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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Alum. fosters student activism

Published: October 23, 2014
Section: News

“I see sexual violence. I see my family’s pain. I see addiction … I see people being murdered,” were some of the statements from students participating in the workshop “Organizing for Power and Collective Liberation,” held on Thursday, Oct. 23. Hosted by the Brandeis Divestment Campaign and facilitated by Shea Riester ’12, a current climate justice organizer, the event was designed to bring together student groups fighting against oppression while developing strategies to effectively tackle these issues.

Reflecting on his experience studying sociology at Brandeis, Riester expressed his frustration, saying, “We were constantly learning about our systematic oppression. But we didn’t learn any way to act on it.” Now as a climate justice organizer for Better Future Project, an organization promoting divestment from fossil fuels, and also for, a global grassroots movement, Riester has promoted social change first hand

To begin the evening, Riester asked each student to introduce themselves and state a social movement they are passionate about. Sexual assault prevention, feminism, socialism, racism and peace were among some of the topics mentioned. Throughout this article, no specific individual’s names are reported, due to the sensitivity of the issues presented.

Following introductions, Riester asked students to participate in an interactive activity, designed to reflect on the shared struggles of the human experience. Participants were asked to walk quickly past each other, keeping their gaze focused on the floor, to mimic the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Riester then asked students to slow down and lock eyes with a partner, despite potential feelings of discomfort. “The being in front of you will play a very real world in the healing of our world.” Riester stated.

Participants were then told to break off into pairs for an activity focusing on active listening. Each student was given two uninterrupted minutes to answer a question posed by Riester, while his or her partner silently listened.

Challenged to finish the statement, “When I look at what is happening to our living planet and our human family, I see..,” students offered responses such as solitude, issues of race and gender, alcoholism and resilience against oppression. Then asked to comment on how they felt in response to what they see in the world, students expressed feelings of hopelessness, cynicism, sympathy, and even desperation. “I am a normal person. Why do you have perceived notions about me?” echoed a student, while others spoke Ferguson’s name, pointing to police brutality and racism.

Specifically targeting social issues on campus, Riester asked students to discuss what obstacles emerged in their fight for justice here at Brandeis. A lack of respect between students and administration was cited, while the near allocation of a honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali and statistics revealing Brandeis has twice the national average for sexual violence were all vocalized.

Reconvening to discuss the meaning of power, students distinguished between institutional, consensual and nonconsensual power, and the distinction between “power over” and “power with.” Riester defined power as “the ability to make meaningful change.” When asked what changes they wished to see at Brandeis, students vocalized the desire to improve the freshness and quality of food through collaboration with local growers, and also asked for more support for racial minorities.

Despite concerns vocalized by students citing the complex nature of power and the capacity to induce change, as complicated by issues such as privilege and hegemony, Riester adamantly affirmed this belief: “With enough people or enough money, you will change anything you want to change.”