Making a Difference Means More Than Activism

“It is not a Buddhist approach to say that if everyone practiced Buddhism, the world would be a better place. Wars and oppression begin from this kind of thinking.” 

-Sulak Sivaraska

Activism: The policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.”

- Oxford American English Dictionary

Whitman College is dedicated to making a positive impact and educating its students about the injustices that occur in today’s world. Students’ and professors’ initiatives span the globe, and are most often presented to us through a political lens that offers activist- and activism-inspired solutions. As interesting and timely as these topics are, I believe Whitman’s intense focus on them through an activist lens is harmful in a couple ways.

The constant presentation of these issues through a political, activist lens enforces the idea that political action is the only solution to the problems that plague our communities. It creates a certain pressure on students to take up the mantle of activism, even though this may not be their first choice for the expression of positive action. With visiting educators, professors and students alike championing its benefits, activism becomes almost an obligation.

This focus also limits the community’s understanding of the many ways in which Whitties can create positive change. With the emphasis so strongly on activism, other forms of positive action available for those less politically inclined, but no less inclined to make a positive impact on their community, become lost. Not only do we become limited in our methods to fight injustice, we also place limitations on the scope of issues we discuss.

It has always been significant to me that the vast majority of speakers Whitman brings to campus and events the school hosts for students are so politically minded. Many visiting educators and speakers deal with global issues, concentrating on the plight of the oppressed and the steps that need to be taken to effect positive, political change.

But what about issues a little closer to home—issues like physical and emotional wellness in a stressed-out college population navigating the trials of adolescence? How do we treat our peers respectfully? What are some strategies we can use to be kind to our bodies, to learn more effectively? How do we create more meaningful interactions not as diplomats or researchers, but as people?

To a person like me, and I imagine to others as well, these are the sorts of issues that feed the flame. On such an activism-heavy campus, it is my sense that these topics are of secondary importance. This might be inferred through many students’ reluctance to ask for extensions, to visit the counseling center or to prioritize a good night’s sleep over completing a grant application.

I do not wish to speak ill of activism itself. Both of my parents are activists, and their list of accomplishments, the countless lives they and others like them have touched and made better is a testament to the practice. My criticism, rather, is of the way in which activism has a tendency to alienate, even demean, other forms of positive action.

People who are more introverted by nature, or conceive of community health and wellness not in a political way, but through the lenses of emotion, of therapy, of beauty, of whatever, have a lot to contribute. Whether in the future their work might be in music therapy, in permaculture design or as an educated and caring parent, no doubt these people have the capacity to touch other people’s live in a positive way, and make just as big a difference. I think the need here is to refocus on Whitman’s mission, as a community, to enter into this world knowledgeably and intentionally, and then to make a positive impact in any shape or form.




Filed under: Opinion

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