Students Plan for the Next Four Years of Activism

Eight years ago, Tappan Square spontaneously erupted into celebration after President Barack Obama was elected to a second term. While Joe Biden’s election to the presidency this Saturday prompted boisterous celebrations on many campuses across the country, Oberlin’s public spaces did not see the same festivities. 

Student reactions ran the gamut from relief and joy to anger and fear, and in some cases, numbness. However, the election also left many students motivated to organize — both through pre-existing student groups that focus on electoral activism and through the creation of a new student organization, rooted in radical Black Feminism, that will focus on community work. 

College fourth-year and Chair of the Oberlin College Democrats Julian Mitchell-Israel was surprised by his own muted feelings last Saturday. 

“I honestly was much, much less excited than I thought I was going to be when I found out,” Mitchell-Israel said. “First off, I think we had been kind of expecting it for at least 24 hours at that point. … It wasn’t this big moment of victory. The second thing is that it’s Biden. I’m much further to the left than he is, and so while Trump losing feels like a win, Biden taking the presidency doesn’t. I think my general sentiment, though, is one of tremendous relief.”

For College fourth-year and Chair of Student Senate Henry Hicks, Saturday was a day to celebrate and rest before regrouping to plan for the future. 

“It felt like a weight being lifted off of my shoulders,” Hicks said. “Of course, recognizing that we’re always going to have to continue to push to hold elected officials accountable, Saturday just felt like a day where I could breathe, I could celebrate, I could be happy.”

The historical significance of the barriers broken by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was not lost on Hicks. Harris is the first Black and South Asian woman to hold the office of Vice President. Hicks spent Fall semester 2019 in Waterloo, Iowa, working on Harris’ primary campaign. Learning the results brought back some of his memories from this time last year when he was canvassing door-to-door.

“I remember there was this one man who had two young children, probably about six or seven [years old], and I knocked on the door,” Hicks said. “He was not ready to commit to a candidate, but he asked me if I wouldn’t mind bringing his kids along with me to go knock because he wanted them to know that they could become president one day also. They could ascend to the White House, despite the fact that they were girls, despite the fact that they were Black.” 

Mitchell-Israel was disappointed that more Oberlin students didn’t actively participate in community efforts to get out the vote this year. 

“Voting was not enough to get Lorain County blue,” Mitchell-Israel said. “I’m hoping that’s something that Oberlin students will have recognized, and that they won’t take for granted our ability to really effect change. Outside of the election, I think students need to realize that posting on social media isn’t enough. Get involved in orgs, find an issue, and do research, and figure out what the policies are that are being pushed for it right now. Call people, contact your elected officials, start a student org if you need to.”

College first-years Vera Grace Menafee and WD also saw a need to engage beyond voting and electoral politics. 

“I’ve been learning about Indigenous sovereignty — there are some Indigenous organizations that really don’t agree with voting as a way to liberation or any sort of justice because it’s all land stolen through broken treaties and immoral exploitation,” Menafee said.

When Menafee came to Oberlin, she explored existing student organizations but didn’t find what she was looking for. Ignited by the election, Menafee and WD are forming a group rooted in principles of radical Black Feminism that will focus on community work. 

“I really envisioned collaborating with [student organizations], but I think for me personally, I was really wanting to form a different space that was more grounded in Black radical traditions — especially Black Feminism and the work of the Combahee River Collective,” she said. “I just feel like it could be a little bit more radical — Oberlin campus and Oberlin town. … [These possibilities] get mowed over by this wishful thinking that racism doesn’t live here.”

The team has already hosted one event, which WD envisioned. 

“They had the idea of holding a town hall that can proactively try to address safety concerns after the election,” Menafee said. “We had the idea before the results came out because we both agreed that both Biden and Trump will be violent presidents. Once the results came out, we were realizing that Lorain County itself was red and had voted for Trump. Being in that environment, we wanted to provide any supplies that are needed by the community.”

They plan to provide tangible safety resources to community members, such as masks, sanitary supplies, and self-defense implements, including pepper spray. They are also discussing holding a virtual self-defense training to help community members feel safer. 

“We just wanted to be really proactive about things and fill in places we felt weren’t being addressed,” Menafee said.

Menafee and WD have ambitious aspirations for their organization. After seeking funding through the Bonner Scholars program to pay for increased testing in the Oberlin community, they plan to teach a class to local youth about self-determination and liberation. In the near future, they will begin their own publication highlighting Black Feminist work. 

While they would have continued the work regardless, Biden’s victory has left many students resolved to engage in politics deeply, both on campus and in the larger community. Oberlin students’ commitment to creating an atmosphere of activism primes them to spark progressive change in Oberlin and beyond. 

“I was talking to some of my other friends who are organizers and a lot of them agreed with this: The difference to me now is that for the first time in four years, I’m excited about the work that we have to do rather than feeling like it’s some sad necessity,” Mitchell-Israel said.