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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Questioning activist ideals and attracting attention

Published: March 5, 2010
Section: Opinions

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about activism. She told me how much she disliked the fact that she was having fun at school.

That’s actually just an overstatement of what she said to get your attention.  Did it work?

She said she felt that by spending more time on her own enjoyment and benefit, she was betraying her activist ideals. This, as things do every now and then, made me think. I have had similar episodes of self-doubt related to asking myself “What are you good for?” and not having an adequate answer. I think I’ve come up with an adequate answer in the past, because it hasn’t bothered me lately. I’ve just forgotten what it was.

This school is filled with people doing stuff. There are activists on this campus for every issue under the sun. I’m part of Positive Foundations. We work for the elimination of global extreme poverty. It hasn’t worked yet. We throw events and try to get people to give us money. People don’t give us a lot of money because they have their own causes they want to give money to. I know because I know people in other groups, to whom I do not give money.

I have a couple of friends in the Student Union. They work on student issues, trying to make our lives better. They often do a good job. Sometimes they forget and think that the Student Union is important in-and-of itself. I can’t get too mad, though. People do this with governments all the time.

I have a couple of friends who write for this newspaper. They write a lot about the other people I know in other clubs and in the Student Union especially. I like that, because it is good to know what everyone is doing. But sometimes the newspaper and the Union seem to spend most of their time convincing each other that they are doing important stuff. I think that’s a poor substitute for doing important stuff.

My friends on the Student Union ask what the activist community does to change Brandeis for the better. My friends in the activist community ask what Brandeis does to make the world better. They are both asking the right question. Both of these questions have the same basic answer.

We live in a community defined by time. Like mayflies, we live and die on this campus quickly, and every second needs to count. With just four years to define yourself, you specialize: academically, socially and in which causes you choose to champion. You are short of money, so all you can give is your time.

Unfortunately from the point of view of activism, you are in a closed environment that refreshes its populace continually but has a fairly consistent set of institutions. Administrators can always wait out students. When it comes to changing Brandeis, this is a major roadblock. The other is apathy. Changing Brandeis is not something many people want to devote time to, not when they will be out of here in four or three or two years. Changing the world has its own set of issues, the mirror image of the other. Isolated from the rest of the world, how can Brandeis students affect it, especially when we lack the most fungible resource, money?

If I were prone to conspiracy theories, I would have something to say about the fact that in the phase of their lives when they are most likely to want to do something of an activist nature, students are put into a place where they can do the least amount of harm. Since I’m not, I’ll say it’s probably just an evolutionary mechanism of society and leave it at that.

I don’t really leave this topic with an answer for my friend, or myself, but I guess I can conclude with this: I haven’t ended global poverty. But this semester Positive Foundations is aiming to finish it’s big project of the past two years, which is to raise enough money to build a library in Nepal. The Student Union hasn’t stopped its ridiculous infighting, nor has it kicked out the self-important people that make dealing with it such a joy. But they have won us concessions from Aramark on dining, and from the administration as a whole on student voices in processes like CARS and the Presidential Search Committee. Every small student victory is a defiance of the odds. It is important that we recognize this and celebrate what we can do as opposed to what we can’t.

In the end, we may just have to hope that we don’t abandon our principles when we graduate. I know you won’t find me working for some irresponsible investment bank or representing a corporation that makes money by exploiting those with no choices left. And do you know why?

Because I’m not nearly qualified.