Teaching Vision and Bravery
This is a transcription of my presentation on the panel on Peace and Conflict Studies at the Oberlin College Class of 1955 Reunion event in May 2014. Many thanks to Al Carroll for putting this panel together and for the initial transcription of my talk.
I’ll start by thanking Al Carroll and everyone here for helping fund Peace and Conflict Studies. I will time myself — I’m a pastor’s kid so I assume that I can talk forever until I say amen and you won’t stop me. I’m not actually in the PACS concentration so I feel little weird being on this panel, but I hope that says something about the fact that Peace and Conflict Studies and a legacy of peacemaking extends beyond the classroom and beyond the concentration in the same way Environmental Studies, Africana Studies and other programs have a wider impact on the student body and wider impact on both Oberlin’s reputation and what it does the world. I’m going to talk for a few minutes to share some sort of thoughts about how I’ve seen student activism engaging around oppression, violence, and nonviolence., and ask what role the classroom and the Academy plays in peacemaking and what roles that can it play.
I will start first by offering a definition of violence. To do peacemaking it is important to know what violence is. My thesis for my Religion major looked at anti-oppression activism and peace activism in the Mennonite church, the church I grew up in. The definition of violence that was used there and is used most commonly in a lot of activist groups on campus is a very structural definition, it says that violence isn’t just about interpersonal conflict. It’s based on systems of power and based on histories that not only construct political systems, they construct how we relate to each other and construct in many ways how our brains work — how we perceive each other — and so that changes how we do peacemaking.
This changes how students approach peacemaking because it says that there’s no point at which we can call ourselves fully nonviolent as long as we live in a world that still contains violence. This is something you see in questions about fair trade — we can buy more fair trade products, but we still engage in a system that involves oppressing some people so that I can wear this suit jacket.
Some of the things that I’ve been involved with, Al mentioned several of them ,that I would characterize as peacemaking or as antiviolence activism include support for local unions, challenge the college on financial aid decisions, student/trustee relationships, more traditional peacemaking for Peace and Conflict Studies through community groups and rallies for immigration reform, Occupy Wall Street, local food and economic development, anti-fracking efforts, antiracist education, police/youth relations, mental health support, support for survivors of sexual violence, Palestinian justice, and so on.
I think this says something about how student activism right now on this campus is highly fragmented. And so right now you can go to a meeting on prison reformer or prison abolition this can happen exact same time as the meeting on building a local food economy. And I think this occurs for several reasons. I be happy to talk about the history of more recent student activism here, but I want to talk first about how in the classroom we’re primarily taught analysis — taught how to look at a problem take it apart and understand how it works. It is incredibly important, but what that does (what it does least in my brain) is that it teaches me to isolate problems. So I see prison reform as a separate part of my brain from how I look at environmental justice or how I look at Palestine. We have a fragmented set of activists right now because we look at taking apart problems we don’t have conversations and classes about vision. We don’t have classes taught about what we want the world look like. The analysis that we do and the papers that we write in many ways aren’t closely engaged with the activism we do on campus.
I surveyed a bunch of friends last couple days. I didn’t want to just of talk about myself. And I said, “Okay, what’s the most useful class you taken here for your activism?” Peace and Conflict Studies got mentioned a couple of Environmental studies classes got mentioned. One friend said the most important thing he did for his activism was dropping out for a year. Someone admitted that as much as he works on divestment he doesn’t actually engage with faculty members. I think this speaks to first of all on just how busy some people are on campus. That’s why it’s really important to fund programs like these in Peace and Conflict Studies because when there are these resources available there are resources for professors to support students, so we’re not just doing activity, we are not just running from one crisis to the other. We can actually have conversations about vision. We can actually have conversations about solid movements that extend beyond the present crisis.
Hector Aristizabal has been visiting Oberlin for the last eight years. He does theater workshops and has been an activist for much of his life. He was here a few weeks ago. I asked him what he thought about activism on this campus. And he said, “There is a lot of activity, there is not a lot of activism. Activism is when you have movements that outlast any particular student or any group of students.” And to do that involves faculty that are actually engaging with student demands and engaging with the lives of students and the activism of students. John Elder is a great example of this — you’ve driven me to enough protests or we’ve been on the opposite side of a couple of protests.
I think that for me in three years here the time in the classroom has been the reflection part of praxis. Freire’s definition of praxis is action and reflection and repeat. I think that programs like community based learning offer some possibility for us to actually get credit for the action we take. but by large most students here will say we do activism after we finish our homework, or sometimes while not doing our homework.
Another model that might work better here is a learning model used by the organization Training for Change, which does adult direct education. They talk about a four-part model of education: Experience, Reflection, Generalization, Application, and back to Experience. I think right now classes at Oberlin function a lot in the generalization but there are not a lot of classes that move us from reflecting on our experiences in the activism that we do. I think that’s one really important way that it can be expanded. And there are no classes on praxis.
For me the most important classes I taken in this college have been Private Readings. I’ve been able to say to my professor, “I need to space my academic schedule in order to learn about this issue.” One Private Reading with Harry Hirsch was focused on the history of direct action, where we not only read writings on civil disobedience and the history of civil disobedience in this country, we got the space to talk about the direct actions we were a part of and think about it, to ask how we can do this better and what would be more effective and not just blindly angry.
I’ve taken a Private Reading on supporting survivors of sexual violence, to try to figure out so how I can actually learn how to support my friends. These are the skills that aren’t taught in a lot of classes and but they are integral to how students interact in the world. You can’t be a student on this campus and not have friends or not be yourself someone who survived sexual violence. And having that skill to support someone or support yourself is really important.
The other thing that Oberlin has taught me and can continues to teach is not so much peacemaking or a legacy of peacemaking but actually a legacy of bravery. What Audre Lord calls “the translation of silence into language and action.” Oberlin has this amazing history that draws so many of us here — the Oberlin-Wellington rescue, Harper’s Ferry, individuals like Edmonia Lewis and the people who participated in the Civil Rights movements. And I think that’s the trait that I need to be taught the most. Nowhere in any class have I been taught how to be brave and how to re-prioritize my life and shift my priorities, as I’m willing to do things and stand up for justice. So I think teaching that legacy of bravery and finding ways for students exercise that bravery in the course of our activism, the course of our lives, and in the course of our lives after Oberlin is maybe the most important thing that could happen. Thanks.