It was a typical early September evening: cool and not yet cold, breezy and not yet windy — the perfect time to sprawl in bed and flip through a magazine with the windows of my room in Berkeley thrown open to the autumn dusk. As I read the latest words of wisdom that Vogue had to offer, I became aware of a crescending wave of sound on Cross Campus. It began with a few mutters, then a gentle hum in the air, and eventually exploded into loud jazz. At first I gave no notice, thinking it was the latest student music performance. But the hubbub kept growing louder and louder until even Vogue could not hold my attention any longer. Casting my magazine aside, I poked my head out of the window,
trying to discern the source of the commotion.
At first I wasn’t sure where to look. Sure there were flowers, candles, teacups, people lounging on the grass beside pretty checkered picnic blankets.
And — wait, bunnies? Are those bunnies?
That’s what I asked my suitemates as each of them neared the window with equal curiosity. We weren’t the only interested onlookers — those near the event paused and even stopped to inquire, receiving tea in return. But the music and the Victorian tea sets and the elaborate flower decorations and the general hipster
attire just did not add up, until a helpful friend enlightened us all.
Oh that’s just a whole bunch of hippie-dippy-trippy people hanging
out on Cross Campus. It’s like a weird cult thing for truth and beauty or happiness or something.
While the explanation was rather vague, it did partially explain the bizarre assembly on Cross Campus — the clusters of flowerpots
and the occasional glimpse of a long white robe, at the very least. Clearly this was a hippie-wannabe gathering for those hipsters who were too hipster even for Urban Outfitters, who were not spiritually satisfied by colored tights and fair-trade, eco-friendly headbands. I thought to myself: since we are so fed up with our own vacuous lifestyles, why not sit around on the grass daintily sipping tea and spouting poetry about how much we hate pretension?
That first impression was enough for me. But as The Yale Daily News, The Yale Herald, and other university publications began spotlighting the Movement for Beauty and Justice — the real name of the gathering on Cross Campus — I became increasingly intrigued by this student organization, seemingly shrouded in nonsensical mystery. What are its real goals, I wondered, besides putting flowers in their hair and offering tea to passers-by? What do “beauty” and “justice” actually mean in the context of this group? And lastly, a question that has never been addressed in the other publications: what in the world is going on with the bunnies?
These seemingly innocuous activities, designed by co-leaders Justine Kolata ’12 and Ric Hernandez ’11 to increase beauty appreciation on campus, actually have much more grandiose goals, I discovered, and are moving forward with the help of Yale faculty members.
THE GROUNDS FOR BELIEF
One of them is Thomas Pogge, Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs. When we sat down in his office in Connecticut Hall, he came across as the stereotypical Yale professor:
an interesting but quiet middle-aged man with thin-framed glasses, unruly hair, and a short-trimmed beard. I began asking him how he had gotten involved with an undergraduate organization
that claims to fight social injustice by throwing flower petals at random pedestrians and watching sunsets at East Rock.
“Well in my class that Justine [Kolata] took — Ethics and International Affairs — we talked about justice, but not about beauty or aesthetics,” said Pogge, who is also Kolata’s sophomore advisor. According to him, when they discussed the roots of social injustice, Kolata pointed out that people all over the world share an avaricious, self-centered social mentality. It’s two sides of the coin: the poor are unhappy because they lack essential resources, while the rich are unhappy because the resources they have are unfulfilling.
“If everyone had something fulfilling them, they wouldn’t be so gung-ho about grabbing things from people who need them so much more,” Pogge added.
So where does beauty come in? Kolata and Hernandez’s website
explains that their conception of beauty “reaches beyond the conventional sense of the term as the cultivation of a specific aesthetic
and sensibility.” It goes on to define beauty as “subjective in concept and plural in form.” Vague much?
Pogge had another explanation: “Beauty is a symbol you can’t take too narrowly. It’s something like friendship, nothing physical to look at — it’s a beautiful thing to go with a friend on a long walk and just have a good conversation about life.”
Social justice and this extensive view of beauty are not directly related in a conceptual, causal way, he continued. But they both speak broadly of the “good, valuable things in life.”
But according to Kolata and Hernandez, this link between beauty and justice is not a completely novel concept. Under the References section on their website, they casually throw out names like Plato, Goethe, and Kant. By quoting major thinkers ranging from Aristotle (“The end of all virtues is beauty”) to Keats (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”), they have assembled a curious philosophy with supposedly classical and Romantic roots. However, there is no further explanation about how these different
philosophies contribute to their own.
At my interview with the founders, I brought up the main problem most students and publications have with the Movement for Beauty and Justice: the seemingly flimsy link between beauty as an artistic ideal and justice as a tangible social effort. But while Kolata and Hernandez remained adamant about the organization’s philosophy, they did address the scholastic skepticism they are facing in promoting their ideals.
“Our ideas have foundations in academic thought,” said Kolata, again bringing up Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on beauty as a social good. “There is a feasible connection between beauty and justice that can be held in politics and our social structure.
What we want to do is analyze the literature that has been done on the subject and implement it in society.”
But literary analysis is not the only thing on the group’s agenda: while they do look at classical and modern philosophy for inspiration, they are also planning on testing the philosophies in an academic setting.
Hernandez conceded that while it is an obvious thing for them that “a more beautiful world leads to a more just world,” that is not a viewpoint shared by many others. But that could change, he said, through the psychological studies he is conducting with the help of professors. When they have psychological data that can back up their notions and statistically inform people, they can better implement the philosophy in a realistic manner, Hernandez explained.
While they espouse these grand philosophical concepts, Kolata and Hernandez do not look bookish in person. When we met at the Berkeley Dining Hall for the interview, Kolata, with her carefully
arranged blonde hair and her simple, classic outfit that paid tribute to ridiculously long legs, legitimately looked as though she had stepped off the runway. Hernandez, on the other hand, would make the hipster world proud with his lion’s-mane hair and scrupulous style, complemented by a studded ear piercing. In my jeans and a Yale sweater, I felt very little beauty and justice on my side of the table.
Hernandez continued with his goals for the organization: “It’s important that people see this as a lifestyle change. We would not want to be considered as a club at Yale where people just show up to meetings.” Even if people never affiliate with the movement, he added, “the idea is there and the idea is so powerful.”
Adopting beauty and justice as a way of viewing life is a concept
that Kolata has believed in for a long time. “If we can impact people with this viewpoint, I know we can solve problems that have been around for thousands of years.”
Looking at Kolata and Hernandez smiling across the table, I can only admit that they at least got the beauty half of the equation figured out.
FROM PAPER TO REAL LIFE
Nevertheless, the justice half of the movement is what most people have questions about. While the chalked up signs telling students to look up and enjoy their surroundings may inspire appreciation of Yale greenery and architecture, they seem to do little to help, say, starving children in sub-Saharan Africa.
Not according to Kolata and Hernandez. The Movement for Beauty and Justice, Hernandez explained, is about “compassion for fellow men, love and respect for others you share the Earth with.”
Kolata gave another explanation. “A lot of people are very moral, but we are in a system that perpetuates social injustices so these people unintentionally end up contributing to these systems,” she said. By making our political and social structures uphold basic human rights, we can effect real change, she added.
But it’s one thing to philosophize about beauty and justice and another to completely
change the very fabric of society. Kolata was very frank about her goals for the organization:
Yale is just the first step in a movement that will hopefully “become a political structure on a large scale,” she said. On the Movement for Beauty and Justice’s website, the Yale chapter is described as the first case study, and the founders offer to extend their help to other people who may want to start their own local chapters. As the name of the organization states, it is intended to be a movement, not another extracurricular activity for resume builders.
Kolata and Hernandez certainly do apply their own ideas in their daily lives. During our interview, they occasionally commented on the beauty of their surroundings. Pointing at the ceiling of the dining hall, Hernandez praised the woodwork, while Kolata noted the intricacy of the stone carvings and tapestry. The ideas of beauty and justice, they said, are about viewing the world in a different, positive way, and if that viewpoint could be applied in a political
manner to impact everyone, the world would be a much better place.
While the greater social and political goals are in the process of being realized, there are some actual social justice projects in the works for the Movement for Beauty and Justice. At the moment, the group is working in collaboration with an indigenous community in Bolivia to teach people sustainable farming techniques. Kolata, who has spent a significant part of her life in the South American country, said that the community’s own ancient agricultural practices, which are no longer prevalent, are actually very efficient and environmentally friendly. By combining these traditional techniques with new sustainable technologies, they want to empower the indigenous people and preserve the environment, she said. The organization is planning a spring break trip to Bolivia to do hands-on demonstrations for the natives and engage them on a personal level.
Another major ongoing effort is the education project, which is both socially tangible and representative of the Movement for Beauty and Justice’s goals. The organization is developing a curriculum for a public school system that teaches the values of beauty and justice through group activities that focus on arts and culture. Kolata and Hernandez are also working on an after-school program that keeps students at school to participate in alternative, constructive activities instead of more “destructive activities.”
A point that both founders stressed was the seriousness and long-term sustainability of their endeavors. For example, future projects will focus on poverty, health, culture, and the environment.
“This is not just an overnight thing. What we’ve been able to do in a short amount of time is so small compared to what we expect to do over a long period of time,” Hernandez said.
The organization is currently applying for Yale grants and 501(c)3 status, which would officially make it tax-exempt and non-profit. The funding could allow the organization to realize its international goals and projects, and Kolata and Hernandez are looking to collaborate with existent non-governmental organizations
to work on as many different efforts as they can.
Though most social and community volunteer organizations are registered with Dwight Hall under the Social Justice Network, Kolata and Hernandez see their organization as slightly different from other service organizations at Yale due to its comprehensivenature: the social justice effort is only a part of their goals. Still, Social Justice Network’s New Membership coordinator Jill Hagey ’11 said there is a lot of room for groups like the Movement for Beauty and Justice to work with other Dwight Hall organizations.
“We work with sororities and other groups which have a wing of their group interested in community service,” Hagey said. “We are very accepting of organizations whose primary focus isn’t social justice but still want to work with us on community service efforts.”
Even though the Movement for Beauty and Justice does include social justice projects, it has received very negative press for being allegedly too naive and vague about its goals. The recent IvyGate blog article compared the Movement for Beauty and Justice to the Derek Zoolander Institute For Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Want To Do Other Stuff Good Too, the farcically idealistic school in the Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander. Kolata and Hernandez have certainly taken notice of the Yale Daily News and Yale Herald articles, which criticized the organization’s promotional
efforts, which have so far consisted of sidewalk chalking, stargazing, tea parties, sunset viewings, and free concerts.
“Both of us were surprised by the negative
reactions to things that weren’t integral to the organization,” said Hernandez. The promotional events were meant to attract attention and are not the goal of the group, he said. “It’s not the be all and end all.”
A significant amount of attention has been devoted to the bunnies, appropriately
named “Beauty” and “Justice,” which have made appearances at the Freshman Activities Bazaar and other events. Abandoned by a family in North Carolina, the bunnies are currently kept in Hernandez’s apartment, housed in a large “castle” that he fashioned himself.
But, as Kolata insists, the bunnies aren’t really the point of the organization. “It was a way to get freshmen to sign up,” she explained. The Activities Bazaar can be intimidating, and they wanted to welcome the freshmen with pets, she said.
“What’s more welcoming than a bunny?” Hernandez interjected. “A pair of bunnies.”
Another notion that Kolata and Hernandez wanted to dispel was that they are a pseudo-hippie organization. While Kolata acknowledged there were positive things in the hippie movement, such as appreciating the world and opening communication
with people, she said that the movement was very limited and that nothing
substantial came out of it. Hernandez added that the hippie movement was anti-political whereas the Movement for Beauty and Justice is about working with the system and not against it.
Both of them were adamant about defending their idealism. As Kolata explained, there is a balance between incorporating idealism and doing things that are tangible and have an impact on people’s lives. In the movement’s philosophy, idealism is described as a pragmatic way of living vivaciously and sharing the beauty of the world. The negative publicity they had received did not attack their ideas but only the supposed naïveté of idealism, Kolata said.
“What’s wrong with people having hope and faith in humanity?
It’s just a little bit ridiculous,” Hernandez said, referring to the critical attention they had received.
The main thing that they wanted to convey was that their organization is a fundamentally good effort. Even though some people may think their ideas overly idealistic and impractical, Kolata and Hernandez believe that they are still working on promoting positive values and social justice. Kolata concluded that the skepticism they faced was essentially unfounded: “you can say it’s idealistic, but you can’t argue that we are not doing something positive.”