Student interest organizations cultivate culture of campus activism

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Members of the Student/Labor Dialogue held a protest this past winter to support workers’ rights at Vassar. (Photo courtesy of SLD)

“It’s because of student activism that I got to know my closest friends now,” wrote Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign Co-Coordinator Martin Man ’16 in an emailed statement.

The relative importance of activism on Vassar’s campus Man expressed can be seen on a much broader scale. Vassar’s proportion of activist-affiliated student groups, almost 30 percent, is almost unparalleled regionally or among the other Seven Sister Schools.

While not commonly considered an activist organization in comparison to other groups, the first layer of activism is, in fact, the Vassar Student Association (VSA). As the representative body for students, the VSA is positioned to directly communicate with administrators through the system of shared governance. Additionally, their funding of student groups and individual events mean that the more than two-dozen student representatives, particularly the Executive Board of five students, holds particular clout in the student activist community.

Aside from the VSA, other administrative groups utilize student input when making decisions that have campus-wide implications. Among these are the Campus Life Response Group (CLRG) and joint committee Sustainability Committee.

“The objective of the organization is to promote dialogue across campus with events that push people to ask tough questions of their fellow Vassar community members and of the institution itself,” said Office of Campus Life and Diversity intern and member of CLRG Alejandro McGhee ’16.

Aside from helping the College to plan All College Day, the group holds regular Conversation Dinners for members of the community to discuss an issue of particular concern to the campus. McGhee explained, “Conversation Dinners have proven to be a rewarding VC event for me to attend because of how they have changed and enhanced my thinking about various campus issues.” The Sustainability Committee has a similar structure to the CLRG. The students on the committee collaborate with administration and faculty to help determine the College’s policies on recycling, energy use and environmental education.

Another significant and daily contribution of student activism can be found in campus dining facilities. The Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) led a movement to institute the Meatless Monday program in all campus-dining facilities, which will mark its fourth year this fall. According to VARC co-president Alessandra Seiter ’16, approximately one-quarter of all students now participate in the program, meaning those planning dining options must prepare more meatless options each Monday to cater to the pledge. Aside from organizing Meatless Mondays, VARC also passes out literature on the treatment of animals used to produce food, hosts lectures and provides hundreds of vegan meals to members of the Vassar community. According to Seiter, members also frequently volunteer at local animal sanctuaries and shelters.

Aside from successful activist endeavors, students have inspired countless other debates in recent years. One such campaign has been the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign organized by members of the Vassar Greens. According to Man, “The objective of the campaign is of course to successfully persuade the Vassar Board of Trustees to divest the endowment of investments in the fossil fuel industry.” Their aim is to immediately stop future investments in fossil fuel companies and to divest from companies that even commingle funding within five years. The group has distributed flyers, held teach-ins, and written articles for The Miscellany News, while also interrupting a lecture from a pro-fossil fuel speaker, chanting “Divest please, Vassar Trustees!” and making a human oil spill in front of Main Building to impart their message. However, thus far, the Board of Trustees has refused to change its divestment stance.

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Bethan Johnson is a contributing editor for The Miscellany News.

An activist group that has garnered Vassar activists even more press than divestment came through the Vassar chapter for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Prompted by both what activists consider the continued violation of international law by Israel and by the administration’s decision to reject an academic boycott of Israel, the organization pledges to educate students about the plight of Palestinians and galvanize the community to adopting a boycott of Israel. Among the actions taken by the organization or individuals within the group are protests and the passing out of literature about Israeli actions to a class that sponsored a spring break trip to Israel, as well as the management of social media resources distributing information on their platform. Thus far, the administration has not joined in the academic boycott of Israel, and, in light of a controversy at the end of last semester, the official status of the group remains unknown after calls from President Hill for the VSA to conduct an assessment of their places as an organization.

Another group still struggling for administrative acceptance and influence, despite recent events they consider victories, is the Student/Labor Dialogue (SLD). Not an official student organization due to its inclusion of non-student workers in the group, it currently stands as a preliminary organization. According to member Alexandra Deane ’15, “The Student/Labor Dialogue aims to organize the collective power of students and workers to win better benefits and conditions for working people at Vassar.” She continued, “We believe that workers deserve the right to collectively organize to better their lives, and that we as students can leverage our power to help achieve those goals. In addition, we aim to challenge the administration’s tendency to pit the interests of students and workers against each other, and instead build solidarity in the struggle for justice and democracy.” Since its formation, the group has successfully assisted in negotiations between the administration and SEIU Local 200 achieved their contractual aims, including a sizable wage increase. Last semester, Vassar security began the initial steps toward unionization.

While these groups may have had the largest impression on the local or national stage, activist organizations on almost every issue enjoy some degree of funding and popularity on campus. For those interested in environmental issues outside of divestment, Vassar Greens engages on a variety of other campaigns and President Hill has praised student impact on the college’s environmental policy.

For those interested in tackling issues of a variety of identity-based oppression, the Feminist Alliance promises to serve as a potential space for activism. According to its mission statement, “Feminist Alliance works to provide a space for discussion, organization, and activism regarding issues of feminism, gender, patriarchy, kyriarchy, and all forms of oppression. We are an activist space, providing a forum for discussion of ways to pursue feminist issues both on- and off-campus as well as raise consciousness within the student body.”

In recent years, a group of students wishing to advocate around socio-economic justice formed the Students’ Class Issues Alliance. The group discusses the impact of socio-economic class on people’s lives in workshops, speakers and monthly dinners to discuss the impact socio-economic class has on Vassar students’ opportunities, as well as on society at large. Among their recent campaigns is a request for a student space for individuals from lower-income students.

The Vassar Prison Initiative is a group focused on educating and combating problems of the prison-industrial complex. The group’s mission statements reads “It is our hope that through our programming, educational outreach, and activism, we can contribute to the fight for justice for incarcerated people and the decarceration of America.” Aside from film screenings, publications, and join events with local advocates— the group hosts the Prison Reunion event each spring that reunites student and local activists, Vassar alumnae/i, and formerly incarcerated individuals.

Another critical facet of student activism comes from student groups whose purposes are not solely devoted to activism, but whose identity-based concerns prompt frequent activist activities. In many instances, the primary objective of these organizations is to provide safe spaces for various communities, but out of the discussions had in these meetings, activist plans can emerge. For example, as stated in its mission statement, Poder Latin@ “is an organization founded to address the needs and concerns of Vassar’s Latin@ community and to serve as a support group and a political action group.” Similarly ACCESS is a group formed to address the needs of students with disabilities and their allies, but a secondary goal is promote disability activism.

An additional form of identity-based activism takes place through party-based political activism. While Vassar boasts both left- and right-wing student groups, it is the recently renamed right-of-center Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union (VCLU) that has garnered the most attention. The group aims to discuss and advocate around issues through right-of-center perspectives that they believe prove limited on Vassar’s campus, as well as bring speakers to campus to educate the student body. According to an emailed statement from the organization’s blog editor Luka Ladan ’15 “[The VCLU] it provides an outlet for students, especially those who feel that certain topics of discussion aren’t being approached from all possible sides on campus. When there needs to be a dissenting opinion to break from the campus’ ideological mainstream, VCLU steps in.”

While numerous groups will be finalizing their non-reactionary activist plans in the coming weeks, some already know their plans. McGhee explained that Conversations Dinners hosted by CLRG would continue. Ladan stated that the VCLU has begun organizing lectures by conservative or libertarian speakers for the fall term. VARC plans on hosting a weeklong program starting November 16. According to Seiter, “[the events are] dedicated to exploring government labeling of animal and environmental activists as terrorists, as well as the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.” The SLD stated in its Year in Review, in the fall it hopes to combat Safety and Security’s issue of racial profiling by helping them establish a union because “a union has the power to pressure the College to make changes that its administration and bureaucracy don’t want to make…We will be working on instituting better and more comprehensive anti-racism trainings with Security.”

The administration also has hopes for the future of student activism. President Hill said, “I am hoping that as mid-term and presidential elections approach, students will be involved at the state and national level. Our students have an opportunity to influence national policies through this process, which is one way they can have an impact on important issues facing our society.”

Regardless of which organizations students participate in, with the large quantity and diverse interests of activist organizations, it is clear that students enjoy the opportunities for activism. As McGhee noted, “I often see student activism, in praxis on campus, as the work of building a social and institutional infrastructure that allows people of historically marginalized backgrounds (queer, -of color, low-income etc.) to find the room to thrive in academic spaces that were not historically founded or built with them in mind.”

Seiter echoed this sentiment, stating, “I see student activism as an integral aspect of my identity, of fostering community with other students, and of combating oppression that exists on the Vassar campus…I have no doubt that, with the experience of important campus campaigns, protests, forums, etc. the activists on campus will go on to work toward profound societal change in the future.”

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