Activism requires active activists: how Occidental struggles to inspire change

Ella Fornari

Students and administration alike love to talk about Occidental’s long history of political and social action, from Barack Obama’s first political speech to Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Thorne. I had hoped that in coming to Occidental, a school with such an extraordinary history of social justice, I would be swept up in activism and finally find my voice. However, the reality I faced is that the majority of students at Occidental like to talk about how active and liberal the school is without instigating action themselves. Being a liberal is not just about having liberal opinions, but about taking action and making efforts to ensure one’s voice actively facilitates change. Occidental’s legacy of activism can only continue if  students wake up and realize that saying they are part of a school that has strong activist roots does not equate them to being activists themselves.

Typically speaking, college students are not an ideal demographic when it comes to fundraising, especially when fundraising is such a constant event for some organizations. Awareness t-shirts to financially support and advertise a cause are well-intended, and though selling or wearing t-shirts for a ‘liberal’ cause is supportive, it by no means qualifies as taking action. Having a political organization’s t-shirt tells others what opinions you subscribe to, just like how having a band’s shirt gives insights to your musical taste; but again, it does not represent the action it takes to bring about real, direct change. 

As an example, our campus has recently been involved with breast cancer awareness, which is certainly a worthy cause of action. Instead of coming up with creative ways of fundraising, students should be more actively engaging with the larger goal of breast cancer awareness: finding a cure. Fundraising can also distract from the larger goal, as it creates a smaller monetary goal. When dealing with goals like finding a cure for breast cancer, it is not always apparent as students what can be done beyond awareness and donation requests. However, just because actions aren’t always readily apparent doesn’t mean they don’t exist. For instance, focusing on rallying against patent laws that currently stilt the progress of cancer research, instead of raising a restricted amount of money for research, may make a larger impact on finding a cure. 

Other organizations on campus, like Relay For Life and Project S.A.F.E., have a mission for patrons to recognize a specific cause. Project S.A.F.E. is mostly involved with awareness, whereas Relay For Life focuses its efforts on fundraising. Relay For Life is a nationwide charity, so efforts of the student body mirror the fundraising mission of the organization. Nonetheless, this effort is more about recognition rather than directly impacting cancer research.

The mission of Project S.A.F.E. is to provide an open space and educational resource for victims of sexual assault or abuse, as well as provide workshops for both self-defense and all training. The goal for this issue is to provide resources and education. Because of the content of the issue, Project S.A.F.E. addresses, awareness is synonymous with action.  In this particular case, it is possible that awareness is the most students can do.

But this is not to say effective activism does not exist on campus. Organizations like 99Rise, Vote For Equality and JStreetU are examples of organizations on campus that strive to make a difference through direct action. Instead of sitting around talking about issues, students in these organizations act so that they can see their efforts in practice, even if getting change, like in the case of 99Rise, leads to arrests. OneVoice has the same mission of JStreetU but OneVoice’s approach to the issue is more awareness based while JStreetU is focuses on political action, an important discrepancy to consider when claiming one to be more “activist” than the other.  Even though JStreetU is clearly more politically active, both have exemplary presences on campus, which is only exemplified by their recent participation in their “Letter to the Editor” discussions.

Although these organizations still occasionally need to fundraise, the outcome from fundraising is direct action. Effective activism attributes fundraising not as a means to an end, but instead as the first step to be taken in achieving a greater goal of tangible change. Right now, Occidental students need more than our most famous alumni’s prescription of “change we can believe in.” Believing in substantial change, albeit necessary to fuel action, is passive on its own. Occidental students need to actively engage and fight for change – to act upon their beliefs –  in order to truly be a part of the school’s legacy of action. “Yes we can” seems the more appropriate slogan for Occidental students to follow in combating their current state of passivity and make their mark as activists.

Ella Fornari is an undeclared first-year. She can be reached at fornari@oxy.edu.

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