Columns, Opinions

Okin ’19: Kindness is a powerful form of activism

Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 15, 2018

After a year that even the creators of South Park found impossible to parody — with “satire becom(ing) reality” — current events have lost their ability to shock us, and something of a formula has formed. As attentive and impassioned students, we see the way things are, we measure our dissatisfaction, we react. But a realization struck me last month as I witnessed the conglomerate of pink that consumed streets and social media feeds across the nation, this year’s Women’s March. Robust voices engulfed cities, an undeniable sense of community buzzed … and the garbage can on the corner of 72nd Street was totally overflowing. Those passing by seemed to dismiss the swamp of wrappers, signs and napkins that cluttered the surrounding concrete and instead threw their water bottles about three feet away from the actual trash can.

I found a symbolism in this sight that has been difficult to shake. It poses a question that is hard to ignore: Are we hyperfocusing on certain issues and thereby ignoring crucial others — in this case, the basic decency that comes with throwing out one’s trash properly? In our activism, we are attentive and determined and firm. However, when we simultaneously display an inability to properly respect our surroundings, we suggest that our intense care does not extend to the somewhat simpler measures that better our local communities.

We fight for social causes that promote inclusivity and generosity and try to ensure that all human beings are treated with dignity and respect. We need to make sure we are advocating for these very themes in our everyday lives at Brown and thinking just as much about individual impact as changing the world. If we aren’t being kind to our dorm neighbors and classmates and lab partners, how can we retain our credibility in our spirited marches and fiery debates?

I worry about the collateral damage of this hyperfocused mindset — one that neglects the necessity of practicing in our daily lives the values for which we march. In nearly three years at Brown, I have encountered more thrilling rallies and impassioned speeches than I ever had in the eighteen years before. At the same time, I have observed the metaphorical overflowing trash cans of our campus: members of such a socially aware student body neglecting each other or foregoing opportunities to be kind to those around them. Taking the time to thank Brown Dining Services workers or to say hi to a classmate rather than walking right past them are two of the many ways we can foster an environment of the same kindness we strive to create in the rest of the world. Rather than being trivial, these seemingly smaller acts are what will, incrementally, build the community we are trying to shape. They give us an opportunity to make tangible change and improve ourselves every day. Moreover, the impact that they have far outweighs the minimal effort that goes into them.

I don’t say this to minimize the aims of monumental and urgent social movements, which extend much further than the steps I lay out here. I am constantly blown away by the power of my peers’ activism. The care we put into these endeavors is nothing short of amazing. However, I do think that if we want to become better activists and people, we should also expend some of this energy locally on our supposedly mundane interactions with the people around us. Kindness won’t dismantle the systemic inequalities that pervade our society and inspire us to action, but it can have a profound impact on an individual’s life. On a campus where it’s easy to feel ineffective or invisible, you never know how much the smallest effort on your part can mean to someone else. We should hold ourselves to the same standards of commitment, every day, that we demand of ourselves in our vital marches. How we treat the people around us is not secondary to how we fight for larger causes; rather, it can bolster our ability to be inclusive and mindful in our activism. This activism is essential, but if we lose our values amid these efforts, we might forget what grounded us in these core beliefs in the first place.

Rebecca Okin ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion and op-eds to


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