The old couches and beat up chairs were organized in a circle that bordered the large residence hall lounge. Four easels of crisp white flip chart paper stood at attention, all decorated with rousing questions for the eager students, faculty, and staff anxiously shuffling in.
What is resistance?
What is activism?
Why do we resist?
How do we resist?
After grabbing a few slices of greasy pizza and mingling among the choir of usual suspects, I took my seat. Unlike most evening programs, I came to this workshop as a participant. In my role of directing an office on campus that is actively engaged in social justice work, my interest was peaked when I saw a black and white hand-drawn flyer with a clenched fist raised in the middle of the page and the words, “Anger is not enough!” spanning the top margin.
About six months ago our campus erupted when a small group of about twelve students showed up to protest at the biggest and most sacred event held during the college’s preview weekend for prospective students. Chanting songs and raising banners that exposed their experiences with racism, sexism, and homophobia, this band of students was intent on showing the incoming class what really happens at their college. Not long after, online forums and social networking sites became the breeding grounds for anonymous slurs of discrimination and explicit threats of violence targeted at the protestors. Appalled by this blatant display of disrespect toward members of our community, the college rallied together for a day of reflection by cancelling classes and engaging in authentic dialogue.
Tensions slowly eased and the community emerged with a transformed sense of consciousness. As the term went on however, chem labs and final exams demanded students’ attention back to business as usual. Summer came and went, ushering in the new class of students who barely remembered the night of the protest or why it happened in the first place. The Resistance Workshop I found myself at was an effort to reignite the fire that was started with the protest in the spring and build moment toward changing campus climate.
To be honest, I was skeptical about the workshop. As a social justice educator on my campus, I devote my time to better understanding systemic structures of privilege, power, and oppression as well as empowering my students to dismantle those systems. But as I sat on that cushy leather sofa listening to others’ personal stories of activism, I couldn’t help but consider my own philosophy about resistance.
The most impactful of them all came from a large tattooed man with leathered skin and a baseball cap littered with buttons and pins of the different union organizations to which he belonged. An hourly maintenance worker at the college, Earl and his wife, are key leaders and organizers for the workers’ union. After describing several of the ways in which they believe the college mistreats, neglects, and takes advantage of its working staff, Earl went on to explain how he practices resistance and activism.
“It’s really just a one on one conversation,” he declared. Just one day prior he spent nearly an hour on the phone with a woman who wanted to know why she should join the worker’s union at the college. After the call, the woman decided to join the union despite her initial uncertainty. Earl described how connecting with people individually to hear their stories and to share his own is one of the most effective ways that he engages in activism.
Not by creating committees or attending meetings. Not by holding signs or shouting slogans. Earl practices social justice by telling stories.
It seemed too simple. But there was an elegance and undeniable truth to his basic philosophy. The more I thought about my own process of development as a social justice educator and ally, I couldn’t ignore how the power of personal narratives played an integral role. We know from theory that exposure to difference and contact with others is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice and bias (Allport, 1954; Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood and Sherif, 1961). We also know intergroup dialogue and sharing across difference is a powerful tool in developing perspective-taking, empathy-building, and collaboration (Gurin, Nagda, and Zuniga, 2013). Despite all of this convincing research and evidence however, I often times manage to forget about the effectiveness of sharing lived experiences as a means for activism in my work.
When preparing curriculum and developing social justice programs for my students, I tend to focus almost entirely on seemingly practical tools for action. The demand to move beyond mere talk and discussion guides my social justice work toward providing terms with definitions and writing lists of various isms to deconstruct. If there happens to be time for exploration and analysis, the conversation rarely shifts from the realm of debate and discussion to dialogue and story sharing. These heady intellectual monologue sessions only encourage me and my students to remain comfortable in our perspectives without having to truly listen, vulnerably share, or authentically grow. Earl’s insights about resistance and activism reminded me that real action happens when people tell their stories.
No doubt, staying true to the philosophy of social justice as a process and an outcome (Bell & Griffin, 2007) is challenging when campus crises unfold and we are called upon to swiftly “fix” the problem. In these moments, sitting around in a circle to openly talk about our feelings and experiences can often be the last thing our students want to do and the last thing our administration wants to see. As a social justice educator, it is up to me to reframe this process for others and keep it at the core of my work. My students need me to provide spaces where they can feel safe sharing their authentic lived experiences. Upper level administrators at my institution need me to develop tangible initiatives that demonstrate progress with evidence and data. Programs based on civil discourse, like Intergroup Dialogue, are ideal for accomplishing these conflicting demands while remaining consistent with social justice principles.
I tend to forget about story sharing in my work as a social justice educator because story sharing is hard. Creating committees and providing how-to handouts doesn’t require any amount of vulnerability, introspection, or self-work from my students or from me. Sitting in that stuffy residence hall lounge and listening to Earl share his wisdom reminded me that social justice work isn’t always easy but can be simple. Telling stories, as basic as it seems, is one of the most powerful strategies of resistance – exactly because it’s uncommon, courageous, and challenging. Telling stories is the process and the outcome.
Kyle Carpenter Ashlee is the acting Director for the Center for Gender and Student Engagement at Dartmouth College. Kyle hails from Michigan and attended the University of Michigan for his bachelor’s degree, studying philosophy and political science. He then acquired his Master’s degree from Colorado State University in student Affairs in Higher Education, specializing in gender identity and social justice. Before coming to Dartmouth, Kyle served as the Director of Student Leadership at Franklin College in Switzerland. Throughout his career, Kyle has specialized in gender education initiatives focused on exploring multiple masculinities, deconstructing traditional notions of manhood, and understanding men’s role in fighting sexual assault.