Greater Focus Required for Oberlin Activism

CJ Blair, Columnist

If there’s one thing Oberlin students know how to do, it’s to ensure that their political beliefs are heard. The truth is that Obies are known in and out of academia as the college students who hurl their most radical politics in the face of whoever’s in throwing distance, without restraint or willingness to compromise. Anyone who goes to Oberlin knows that this fervor can get very annoying, but they also know that it is what helps Oberlin move toward its progressive goals so much faster than other colleges. For this reason, it’s worth considering how our strong political beliefs are articulated to ensure that they expedite the advancement of the issues we really care about, and so that we don’t get lost discussing ideas we don’t care about.

I got the idea for this article when I was lying on a park bench on Saturday, six miles away from campus. I was training for the Cleveland Marathon and got overconfident, thinking I could run the full 26 miles at my Boston Marathon qualifying pace. At mile 20, I hit the wall. I knew I would collapse if I had to run any farther. After calling a dozen friends to ask if they could come, I called Safety and Security for a ride. They said tough luck, because I was too far off campus. A friend came to pick me up after about an hour, but all I could think about was how much trouble I could get Safety and Security into.

I could’ve gone through with that. I could’ve written this column about bureaucratic nonsense and inconsiderate College staff and then sent President Krislov a letter. Even though Safety and Security surely couldn’t come because of liability reasons, I probably still could’ve gotten something out of that fight. But what would have really been accomplished? What would it have said about me if the countless hours I spend every week fighting pipelines and organizing environmental justice events had been ignored so I could be angry at the College for a few days?

This epiphany made me understand why Oberlin’s aggressive demands are often viewed negatively by the outside world, even if they share similar political views with many Oberlin students. When a serious instance of social or political inequality is brought to people’s attention, it needs to be afforded the utmost time and dedication for anything to get accomplished. This dedication has historically been one of Oberlin’s greatest strengths and still continues to be. However, this has been coupled with a tendency to afford this level of rhetoric and activism to issues that simply don’t deserve that amount of attention.

No matter how it’s viewed, too few forks in the dining hall or showers that take too long to get warm will never be as important as economic inaccessibility or a lack of diversity on campus. These might seem like extreme examples, but Oberlin is known for nothing if not extremes. This was my dream college, and I am ecstatic that I am able to attend, but for every trivial fight annoyed students undertake, I can envision how much more meaningful work could be done for more urgent and important campaigns.

If it seems like I’m advocating a myopic, utilitarian view of political activism, rest assured that I’m not. Though I’m suggesting a consolidation of focus, the enormous intellectual wealth of Oberlin students is more than enough to make some really spectacular change on this campus. If everyone here were fighting for the same goal in the same way, it would be no different than any group of well-meaning college students trying to better the world. But Oberlin is so much more than that because its students aren’t trying to build a resume. They want to set the gold standard for the way people and resources should be treated in the world.

This may sound like a lofty goal, but it’s one that is obviously engrained in the hearts and minds of students here, and it’s why I’m so frustrated when energy is wasted on complaints and trivial matters that are simply not that important. As college students with the immense privilege given to us by this education, it’s easy to lose sight of the outside world and find little things to complain about instead. But if Oberlin students save their brilliance and excitement for the truly important issues, as they did for the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and the current Fossil Fuel Divestment plan, it would make it much easier for ourselves and others to understand the importance of our trademark fervor.