University spaces have historically been central to political and social movements around the world. In the United States, activism in universities rises and falls across years in ways that mirror the political and social climate of the nation. Brown, in particular, is often identified as a highly politically active campus among universities in the United States. In fact, what many consider the most fundamental aspect of Brown’s identity — the Open Curriculum — was developed during the highly politicized era of the 1960’s activism precisely in an effort to foster what Ira Magaziner ’69, student author of the original curricula proposal, described as “creative or even rebellious thinking.”
But my personal experience in my last two years at Brown has been one of general apathy around political and social activism. While some students engage in activism on campus, we might expect a larger presence at a university that is known for being politically active — particularly during a historic moment of increased student activism across the nation. There must then be barriers, both internal and external to our University, that are limiting the student activism. Brown students, faculty and administrators need to do more to foster an environment that makes space for student activism and supports student activists.
I come to this discussion as a student who has not meaningfully engaged with political activism at Brown, but who has participated in large political and social movements outside of campus. Most recently, I participated in the massive mobilizations in Puerto Rico that forced the resignation of former governor Ricardo Roselló and called for an end to the island’s colonial relationship with the United States.
At Brown, my lack of activism is in part a product of my own failure to seek out opportunities to engage. There are certainly student organizers that are doing the work of activism today, and by no means I intend to belittle the work of these student activists. But I hope to make the case that the Brown community can do more to create spaces for student activism that more effectively engages the student body. There is an untapped energy among students at Brown who are passionate about pressing social and political movements but not currently engaged in student activism.
The reality of university life makes it difficult to do activism work. The transient nature of the academic schedule, split up by semester breaks and annual student turnover, makes it extremely hard for any movement to build a base of committed students. Students must constantly foster community building in order to sustain their movements. Furthermore, most students at institutions like Brown are full-time students busy with rigorous course loads, extracurriculars and jobs. Activism is physically, mentally and emotionally intense and can take a toll on students. In 2016, an article published in The Herald noted insufficient resources to support student activists who dedicate countless, often unrecognized, hours to social and political organizing.
It is essential to note that these realities have always existed — students have always had to balance academics with activism, and the four-year cycle has consistently posed challenges. But there is something unique about the time in which we live that creates additional barriers to activism in the University. Firstly, from my experience, there is increased pressure to stand out at elite institutions like Brown as the competitive labor market seems to demand more specialization. As a result, students have less time to spend on activities that are perceived as less marketable, such as — for many professions —participation in activism. Secondly, the explosion of access to technology and social media in recent years has changed the landscape of activism. While activists can now reach more people with greater ease, the diminishing presence of on-the-ground grassroots organizing has taken its toll on the effectiveness of social and political movements on campuses. Meeting face-to-face, though increasingly rare, is important for building community.
But even so, I am optimistic. I believe that apathy does not dominate the University space and that increasing the presence of student activism is a matter of making participation more accessible. There are concrete and realistic steps that the Brown community can take to combat both the internal and the external barriers to participation. Students, faculty and administrators can engage in a concerted effort to transform attitudes toward activism. We can aspire to achieve a culture that encourages participation in social and political movements as an essential part of a well-rounded education. To do this, we must first acknowledge that student activists’ labor is rigorous and essential.
We can all engage more intentionally in the work of community building, which is necessary to address the inherent challenges of a transient campus. Students should encourage each other to recognize that they hold a stake in the Brown community and can continue to be involved after graduation. Encouraging this type of long-term investment in improving Brown requires that students feel a sense of agency, and that the University listens to its students. Furthermore, collaboration between faculty, administrators, students and Providence residents must be central in future processes of development and change.
Brown should also work toward building an infrastructure that supports student activists. This infrastructure would connect people to resources — funds, information and networks — to make activism accessible to all students. Networks in particular are essential. Students should have networks of peers, professors, deans and others to help them work through the physical, mental and emotional hardships of activism. Providing spaces for all members of the community to come together to share stories and knowledge will foster collaboration, which is the foundation of effective activism. Building this infrastructure makes it easier for students to become activists without sacrificing academic and professional success.
While it may seem counterintuitive to call for Brown to support activism that sometimes opposes its administration, the administration ought to acknowledge the importance of student activism in holding the University accountable and ultimately effecting positive change. Universities occupy a position in society in which passionate individuals get the unique opportunity to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of learning.
As students at Brown, we inhabit a space of great privilege that is inaccessible to most people. Apathy has no place in this space of privilege. The position we occupy as students at an elite university bestows upon us a responsibility to engage in this kind of work. In these times of uncertainty and divisiveness, this responsibility is increasingly important. The realities of today’s world necessitate radical action. Groundbreaking movements are unfolding around the world in real time. I hope to participate in these movements as I move forward in my life, and I would like to find more opportunities to mobilize alongside my fellow students at Brown.
Marysol Fernandez ’21 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.