Approaching the sanctuary is easy. Go through the heavy Dwight Hall door, travel up the stairs and take a left. You have now entered the Eli shrine to leftist history: the Social Justice Network Room.
What looks like a quilt patch covered in buttons adorns the wall: “Women strike for peace.” A banner that says “ERA YES!” is joined by a much more recent poster on the wall, “War in Iraq: NOT IN OUR NAME.” Leaning into the opposite corner, a bookshelf serves as the resting place for titles like “Jews Against Prejudice” and “Chronicles of Dissent” stacked sloppily on top of each other. This is the hub for institutionalized activism at Yale.
Students “with a more radical vision for the world” meet, plan and organize within these walls, Dwight Hall program director Johnny Scafidi ’01 explained.
The Social Justice Network, or SJN, includes organizations like Yale Peace, which tends to fly under the Eli radar, and groups with much higher profiles, like the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.
Many students outside of activist circles on campus have a perception of these agitators as loud-for-no-reason, Yale-is-evil hypocrites.
“Most people find them annoying,” Zachary Zwillinger ’07 said.
“It’s good that they’re there, but they’re not accomplishing a large amount,” Julie Hersh ‘10 said.
“The UOC? So they, like, organize … stuff?” Tommy Crawford ’09 asked.
Activism in general and the more vocal groups in particular are often barraged with mockery from fellow Yalies. A prime example is the scorched-earth op-ed that Elizabeth Moore ’09 wrote for the News earlier this year about a protest against genocide in Darfur.
“The protesters hardly did anything truly productive,” she wrote. “Flamboyancy is the only thing that matters to them — who yells the loudest, who refuses to eat for the longest time, who prints their flyers on the most obnoxiously colored neon paper.”
Who are these activists and why do they come under such constant criticism? According to students within the SJN, other Yalies just don’t get it, since their exaggerated perceptions are based on a distorted and ignorant idea of what activism really involves. When Eli activists are asked to identify their accomplishments, they point to the expansion of financial aid, the Community Benefits Agreement reached for the cancer center and the successful campaign to divest from Sudan of last year. But the magnitude of their impact can be limited, particularly on their fellow students.
Adrift in a sea of Eli apathy, these activists slog on, even if they have trouble making students sit up and take notice.
The beginning of a beautiful relationship?
Talking to Scafidi requires a lot of walking. He moved all around Dwight Hall and then ventured outside, meeting an old woman named Lola at Phelps Gate and treating her with starry-eyed reverence.
“Ed Zigler founded Head Start, but Lola actually did it,” he said, adding quickly, “Not that I don’t respect Ed Zigler.”
He comes off as a really sincere politician would.
After it grew out of the Student Labor Action Coalition, the SJN was founded in 1997 and given a permanent home in Dwight Hall shortly thereafter.
Taking a breather from his rounds, sitting on his couch and leaning intently forward, Scafidi recalled how activists at Yale were mocked back in 1997 for protesting the arrival of a minister from the Taliban government of Afghanistan.
“Of course, four years later …,” he said.
The minister was Ramatullah Hashemi, whose enrollment as a non-degree student at Yale received national attention — and criticism — last year.
As the program director of Dwight Hall — the umbrella organization which encompasses both activist groups and more service-oriented organizations — Scafidi said he doesn’t see any kind of divide between the Hall’s two sides. “They both have a vision of social justice and of changing the world,” he emphasized. “The truth is that 10 years from now another YDN reporter is going to come in and ask about the service/activism issue. People are always going to perceive that there is a divide.”
In fact, the Association of Yale Alumni is featuring Dwight Hall in its annual assembly which begins this Thursday, but the theme says nothing about activism and focuses entirely on service.
The perceived divide in Dwight Hall is a matter of approach: The service groups work to patch up the problems they see, while the activists look to rip out the problems at their roots.
A sampler platter of Eli activism
Let’s take a look at a few of the more than 30 groups that comprise the Social Justice Network side of Dwight Hall:
Yale Peace: Sitting in the SJN room, Camille Seaberry ’08 has her serenely cheerful hippie parents in tow when she sits down to talk with scene. Describing the activist lifestyle, Seaberry characterized her group as “a general antiwar group. It started when antiwar activity was really big, before I got here, and sort of died down.”
She said she has spent the last year trying to revive the group, although she declined to say exactly how many members it has. She stressed that it is better to think small for the type of work Yale Peace is doing. Their main activity has been counter-recruitment work with Hillhouse High School students who may be thinking about enlisting in the army, convincing them that they have other viable options, Seaberry said.
“It’s been a very stressful year, and we haven’t been organizing [on campus],” she said. “People go into Hillhouse. It’s never more than four people at once, and we set up a table in the cafeteria.”
Student Legal Action Movement: Tasha Eccles ’07 is a member of SLAM, a group that works to secure rights for those incarcerated in prisons. SLAM, she said, has about 5 core members at the moment. They sponsor screenings of prison documentaries and generally try to raise awareness about the issues that plague prisoners.
“A big piece of what we do is education, because the average Yale student is relatively unaware of what’s going on in the prisons,” Eccles said.
SLAM also does a lot of what Eccles called “direct action.” For example, SLAM was one of the main groups pushing Yale to divest from the Corrections Corporation of America, a group that runs private prisons that have been criticized for abusing their prisoners. On a more everyday level, they also help to drive prisoners’ relatives to prisons, which always seem to be as far as possible from any sign of civilization.
The Undergraduate Organizing Committee: scene tried to go to a UOC meeting, but the group barred us from seeing their internal deliberations.
“There are some things on the agenda relating to broader campaigns that some of our allies are working on that aren’t ready for press consumption yet,” Phoebe Rounds ’07 said in an e-mail.
The UOC has taken a prominent role in pushing for increased financial aid.
The Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project: Toeing the line between Dwight Hall’s two faces of service and activism, Zwillinger serves as one of the coordinators of YHHAP. He said his group, which he described as one of the bigger ones in Dwight Hall, provides the best model because it blends activism with service.
“We do things like the YHHAP fast, and prison tutoring,” he explained. “But then we also have protests, or we sleep out on the streets for a night.”
The spectrum of causes incorporates a range of students, but activists still face the specter of their own exaggerated image.
Finding friction and
misconceptions in Ivy halls
Seaberry comes naturally to activism. Pointing to her parents, she said, “They’re the ones who got me into this.”
Back in her native Chicago, she helped organize a teach-in featuring 20 speakers on the war at her high school. She said similar events were set up at Yale, but fewer speakers were willing to commit because the sponsors couldn’t garner enough support for a full-day event.
She said she can’t quite figure out the Yale community, so often touted as a bastion of liberalism — and savaged in the right-wing press this past year for the Hashemi controversy — isn’t more heated about the war. It should be a perfect match — isn’t everyone on campus a peacenik?
“We’ve been trying to figure that out for the past year or so,” she said.
But many students are canvassing for antiwar candidates like Ned Lamont and working within the electoral system. Sometimes the activists and the politicos intertwine, as in the case of Marissa Levendis ’07. Having worked with the UOC in the past, Levendis is now a member of Students for A New American Politics, a federal political action committee. SNAP works to heighten the student voice in politics and make sure that cushy Washington internships aren’t doled out only to the rich kids who can afford a summer with no pay.
When asked why the SJN groups had trouble recruiting student support, Levendis said that while the groups themselves may not have name recognition, they effectively publicize the causes they support.
“Did you hear about the divestment campaign?” she asked. “Did you hear about financial aid expansion? It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of the UOC.”
When recognition does come, it is usually framed in a less-than-positive way, Levendis said.
The prison divestment campaign in which SLAM participated drew criticism from people who said the Graduate Employee and Student Organization — which launched the protest — was out of bounds in raising the issue. Eccles said she is stumped as to why many people seem to have a reflexively negative reaction towards activism.
“I don’t know what motivates those kinds of responses,” Eccles said. “There’s a certain kind of ennui when it comes to activism. Maybe it’s the repetitive nature of student activism. And that’s a challenge for us to get more creative, but it’s also what student activism is all about.”
Taking another look at the problem, Seaberry described the origin of the student’s body objections to activists.
“A lot of criticism [about activists] seems to come from people who almost haven’t tried it,” she said. “It’s really not that hard. It’s fun.”
She also said that activism works, pointing to the fight over the cancer center last year. “They worked really hard, and everyone was saying ‘Yale’s not gonna listen to you,’ and then Yale finally had to listen to them.”
However successful they might be in the larger community, in Eccles’ eyes activist groups can’t seem to catch a break on campus: If they’re not successful, they’re derided as ineffective, and if they are, they never get credit.
“You keep driving home the same messages,” she said. “Then when change happens people are like, ‘That was Yale making a move,’ or, ‘It’s a political process.’”
Successful in the past but still relevant?
A common perception of this current crop of organizers is that they’re stuck in the past, playing the same “Greatest Movement Hits” record into the ground. Rounds said there is a reason people look to the past: Those movements worked, and attempts to change the system from within haven’t.
“The civil rights and women’s rights and antiwar movements were incredibly successful,” she said. “And so we’ve got to learn from their successes and from their mistakes.”
As evidenced by their Web site, the UOC is looking to the recent past for inspiration as well: On the front page, a button labeled “The Strike” is prominently featured next to the “History” and “Contact” buttons. Clearly, the 2003 strike — when Locals 34 and 35, GESO and the UOC pushed Yale to negotiate a contract the UOC calls “terrific” — is considered a watershed moment. There’s even a strike timeline on the site for “those who want to relive the magic.”
Asked if she could think of any event since then that has been as momentous on campus, Rounds hesitated for a second before launching into the list: Sudan divestment, the cancer center, financial aid reform.
Though activists may have accomplished some of their goals in the past, it remains unclear how much their message resonates with new Yalies like Daniel Edeza ’10.
“I haven’t seen them as much as I thought I would,” he said. “I thought they’d be out there supporting their issues.”
In an attempt to counteract these signs of stagnation, the Black Student Alliance At Yale is making “igniting black activism in college students” a theme of its solidarity conference this weekend, BSAY board member Elliot Watts ’09 said. It’s named “Call to Arms: Battling Complacency, Igniting The Revolution,” and begins today. But Watts took issue with what he called the “ultraliberal” groups on campus.
“I worked on Shalek’s campaign, and a big turnoff was these ultraliberal groups who were supporting Livengood and scaring voters,” he said. “One guy told me they had a sit-in and the whole point was to say they’d been arrested, not to change anything.”
Although Seaberry does not share Watts’ views on activism, she said she does feel that the current antiwar movement has failed.
“The sort of United For Peace and Justice [antiwar group] model of antiwar work — big rally, big march, go back home — isn’t stopping the war, it isn’t ending the poverty draft,” she said.
Yale Peace has even avoided adopting a concrete position on the war. Everyone wants it to be done soon, but there are too many disagreements about how quickly the U.S. should get out.
Levendis said she likes being in SNAP because it connects the activist camp at Yale with establishment groups such as the Yale College Democrats. And SNAP is getting recognition: Both SNAP and Levendis herself were praised by Mother Jones magazine and got a long write-up in The Nation.
But is that what you have to do to gain people’s notice and start to affect change? Align yourself with the system and campaign for the Democratic Party? That kind of thinking — selling out? — is anathema to Seaberry, who said dryly, “The things that I see as being capable of effecting a lot of change are much to the left of the Democrats.”
Something will have to change before the activists on campus can hope to command the kind of popularity they did when protestors flooded Yale in support of the Black Panthers 36 years ago. Either the activists will have to find some way to make themselves more palatable to the campus at large, or everyone else will have to learn that it sometimes takes a raised voice — and a bruising presence — to get things done.
“Look, we’re not just ‘Yale is evil,’” Rounds said. “But we want to change things.”