Activists make a world of difference

by Annie Graham, ’14

In response to a recent Stanford Daily column titled “My Problem with activism,” I think the author has failed to consider many points. I am defending activism on a center-left blog where many activists gather and read. But rather than coming at this issue like I have a pack of snapping, supportive activists to back me up (a la West Side Story), I’ll start by saying I used to be the skeptical party.

When I first came to Stanford, I didn’t really understand these “activist-y” types. They seemed always to be worried about so many things, flooding my inbox with information, and holding up signs with disagreeable phrases.  How could one person genuinely care about so many different causes, or maintain the energy to cause so many fusses? I thought college students had already fought “the man” in the Civil Rights Era and during the Vietnam War, and ever so naively, I thought such work was done. Or at least, I thought, it would be more productive to pump the activist brakes and attend politely to any lingering issues.

And now, as a junior, I see that I was wrong — that activists on campus, alongside people like Chris Herries who may not identify as an activist, are doing great work to change the world. I agree with Chris that maybe a fast won’t make students care about Darfur beyond a day, or that protests have the potential to be poorly run, even counterproductive to a cause. But activism, like service, is made up of “principles and habits that, in the long term, will positively affect the people you’re servicing.” So each day, event, or protest is just a piece of the larger consciousness-building puzzle that activism creates.

Activism is about getting people to consider the way they live, to build greater intentionality in the minds of others, and to make change so that the people you’re fighting for have a better life. As a leader for a trip about HIV/AIDS in San Francisco, Chris Herries is doing the work of an activist. And Alternative Spring Break trips are a form of activism, uniting a group of students to learn about a particular concept, then showing them how they may be of aid in the future. It’s true, a weeklong trip may not make a whole world of difference. Just as international service trips sometimes insert you as the rookie do-gooder who is actually a hindrance, it is likely that you will learn more than you can help. But that knowledge will serve you to be the helpful one in the future, the one who understands the cause and knows how to fight for it. ASB is a breeding ground for activists.

Activism can be service, and service can be activism, or not. I went to a Catholic high school, where service was extolled and a 50-hour service project was mandatory during our junior year. I believe the girls in my school did a lot of wonderful things for our community, but I also know a lot of that service was of the résumé-building, fluff variety. We did a lot of the work without thinking about larger systemic reasons behind the problems we were trying to solve. Activists would have been helpful in this regard, to provoke, ask, and educate students about their reasons for serving. But I do not remember any students at my school identifying as activists, except maybe some girls who were too edgy for me. Oh, high school.

But education can do wonderful things, and I know am far more aware of the world around me today. I am far more aware, as a woman, that feminist activists before me sacrificed time and energy for gender equality. I am far more aware, as a queer person, that queer activists before me faced a lot of gay-bashing bigotry just to exist openly. The individual signs, sit-ins, boycotts, protests, flyering, and marches of the past serve me directly today. And of course there is more to be done.

I am more aware that making change requires controversial action. The activists on and off this campus are changing the world little by little, in this service of activism.

Annie Graham 
is a junior from Phoenix, Arizona majoring in English, and is a founding member of the group Stanford Athletes and Allies Together — ensuring that a safe space exists for queer and allied athletes, on and off the field of competition.

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3 thoughts on “Activists make a world of difference

  1. Hmm... says:

    “center-left blog”? Are you kidding?

    Besides that I agree with you. Chris’ article was kind of pointless. It’s funny, he attacked activists for not pursuing constructive endeavors, then tured around and offered little constructive criticism to said activists.

    I am a lukewarm supporter of the activist community, which is why I try to criticize it when I can. Generally activists mean well, and can be a really influential force in society, but they get caught up in their echo chambers. So it’s good to stir things up a bit. One thing on my mind lately is how the definition of racism has warped on college campuses to an act that can only be committed by white people. Activists I know are certainly guilty of what I would call racism against whites, but God forbid anyone say anything about a student of color.

    • Annie says:

      Good point, Static has opinions ranging from center-left to further on the spectrum. I was thinking about this particular piece (even though activism occurs in every political space, regardless of political identity).

      Hopefully the words of activists make you consider what and why you hold your beliefs, as well as read more on why discussions on race remain charged with emotion. Regardless of today’s progress, the historical position of white people as powerful oppressors is not quick to fade or be forgotten, but maybe you could write something longer about “racism against whites” in an article or something to see how your thoughts on the subject develop. I would be interested to read that.

    • aegraham says:

      My initial comment has been bothering me so I will add something, even though it’s just me in a conversation with me: I agree that any debate can quickly become a self-congratulatory struggle on both sides, and people should maintain human decency and respect to the people they disagree with, or else no one will be convinced of anything. As such, please do write something if you find the time, so I better understand your point of view.

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