Last year, I spent a chilly November morning canvassing with Fossil Free Yale. The 30-odd students who had signed up to canvas gathered first in the Silliman courtyard. An FFY board member handed out flyers that read: “With a great endowment comes great responsibility.” Before we split off to canvas various colleges, Fossil Free leaders started up a chant: “We are warriors. We are ready.”
I trailed a handful of volunteers toward TD. As we traipsed up steps and knocked on doors, we got a wide range of reactions. Some students responded by enthusiastically agreeing to vote in the upcoming Yale College Council referendum. Others seemed more confused: “This is an interesting thing to be doing with your Saturday morning,” one chuckled. Most weren’t accustomed to the demand that FFY presented: Help us sway the Yale administration and Corporation.
From the time the FFY movement launched, this organization has generated a particular energy on campus. It’s an energy that carries import far beyond the particulars of the fossil free campaign. It’s an energy that offers critical lessons to activists on every battlefront, from gender equity to racial justice.
Yale is not a particularly radical community. I don’t think that argument is too controversial; it’s been made in classrooms, at dinner tables, in Master’s Teas and in these pages. Last year I wrote a final paper on Yale’s activist history, and that was the sentiment I heard echoed by all the alumni I spoke with: We’re risk-averse. Some Yalies have pet causes and some have issues that genuinely move us, but very rarely are we willing to subvert the system. “Everyone here is very ambitious, and taking a strong political stance is seen as a professional and social liability,” Alexandra Brodsky ’12 LAW’16 explained to me.
Social movements that operate within the system can have great value. It’s important to communicate with Yale administrators to identify opportunities for campus reform. YCC’s mental health report is a great example of that — its writers presented administrators with concrete ways of addressing student concerns. Yale’s Community and Consent Educators are hired by the University to fight for a more positive sexual climate.
Our campus has its fair share of partnership people, activists who work with authorities to pave the way for change. But until recently, we’ve had very little of the subversive-middle-finger kind of advocacy. Some would argue that’s a positive. But I think there’s a unique, particular kind of energy that comes from subversive activism, the kind accompanied by just a bit of antagonism.
If you reach back years into Yale’s history, you’ll find plenty of moments in which student activists took an aggressive stance against authority. In 1986, students camped out on Beinecke Plaza calling on the University to divest from South Africa under apartheid — 78 students were arrested for trespassing. As recently as 2011, 16 students filed a Title IX complaint against Yale. They charged the University with “failing to eliminate a hostile sexual environment.” These aggressive moves can spur productive action; four years later, Yale’s system of addressing sexual misconduct complaints has been completely restructured.
Few of Yale’s social justice movements today have taken on the administration, risking reputation or security or even arrest to force a response. Few have taken to heart a simple challenge: Institutions, at their core, are prone to inertia. It’s up to us to fuel progress.
But FFY has embraced a more radical approach. They’ve recognized that while administrators and Corporation members are not the enemy, they warrant criticism from the community at large.
This Thursday, FFY will be rallying outside Woodbridge Hall. They’ll be calling for a response from the Yale Corporation and demonstrating that they won’t back down on their demands. The values at the heart of their mission — environmental justice, clean energy — are critically important. But equally as important is the energy they’re creating on campus. They’re reminding the Yale Corporation that administrators may have authority, but students have their own unique form of power.
Emma Goldberg is a junior in Saybrook College and a former opinion editor for the News. Her column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.