On weeks when the world felt aflame, I dragged myself out of bed at 3:15 a.m. on Saturdays. In the brisk pre-sunrise morning, a couple of fellow hikers and I hit the road, parting the velvet darkness with a playlist streaming gently in the car. We’d spend the rest of the day in the Colorado Rockies, summiting fourteeners, mountaining parlance for peaks that towered over 14,000 feet.
The trails gave me space to think. Approaching my last year of college, I didn’t know how to be in the world fully: How does one engage with the reality of families separated at the border and as a result of incarceration; species and coastlines disappearing under the hold of irreversible warming; health care costs and inequality on the rise — all happening simultaneously? How could I make community-centered choices about what job to take, where to live, what to consume? I knew in an abstract sense that lives and careers were long and that there were many pathways to affect change, but I felt inadequate about countering the sheer scale of struggle and anguish.
In the end, summiting the peaks also gave me perspective. On the way up most fourteeners, the trail first plunges proudly forward through birch and pine but eventually disappears amidst scrambled boulders. To reach the peak, hikers rely on cairns, stacks of pebbles that accumulate into small pyramids. In more remote areas, cairns exist thanks to individual hikers who may never cross paths, but through the stacking of additional pebbles, reach out across time and space to watch out for others headed in the same direction. Those who come after trust and build up the cairns themselves. In this way, you never summit a peak alone.
That reliance upon others is perhaps even more vital in countering injustice than in hiking mountains: Societal change is inherently impossible to accomplish alone. It is also obscured at Yale by a series of questions that arise beginning in our first days, as we consider what it is that each of us can do to change the world: Do you believe that change comes from reforming or destroying institutions, from the inside or the outside? Who has too much or too little power within any given movement, and is it more effective to be explosively radical or inclusively moderate? When is social good an authentic motivator for a career, and when is it a sham?
Each of these questions is deeply important, and I am glad this community thinks so critically about its actions. But our opinions about the answers too often drive those who seek change further apart. This gap is a loss to all of us, because change entails myriad strategies and actors, connecting, coordinating and coalition-building. Over the summer, as I worked on a national project dedicated to advancing reproductive rights and justice, I saw how organizers firmly rooted in local communities worked with national donors, how politicians and activists and academics, though not always on the same page, coordinated and gave each other the benefit of the doubt in order to have the most impact. To imagine and realize better societies entails a truly radical kind of intersectionality and inclusivity: one that welcomes complicated people into complicated fights, with the understanding that no one of us can do it alone.
At Yale, much of our time and effort is spent on evaluating how we, as individuals, shape and move in the world: Did we lead or attend a rally, start an organization or initiative, alter our own mindset through a course or a new relationship? This is in line with the kind of independence we exercise when establishing ourselves here, our performance in the classroom and our credibility among peers.
Looking past graduation, however, demands learning a different kind of schooling: how to act in concert with others, how to aggregate individuals into effective collectives for protection of the communities close to us, for support of each other, for movement in the directions that we wish to go. It is the kind of schooling directly counter to the do-it-yourself individualism that has led to so many of the collective action problems we are seeking to resolve.
Accepting that large-scale solutions necessitate the commitment of multiple actors provides a starting point. By beginning there, without assumption or judgment about others who share our big-picture goals, we might feel a little less inadequate or fearful in confronting the real world. We might be better members of a larger team, building cairns so that we can all summit a peak. And in the face of a society that seems to be growing apart more and more by the day, we might also weave around us trust and independence, two increasingly rare things that draw communities closer together.
Liana Wang is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs monthly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .