Let's Talk About Activism @ Williams

                                 Image Credits: http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/activism2012/

I sat down with Susmita Paul '16, one of the most talked about social activists on campus, to get her take on what has become an increasingly hot topic.

It’s 8 p.m. and as I wait for Skype to boot up I do a quick glance-over of the questions I’ve prepared for tonight’s interview. I’ll be speaking to Susmita Paul, a Sociology major who has managed to become one of the most prominent faces of social activism at Williams over the last year. 

Within a few minutes, we’ve started our interview session, a little behind schedule as Paul explains that she had lost track of the time while helping her mother with the dishes. Immediately I notice that Paul enters the conversation as someone who is well seasoned with talking about the topic at hand. To start things off, I ask what activism is to her.

“Activism to me is more than just advocacy,” Paul responds with confidence and a little defiance, “it’s more than just thinking that just because you’ve updated your Facebook status, or just because you’ve actually gone ahead and showed up to something, that you’ve done your part.” 

Paul has demonstrated her commitment to her words, having participated in multiple campus discussions, outreach events and protests calling for social change. This change is largely centered around educating and enlightening student perspectives on social issues on campus. 

Gabriella Kallas ’16, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), expressed a similar educated-oriented definition while adding that activism is “anything that in some way challenges structures of oppression.”

I noticed a similar trend arose from the students and faculty I spoke to where activism was divided into two categories: those focusing on national issues, such as Ferguson or Obamacare, and those focusing on residential life and campus culture. Professor of International Politics Cheryl Shanks succinctly defined the two categories of activism as one having “to do with life in the United States or in the world” and the other tackling issues pertaining to “residential life,” such as the campus alcohol policy. 

While Paul maintains a confident air while laying out the tenets of activism and her role as an activist on campus, I can see hints of exhaustion and immediately recall the media backlash she had fell victim to during the last semester. Posting screenshots of YikYak comments on Facebook, Paul highlighted the downside of being vocal about issues that matter and trying to convince others that these issues are important to their lives too. 

Akin to a group twitter, YikYak allows students to post anonymous comments which are up-voted if popular or down-voted into oblivion. What had started off as a way for students to share jokes or bring up hot topics on campus has been diluted into a sea of re-used jokes and personal attacks. Often, students are called out by name and ostracized for the whole faceless media hub to see.

“There are these anonymous faces that I just build into this foray of this big tall kid that’s saying ‘you’re wrong,’ ‘you’re silly,’‘just get over yourself’...I don’t know who this anonymous student is and I can’t put a face to them because they’re not in my inner circle...but they’re people that like almost exist to shut it down, to shut anyone down.”

But not everyone sees YikYak as a hinderance to campus discussion. An alum who wished to remain anonymous spoke of its merits in allowing students to voice opinions that may be unpopular or deviate from the general consensus. 

Paul and I move on to briefly talk about Activism at Williams, a Facebook group that was established last semester as a platform for activist groups on campus to discuss issues on campus and collaborate on efforts to eradicate them. Private, the group is invite only and features just over 140 members. 

While it has been successful in mobilizing students, such as in the March for Social Justice and the  die-in in Paresky, spurred out of frustration with the verdicts following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the question of uniformity comes up. Kallas applauds the group for providing a space for activists to communicate but admits that having a group of students advocating for different causes means “you really don’t know what people think about things,” and therefore where they may stand on an issue particularly important to your individual cause. 

Midway through our conversation it becomes clear that recounting the past few months of activities is bringing back the weariness Paul experienced while on campus. With students exhausting themselves out in what appears to be a stressful and often ridiculed endeavor, the question of whether or not Williams can be an activist campus comes up. 

When I asked students, alumni and various faculty members if they felt the school provided a space for activism and if activism on campus was effective, I received varied responses. Some laughed at the question’s supposed ridiculousness while others seemed more optimistic, although hesitant to reply yes.

Professor Shanks, who has been at the college since 1994, pointed out during our talk that the turnover rate for students is so quick that sustaining an invigorated activist movement on campus is impossible. With most juniors studying off campus and seniors setting their sights towards cementing jobs postgrad, “it’s really sophomores and juniors who are advocating” against social issues on campus.

There is also the notion amongst several students that activism on a campus as isolated and relatively tolerant as Williams can come off as performance art. But to Paul, this performance aspect is inevitable when it comes to calling attention to social issues and demanding change. 

“All large-scale activism that involves protests or chants or marches, anything that isn’t behind the doors, anything that isn’t about legislation, anything that is about cultural change to a degree, will be a performance--because you have to perform in order to capture people’s attention.”

However many students, including Kira Marrero ’15, don’t seem to mind this aspect as long as a message is getting across.

“I think that if it serves as performance art, that's fine, though people forget that Williams isn't perfect and change needs to happen here too, even if it's just in the minds of the student body.”

Marrero, who is a part of Active Minds, a group that works to fight the stigma against mental illness on campus, also explains that activism is effective even if it only serves to help those advocating. 

“People also forget that activism is a coping strategy too. A lot of people think activists waste their time, but even if it doesn't bring about any immediate, obvious, outward change, it can still be a source of healing for many, especially as many of us feel detached from the larger movements, from the places that need the most change, from our friends and family with us in the struggle, and from the real world outside the purple bubble in general.” 

Regardless of whether people felt activism was a naive activity students often embarked on or a worthy cause to continue,  there was a general consensus that in order for activism to be effective, clear goals on behalf of the activists were necessary. In addition, advocating for change that fits in line with the institution's trajectory was more likely to succeed than pushing for the opposite.

Michael MacDonald, a professor of International Relations  echoed this sentiment as he explained that “if you’re going with the current trajectory of the institution you are more likely to succeed than if you’re lashing against it.”

As our interview nears its close, I decide to end by asking Paul perhaps the most difficult  question of the night, does she consider herself an activist. Williams students, like many, are busy and as they rise through the ranks of college their priorities shift. Students don’t necessarily stop being activists but there is a gradual decline in activeness. Add that to the fact people are going to have their different perceptions of who the activists are and what they do. 

The question posed called for self-reflection and after a moment of silence, Paul gave me her heartfelt response: 

“People think of me an activist because I helped organize the die-in, maybe those people think of me as a real shitty activist because I so-called got approval for that die-in to happen but I’m going to call myself an activist because I’m someone who argued with my [Bangladeshi] dad for two hours because I told him that it was not OK for Akai Gurley to be shot by an Asian-American cop and explained [to him] that the Black Lives Matter movement needs as many people working for it as possible...so yes, I consider myself an activist.”