Looking Back at Oberlin Students’ Campus Activism One Year Later

It has been almost one year since I graduated from Oberlin. The Memorial Arch in Tappan Square still looms in my mind, as do the words of many of my professors. The Oberlin mindset of aspirational compassion and a commitment to challenging the status quo, as well as our institution’s quixotic failures, continue to inform my work and life every day. 

Since graduating, I have had the immense pleasure of working with the Amazon Labor Union to build a true, worker-led movement and achieve unionization at a United States Amazon facility for the first time in history. It took stepping outside of Oberlin, having countless conversations with Amazon workers, and many conversations with current Oberlin students for me to finally understand what I had really wanted to say to my fellow Obies when I was a student. It was never about critiquing Oberlin or trying to make people feel bad about their behavior. Rather, it has always been about pointing out ways that Oberlin students have power they are unaware of. If they do not use that power, Oberlin is at risk of losing its spirit.

Shortly before graduating from Oberlin last year, I wrote a piece on the hypocrisy of Oberlin’s progressivism, and much of what I wrote then I still hold to be true. Our school administration espouses a commitment to workers, students, equality, and radicalism and then turns around and acts without reserve to crush efforts to actually empower these people. Likewise, the students at Oberlin often care more that their arguments are couched in the right words than that the content is consistent with our values. We prefer to discuss the way capitalism beats down our world instead of doing anything about it. I spent two years trying to build and rebuild a movement at our school that would connect with the Lorain County community and create real change. Yet, at every turn I was met with resistance from the administration, ideological pushback from those I thought were on the same page, and what I can only describe as laziness from the students who could have fueled the movement. At the end of the day, Oberlin students often find it more fulfilling to critique the sociological implications of potential actions than to take action. Perhaps most importantly, we fail to hold kindness as a consistent source of decision making.

Oberlin students often consider activism to be staging a protest in Tappan Square, writing a zine, reading some Marx in a dimly lit room, and posting on social media. While these activities are forms of activism, they are not forms of organizing by themselves. Organizing must come from relationship building and engaging people in service of a communal goal. You must spend time critically analyzing the problem you are facing, identify points of weakness in the institutional structures that govern the outcome, and find ways to put pressure on key players. Oberlin students must not forget that they have an immense amount of influence. You make Oberlin run. Student workers provide a huge service to the College and community that, if halted, would put economic pressure on those in power. You pay the tuition that keeps the College afloat. You do not have to cooperate with any request the College administration makes. Students have the ability to take truly disruptive collective action. Remember, the power you have is in provoking a reaction from the College and town, then choosing how and where to escalate from that reaction. Take the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association as an example. The College is and has been threatening its existence for years, but OSCA’s existence is not up to them. If students organize well enough internally, they will have the power to control almost every aspect of the co-ops on campus and ensure their continued existence. Occupations, refusals to cooperate, and refusals to pay are only three of many options on the table. 

So many of the tacit rules we teach ourselves to follow at Oberlin are based in kindness: we should use whatever pronouns people wish us to, “take space/make space,” create institutions to protect and empower those on the periphery of current society, challenge institutions of exploitation, and center marginalized voices. If we acknowledge that universal kindness is the basis of these claims, it should be easy to see that we must not isolate ourselves in our efforts to bring about a better world. We must bring those who at first disagree with us into the conversation and center their voices so that we do not alienate them further. We must make forgiveness a priority and selfless education a custom. Do not write off those with whom you are seemingly at odds. This is a plea for you to see beyond the divide that benefits those in power. There is no political correctness in a true working-class movement. Prioritize kindness, and you will never lose your way.

You have the power, and you know the stakes. Oberlin has the potential to be a truly radical institution. I feel that my work, as well as that of many other alumni, is a testament to the consistency with which Oberlin produces graduates ready to serve as counterweights to the institutional forces in the larger world. This is one of the things that makes it really hard to understand the issues with Oberlin when you’re inside it: Oberlin teaches us how to be the people capable of critiquing it. We are left with a conflicting loyalty. We must not fall prey to the easy way out. We must not allow ourselves to give Oberlin a pass because it opened our eyes. If we wish to preserve Oberlin as a force for radicalism in this country, we must create a renewed commitment and intensity within the student body that will force our school to explore new models of community, resist the creeping influence of globalized neoliberalism on liberal arts education, and preserve the pre-revolutionary thought that lies at the core of Oberlin’s appeal.