My Problem with Having a Problem With Activism

by Conor Doherty, ’13

Activist workshopThe efficacy of Stanford’s student activist movements has been a frequent topic of conversation around campus and in the editorial pages of The Daily the last few weeks. Most prominently, outgoing Executive Editor Brendan O’Bryne wrote an article questioning our “campus’s definition of activism” and raising important concerns about troubling events and policies that have received little attention. While I disagree with some of Brendan’s comments about our the insularity of Stanford’s activist community and narrowing the scope of issues we should be addressing, I appreciate his call for more focused and effective engagement with pressing on-campus problems.

Others have been more dismissive of Stanford’s student activist movements. Toward the end of Fall Quarter, The Daily published an editorial explaining one student’s “problem with activism.” More recently, another writer went so far as the say that the word “activist” should be “banished” from the Stanford lexicon. On the surface, these “critiques” are broad and ambiguous. I recognize that, if you look past the dismissive facades, their author’s are (I think) calling for “better” activism, rather than no activism at all. However, their reductive use of straw man arguments is frustrating and undermines substantive discussion. I get that the “panel on muskrat rights in 19th-century Bulgaria” line was supposed to be funny but, as someone who has written a lot of bad satire, I know it when I see it.

It is neither 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 pluralistic activist community. Moreover, there are many examples of Stanford student activists doing great work in a variety of areas. I’ll mention a couple that demonstrate just how off the mark these editorials are.

First, STAND, whose annual event Darfur Fast was specifically criticized by the author of “My problem with activism” (side note: really? you’re calling out Darfur Fast?), was instrumental in facilitating last year’s Occupy Teach-In, a unique opportunity for engagement between students, faculty and staff on an wide array of social justice issues. Moreover, the money raised from the Darfur Fast goes to Darfur Stoves, a project that provides high-efficiency stoves to families in refugee camps. This is unambiguously a public service.

In response to the “muskrat panels” comment, I offer the following: in Students for a Sustainable Stanford (SSS), we’re currently planning major panel, in cooperation with the School of Earth Sciences and the Precourt Institute for Energy, to discuss the ethical and pragmatic questions surrounding Stanford’s fiscal relationship with fossil fuel companies. The subject matter of this panel couldn’t be less trivial. Anyone with half a brain should know by now that our climate is changing, and it’s changing fast. Inaction, in the face of impending crisis, itself makes a statement. There is currently a national movement, spearheaded by Bill McKibbon and, attempting to leverage university investments to put financial pressure on the fossil fuel companies before it’s too late. In SSS, many of us have yet to take an official stance on the matter. The problem is enormously complicated and we don’t feel we have all the facts. This panel will be instrumental in informing ourselves, and the larger Stanford community, about the factors that do and should affect the University’s policies. Effective activism requires information, knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing. This panel is an attempt to grapple with a global problem, and understand it in a local context as students and stakeholders in Stanford’s public image and legacy.

In short, these dismissive editorials reflect a lazy, reactionary mindset that diminishes the work done by those who are, for lack of a better description, at least trying. It’s true that sometimes we fail: no one shows up to your event, or your project stalls in the seemingly endless Stanford bureaucracy. And it sucks. No one intends to run an ineffective campaign. With this in mind, know that if you want to “revive activism” at Stanford as you claim, you’re going to have to do more than write condescending op-eds.

But I’ve already spent too much time dignifying a response to these editorials. The purpose of this article is not to rant (more than I already have), nor is it to defend Stanford’s activists, whatever that would entail. Instead, its purpose is to contextualize and inform you about an upcoming event: a Student Activist Training Workshop to be held Monday 2/11 from 7-9 at the Haas Center. The Workshop will be facilitated by Josh Buswell-Charkow, the Executive Director of Green Corps, a field school for environmental organizing. Student activists of all interests and backgrounds are welcome and can benefit from the training. The workshop will cover topics including picking issues and goals, strategies and tactics, publicity, coalition building and campaign planning. There will also be time for individuals students and groups to share what campaigns they’ve been working on, and to seek out advice and potential collaborators.

Attending this event will not magically transform you into an world class activist. What it will do is provide you with skills, training and an opportunity to stop and think critically about if and how you can be more effective in the work to which you devote your time and energy.

Please rsvp if you think you’re going to come:

Here’s the Facebook event:



Conor Doherty is a senior majoring in math, but he likes people too. He’s co-president of Students for a Sustainable Stanford and president of the Stanford Flipside.

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