Dispelling Myths about Stanford Activism

by Holly Fetter, ’13

I’ve seen quite a few dudes in The Daily making assumptions about activist communities on campus, so I thought I’d attempt to counter a few common generalizations. (Note that, as there is not one unified activist space on campus, I am only offering my personal perspective informed by my personal experience with political work at Stanford).

1. There is more than one definition of an activist.

As someone who runs a “blog for activists,” I think the word “activist” is often misused and misunderstood. It’s a useful container, and it can be a powerful source of identity and solidarity, but it means different things to different people. Personally, I think an “activist” is someone who has a certain political consciousness, developed intellectually and/or experientially, that inspires a vision of justice, and a dedication to realizing that vision, both on an interpersonal and institutional scale. But someone else’s unique understanding of that word could be way different than my own. Similarly, activism is not limited to rallies and protests, the typical image of political action. Activism can be art, it can be event planning. It can be having tough conversations about current events. It can even be having certain beliefs about how the world should be, and living your life in accordance with those values. It isn’t always loud, it isn’t always articulate, and it definitely doesn’t always take place in White Plaza.

2. The activist community on campus is not a monolith.

There are a variety of different political organizations on campus. (If you don’t believe me, check out our list). These groups are composed of a wide variety of students, all with very different identities, beliefs, and intentions. Some groups might identify themselves as an activist organization one day, and a cultural one the next — or both at the same time. There are no boundaries or borders within the Stanford student organizing space.

3. Individual activists can have very different politics.

There is no one progressive or radical set of perspectives that each activist is expected to adhere to. It’s not like Fight Club or whatever cultural reference you prefer — there are no rules. There are often contradictory beliefs within groups, and between groups. I think an obvious example of this these days is the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Many activist organizations struggle to sign on to SPER’s petition in unity because their own members are in such disagreement on the issue.

4. Activists are not always angry.

We are sometimes angry. In fact, some of us are always angry in response to the oppression we encounter every day. But we can have good times, too. I remember during the whole ROTC debacle how Stanford Students for Queer Liberation was consistently portrayed as this militant, evil organization hellbent on destroying everyone’s joy. In reality, students in SSQL consistently balance political resistance with having fun. Last week, for example, they hosted a queer gaming party. The importance of building many of these politically-oriented, activist organizations is to create spaces where students can be themselves and have fun while knowing that their whole identities are respected and welcomed. Think of queer anarchist feminist Emma Goldman, who, in the 1930s, described an incident at which a young man criticized her for dancing at a party. She wrote, “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.” It’s possible to be politically-conscious and still play hard.

5. Activist communities are not inherently exclusive spaces.

I’ve heard folks complain that there’s a certain language, dress, lifestyle, or personal struggle that serves as a prerequisite for involvement in Stanford’s vibrant activist communities. Oftentimes, this perception is not unfounded. I actually think this is, in most cases, a really valid critique of certain activist spaces. However, it’s unfair to assume that all organizations or communities are exclusive or inaccessible, because many of them are not — they’re just perceived to be the way.

I can’t speak for other organizations, but I can speak for STATIC. We are a deliberately open space for progressive people on the left-ish side of the political spectrum. There are no hard and fast rules about who can and cannot write for our site, and who can and cannot express an affiliation with it. We strive to make political ideas both accessible and personal. We want to facilitate dialogue between folks on and offline. If you feel like we’re doing anything to make our group less than open, please let us know! You can comment in the section below, or fill out our anonymous feedback form.

So to those who think you know what Stanford’s activist communities are all about: I challenge you to check your assumptions about who we really are. Find a group you’re interested in and learn more about the people and politics within it. The truth is that activists are people, too. We have flaws, and we fuck up, but it’s not useful to spend your time critiquing us and complaining about our work. Instead, why don’t you engage in activism yourself, according to your own vision of how things should be done? There’s not one way to make change, and I encourage you to create your own alternative if you’re disappointed with how student activists do their thing.

If you’re interested in learning more about activist communities on campus, please attend our upcoming Activist Community Open House, hosted by STATIC. Come meet other folks, share ideas, and learn more about activist organizations. It’ll be at 9 PM in the LGBT Community Resources Center (2nd floor, Firetruck House) on Wednesday, February 20th.

And, if you’re interested in gathering practical tools for how to get activated around an issue, consider attending Monday’s Student Activist Training Workshop, hosted by Green Corps. It’ll be from 7 until 9 PM in the Haas Center DK Room.

Holly is a senior majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She is an editor of STATIC.

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7 thoughts on “Dispelling Myths about Stanford Activism

  1. child care says:

    Hi, thanks for sharing

  2. […] fair nor accurate to characterize Stanford’s activist groups as uniformly ineffective. As Holly’s article points out, it is a gross overgeneralization to make any kind of sweeping claim about our […]

  3. JoLi says:

    Thank you.
    I understand people don’t have time to get involved, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to involve and listen to the community.

    Also, it really pissed me off when a daily article assumed that certain hardworking activist groups and campaigns don’t exist and told activists to just drop what they’re doing and pursue only their crusade. But enough about grudges.

    This is cool. 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    Oops – that last line was supposed to read “racism = white + prejudice.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    I don’t see why you linked to the second article about the definition of racism. What does that have anything to do with your point about the way people view activists on campus?

    The fact that you linked to that article proves something telling about activists – at least the ones at Stanford – that many people believe which is that they are closed minded and attack anyone who dares give forth a viewpoint different from theirs.

    So someone writes a good article about the flaw in the logic that “racism = power + prejudice therefore only white people can be racist” and you link to it in a passive aggressive attempt to put him in his place.

    You guys go on and on about how Stanford needs to be more open to “dialogue” but what you really mean by “dialogue” is for everyone else to shut up and take as gospel what you guys have to say. It’s incredibly self righteous and hypocritical.

    • Holly says:

      Hi Anonymous,

      I was referencing this line in particular:

      “…she has in all likelihood been exposed to the leftist communities at Stanford who advance the ideology that ‘only whites can be racist.’”

      I don’t discourage dialogue between folks whose opinions differ, but I do discourage unfounded assumptions. Adam doesn’t explain which groups claim that “only whites can be racist,” he just attributes that belief to “leftist communities at Stanford.” I know I’ve never heard that idea espoused on campus.

      Also, who are you referring to when you say “you guys” in your comment? That’s the kind of generalizing that I try to challenge in my piece. How would you feel if someone made assumptions about a community that you’re a part of?


      • Anonymous says:

        To clarify, when I said “you guys” I specifically meant the people who run this blog, although I admit that may have been unclear. Furthermore I don’t think I’ve made any generalized assumptions – I’ve read several different articles on this particular blog either explicitly or implicitly promoting the notion that Adam was referring to that white = wealth + privilege.

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