupt the work of those inside or prevent people from entering or leaving the building. They introduced student speakers who voiced complaints about the college's lack of action on certain diversity-related issues. I didn't see Cathy speak, but I saw another woman (whom I did not recognize) demand a bigger, better-financed women's center. The rally was planned while the trustees were visiting, and they and the deans responded by arranging for a campuswide gathering in our student center's largest hall that afternoon. At the gathering, students would have a platform and a microphone to voice their concerns (but no pizza).
About a year ago, a broad coalition of students organized a "rally against hatred" late one night via e-mail. I happened to be home—and online—as they were planning their rally. (I am copied on many such messages.) I watched how they moved from the idea of burning an offending publication on the central green to planning a rally with speakers. The exchange demonstrated that they were using skills they had learned from staff members like me, such as making strategic and intentional choices. We were part of their planning process.
When I attended the rally, the following day, I noticed that the speakers' roster included the college president, dean of the faculty, and dean of students. That kind of rally, which, I venture to think, those august speakers may have attended—or maybe even planned—at some point during their own college years, in the past didn't provide a platform for such voices, did it? They were the very people at whom the rallies were directed: high-level administrators who were allowing the behavior that was being protested.
At whom then, was this "rally against hatred" directed? What is social protest? What is activism? Are these skills we should be teaching? When the students took over the administration building, it was a faculty member who suggested they move their protest to where trustees were meeting. Students had to be told that. Once I taught a student how to hand out fliers. Am I hired to teach the revolution? Recently a new colleague told me, "Of course social revolution is going to be managed, because it's a service we provide in our service-based educational culture."
We may encourage students to set goals, follow through, and leave a legacy involving an arts festival or a new sorority. However, if we support the student who engages in a similar process involving issues of social change, it can be perceived as politically charged behavior. If, for example, a student lobbies for a publication on the experience of women of color, suddenly her behavior is called activism.
So what do I do with this dissonance? Some would do away with advocacy positions like mine. Others are still waiting for me to take down the Man. As I see it, at a time when many college educators are concerned about developing the "whole student," our role is to support students' interests, even when those interests lead them to activism. Why shouldn't students have opportunities for the practical application of what they learn in the classroom? How radical is that, really? It's not as if we're advocating the revolution.
So I remain in this unsettling place between what's expected and what's feared. This much I know: As part of my job responsibilities, I mostly help women—but also men—find their own voices and become compassionate and engaged citizens of our planet. Not a bad job, eh?
Postscript: Back to that moment in the student center, where the trustees were waiting to hear the student protesters' demands. I was lying low, given that one of the demands was a bigger, better-financed women's center. I was standing on the side of the room near two deans, who were probably in their 50s. As the students spoke, I overheard the deans whispering.
"These kids don't know how to do this," one said, shaking his head.
The other dean agreed. "In my day," she said, "we knew how to pull off a demonstration."