I attended the resistance workshop last week unsure of what to expect, but with full knowledge that Real Talk, a group I do not necessarily identify with, was involved in organizing it. What I witnessed and participated in was far from violent and confrontational. The organizers and panelists were passionate but not dismissive of dissent. There was honest conversation about the meaning of activism and how it can take on many forms a labor unionist recounted her story of recruiting reluctant workers to band together, while a community organizer discussed how his group prevented park space in Cambridge, Mass., from being razed by a developer. Professors spoke about how their scholarly work meshes with activism, and staff members shared the personal paths that led them to working with students at Dartmouth.
At one point during the workshop, there was a discussion about tactics in activism. Participants acknowledged that people with the same goals might often disagree on how to achieve desired results. We discussed ways to negotiate these differences while remaining focused on the common vision. I was reminded of the story of John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, who was the youngest activist to speak during the March on Washington in 1963. He was a firebrand compared to his elders and had written a very confrontational speech that threatened to alienate President John F. Kennedy and other allies. A. Philip Randolph, the march's organizer, convinced Lewis to tone down the language of his speech for the sake of solidarity. Activism requires such discipline and focus on the common vision; it requires give and take.
For much of the workshop, I was not sure if I belonged there. I come from a community where organizing is often difficult. My family lives in a low-income New York City apartment built during the Great Depression. We have plenty of tenant issues aged infrastructure, increasing rent, and inadequate servicing but it can be difficult to organize a group of people who do not necessarily want to organize. I am not always personally inclined to participate in protests and rallies. The wisdom my parents ingrained in me was to keep my head low, do my work and raise no commotion. Therefore, words like "resistance" and "anger" are not necessarily part of my vernacular, or my home community's vernacular. On that note, there are tenants in my building who are perhaps even more reluctant than Dartmouth students to actively press for change.
What are we to do when problems are salient but people do not necessarily want to become activists? I recall a story by the modernist Chinese writer Lu Xun, who equated society to "an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation." What are we to do to help them? The resistance workshop acknowledged that change often requires patience. It requires the labor unionist to have one-on-one conversations with her co-workers on the pros and cons of organizing. It requires tenant activists to knock door-to-door and understand the needs of tenants before they can call them to action. Individual engagement is essential. This certainly does not need to be radical, confrontational or violent. Activism, as I learned in the workshop, can take the form of a Foco dinner.
I left the workshop feeling comfortable engaging in activism. The session demystified the phenomenon of standing up for what you believe in. One does not have to barge through dining hall doors to call oneself an activist, but I think it does require some comfort in feeling uncomfortable, and a willingness to have conversations with people who radically disagree with you.
I think this campus too often equates talking with inaction, but the individual conversations we have over dinner can be catalysts for solutions. At the very least, they can produce more compassion among students. Those who wish to further engage in these conversations should consider participating in OPAL programs like the Diversity Peer Leadership Program and Intergroup Dialogue, which are designed to involve students from different communities in sometimes-difficult discussions in a safe and facilitated space. Whether or not we feel comfortable with the word "activism," the conversations we have are often engaging in it.