The Dilemma of the Radical

The difference between an activist and a radical is not necessarily clear, and the Harvard activist, it seems, resists easy categorization.
By Tara W. Merrigan and Kevin Sun

11:35 a.m. Mihir J. Chaudhary ’12 arrives at the Harvard Square T stop en route to a protest rally in Boston. Chaudhary is a member of the Environmental Action Committee (EAC), a sub-organization of the Phillips Brooks House Association that does exactly what the name suggests: student campaigns for environmental awareness and protection.

Once on the train, he mentions that he’s from a small suburban town that lacked outlets for substantial social activism. Instead, he was involved primarily with direct service—tutoring and mentoring middle school students—rather than protest. As it turns out, he will be the only Harvard student attending this rally, which is organized by and Occupy Boston to protest Senator Scott Brown’s support for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. Chaudhary has come straight from class to attend this rally, and feels that students at Harvard don’t necessarily find time in their lives for activism.

“Harvard is very self-selecting; students aren’t so passionate about activism because they’re given a formula for success in high school that doesn’t necessarily include activism,” he says.

Even within activist organizations like the EAC, convincing students to get out and protest isn’t easy. “A lot of people show up to meetings and not to events. Others go to one or two rallies but don’t sustainably involve themselves,” he explains.

12:03 p.m. Stepping out of the Park Street station, Chaudhary joins about 25 people who are gathered for the rally. Most are well out of college, but there are a few other students from Brandeis and Tufts as well.

12:25 p.m. The crowd has swollen to about 50 to 60 people practicing protest chants before a scattered audience of onlookers. There are more graying heads than expected. The sky is an electric shade of blue, and a police officer stands at a distance. He looks vaguely amused. During a lull in the pre-rally rehearsal, a man swaggering by in a sweatshirt and baggy pants scolds a suited passerby: “You are an arch-criminal, sir, with your briefcase and tie.” The alleged arch-criminal isn’t fazed, and scurries into the T Station without looking back.


The weekly Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) meeting takes place in the parlor room of the PBHA house. A massive dark fireplace dominates one of the room’s wainscotted walls. Three crystal chandeliers hang down from the 20-foot ceiling. Red leather couches and armchairs are scattered around the edges of a maroon oriental rug.

Tonight, SLAM members discuss the upcoming protest against potential layoffs within Harvard University Library. They’re worried about numbers. “Let’s go with the five friends rule, okay everyone?” one student says.

It feels like any other undergraduate organization’s meeting. A freshman is asked to record minutes. Members toss out ideas and solutions. The contrarian in the group picks a proposal apart until the person who suggested it regrets having spoken in the first place.

These student activists are not wearing billowy blouses or military-issue jackets. They are wearing sweatshirts and North Face fleeces, jeans and khakis. The Harvard activist, it seems, resists easy categorization.

For Jonas Q. Wang ’12, former Queer Students and Allies co-chair and co-founder of Harvard Students for Queer Liberation, activism is more a mindset than an aesthetic. “It’s demoralizing to see students on their way—tourists, too—like nothing is wrong. The activist attitude is: There is something wrong,” Wang sighs.

The difference between an activist and a radical is not necessarily clear, but there is a sense that the term “radical” carries some unwanted baggage, which might have an effect on whether students feel compelled or disinclined to self-identify with the term.

“Radical? That’s not me,” Wang says. “I’m fine with the label being attached to me, but it’s not my identity.” Still, Wang does not mind the term’s associations. “Just because a term has been repeatedly smeared by the other side so as to gain negative connotations is not a good enough reason to reject it.”

Although radicalism is generally associated with more extreme modes of protest, some would argue that there is a technical distinction to be made. Todd A. Gitlin ’63, who was president of the Students for a Democratic Society in ’63-4, is careful to note the original meaning of the term “radical.”

“‘Radical’ literally means going to the root; it’s not properly applied to tactics,” he says, noting that organizations that employ militant or “radical” tactics but do not seek systemic, root-level change are not really “radical.”

Sabrina G. Lee ’12, who organized an anti-final club campaign last year, thinks of radicalism as a response that extends beyond the intellectual. “I think a litmus test is: Do you feel outraged on a daily basis?” Lee says. “My answer is yes,” she adds, a smile dancing at the corner of her mouth.

“In a social and political sense, of course.” she recovers. She laughs, and then becomes serious again. “If you feel that dominant discourses are conveying messages that you largely disagree with and viscerally respond to in a negative way, I’d say you are a radical.”


When outgoing EAC Chair Serena Y. Zhao ’12 first arrived at Harvard, she was disappointed. “I thought Harvard was the most narcissistic place in the world,” she says.

Part of Zhao’s frustration resulted from what she perceives as the “self-importance” of student organizations on campus that seem to function as social clubs without any central unifying goal. To her, it seemed that these organizations seemed to put the personal social interests of the students ahead of any broader goals that would contribute to the Harvard community.

“It’s valuable to be in a social group,” she says, noting that she does not want to disparage social organizations, “but I’ve found my experience with the EAC to be more valuable because we all do share a common goal.”

Like Chaudhary, Zhao felt limited in high school by the outlets available for promoting causes like environmentalism. She joined the EAC but wanted to extend the scope of the organization, pushing for greater off-campus involvement, such as the committee’s participation in a two-week rally in Washington D.C. last August to protest the XL Pipeline.

During the rally—and after being arrested, along with other protesters—Zhao noticed that many of her fellow activists were not necessarily young and aimless radical stereotypes. “These were normal people, not fringe hippies,” she says.

Lately Zhao has been thinking that it is important for the EAC to have a more active campus presence and to engage with students. “These [Harvard students] are people who are going to go out into society, and this is going to be a part of what they remember from their formative years,” she says.

Dr. Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, who was involved with activist causes while a student at the College and has taught on the history of American activist movements at both Harvard and Columbia, has been thinking about issues of student activism for a long time. Sitting in his office, flanked by an overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookcase, McCarthy explains his concerns. As he talks, his eyes widen and the breaks between sentences grow scarce; there is urgency in his words.

“I worry students are more concerned about those things and about themselves than they are about the broader world we live in,” he says. He feels that students’ willingness to participate in activism is threatened by a “pervasive pre-professionalism” that exists not only on Harvard’s campus, but on the campuses of universities elsewhere across America.

As president of PBHA, Carolyn W. Chou ’13 has insight into both protest activism and institutionalized service at Harvard. She speaks in no uncertain terms about how she feels Harvard students approach social activism.

“It’s hard to mobilize students to even talk about issues not directly related to our own lives,” she says. “Students can be apathetic, although some of it is because as Harvard students we’re implicated in the dominant power system.”

Chou adds: “It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge one’s own privilege and position—­it can feel like a personal attack.”

Some observers ascribe the perceived decline of activism at Harvard to student preferences for institutionalized means of social activism. Former Queer Students and Allies Co-Chair Samuel J. Bakkila ’12 finds that most Harvard undergraduates have a great deal of faith in “working through and with the system.”

“I think Harvard is a very technocratic place where people really believe in research solutions, policy solutions, economic solutions, bureaucratic solutions to all problems rather than any type of social movement,” says Bakkila, whose preference for the latter tactic landed him in jail last October when police raided the Occupy Boston encampment at Dewey Square.


Max D. Novendstern ’12, a self-identified radical activist, calls himself a “voracious critic” of protests. Novendstern, the former editor of the Harvard Political Review, believes that many activists resort to such tactics because they find protests “glamorous.”

“I’m on all these listservs, and it’s unbelievable how many calls to rally there are. Like, I mean, these wonderfully smart and righteous kids should stop fucking rallying and go build something. Go build something that helps people—that’s the task at hand,” says Novendstern, who has taken the semester off to work on his internet start-up,, at the Harvard Business School’s Innovation Lab.

“If you say to a bunch of bright young people, ‘Forget all your ideas and analytical skills: let’s get some vuvuzelas and shout for 45 minutes, because that’s all it takes to effect social change,’ you’ll find that it comes back to bite you. You’re underestimating your power, for one—and, more than that, you’re making them believe that change is easy,” says Novendstern, who believes activists put too much faith in protest tactics.

By contrast, Sandra Y.L. Korn ’14, who helped organize the Harvard offshoot of the Occupy movement, believes that undergraduates can still be moved by radical action, even if they steer clear of it themselves.

"There are a lot of students who say, ‘Fuck that I’m going to Wall Street,’ but there are also a lot of students who might not go to a protest themselves but are glad that someone’s doing it and might take to heart the message of the protest even though they won’t be carrying the sign themselves,” says Korn, a Crimson associate editorial editor.

Institute of Politics vice president Julia B. Konrad ’13 believes there is room for all types of activism, but is wary of methods that might unnecessarily alienate portions of the community. “I don’t think activism should ever be confrontational—when it isolates people, then you run into a roadblock,” she says.

Konrad believes in the power of activism to spread awareness of social issues. “Whether or not I’m participating, I’m learning. It raises awareness that leads to something becoming a national issue over time,” she says. “Although I didn’t sleep in a tent, I appreciated the fact that someone did.”


James R. Sares ’12 disagrees. “The student body is very lazy. The student body isn’t going to put effort into hearing about the things Occupy Harvard has done,” he says.

Sares, a student activist who was directly responsible for several anti-ROTC protests in recent semesters, believes that the overall student response to Occupy Harvard is indicative of how students approach activist causes. Casually scruffy in the midst of thesis-writing, he looks a bit more like an activist, but he has also been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and he is confident in his commentary on student activism.

Sares believes that Harvard students are generally disinclined to take up social causes. With regard to activist methods, Sares feels that a certain degree of unwillingness to compromise is necessary to make a point not only heard, but also felt.

“I’m totally for disrupting the everyday,” Sares says with a smirk. He cites the Westboro Church protests as an instance in which a small group of people were able to provoke a community-wide response through their willingness to protest in ways intended to incite as much provocation as possible.

“It’s clearly disgusting and terrible what the Westboro Church protesters did,” says Sares, referring to the protest of the funerals of several deceased soldiers from overseas. “But, there’s something to be said about the visibility they were able to achieve in their own sick way.” (Sares notes that he does not condone tactics like protesting at funerals. “Not all publicity is good publicity,” he adds.)

Sares is not convinced that service and other conventional means of opening up discussion are sufficient to move community members to act towards social change.

“People who are ‘moderate,’ those people, historically speaking, aren’t concerned with these issues anyway,” he says. “If you water down your cause to the point of being palatable, then maybe you stand a chance of persuading them.”

Sares also expresses skepticism toward the institutional politeness that can constrain productive dialogue on social issues. “The IOP provides discussion spaces,” he says, “but it’s so mediated and sterile—it doesn’t elicit any emotion! When was the last time anybody was emotional about the IOP?”

Kate Sim ’14 founded the International Women’s Rights Collective and is often described as a “radical feminist” but points out that a middle ground does exist between extremist tactics and what might be considered more “conservative” approaches to social activism.

“If you work with the system, you feel like you’re not going far enough. If you just say, ‘Down with the system,’ you ask, ‘How realistic is this?’ So you’re always in this dichotomy of ideology versus reality. I think you need both of that,” she says.


Wang is mid-sentence. A housemate pokes his head in between two mahogany pocket doors, which close off the Dudley Co-op’s cozy living room from the rest of the rambling three-story Victorian house.

“Jonas, do you go by ‘Qing’?” the housemate asks Wang, sitting on a beat-up piano bench and resting his elbows on his lap.

“Yes,” Wang says, hesitantly, wondering why his housemate has asked about his legal given name.

His housemate slides the door back and hands him a package—an information packet from a prestigious law school to which Wang has just been admitted. He modestly acknowledges his acceptance then returns to what he was saying before the interruption.

Wang’s decision to go to law school follows a politically active time on campus. During his tenure as the QSA’s political chair, Wang, who identifies as transmasculine, organized a demonstration to protest the lack of resources for queer students at Harvard. “There was a dearth of resources, I felt, for LGBT students on campus,” Wang says. “I was in a course on organizing. I was fresh and eager.”

On an overcast November day in 2010, Wang and other students squeezed into roughly 380 square feet of taped-off lawn in front of the Science Center. (380 square feet is the total square footage of the Queer Resource Center in Thayer’s basement.) As protesters bumped elbows, they chanted, “One, two, three, four, the other colleges all have more! Five, six, seven, eight, we’re standing here to change our fate.” Later that year, Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds established a new BGLTQ center in the basement of Boylston.

Wang found organizing to be emotionally draining. For him, politics are a personal matter: he found it hard to hear detractors dismiss the issue he was raising. “When you’re an activist type, to generalize, you have a stake that’s ideological—but it’s also emotional since LGBTQ issues, for me, are not this abstract political idea,” he says.

There was also a negative backlash from some members of the QSA, who felt the organization’s sole purpose should be to provide a safe social environment on campus for LGBTQ students. After a pause and small sigh, Wang explains the emotional toll of infighting and criticism: “That feeling of burnout stemmed from—it wasn’t the amount of work at all—the reactions or fear of reactions that you’d get or I would get.”

He has since shied away from organizing, only briefly attending last March’s anti-ROTC protest, the most prominent rally for queer rights since Wang’s own demonstration.

Later, Wang admits that he has yet to share the good news with his faculty mentor—a lecturer at the Kennedy School and famous grassroots organizer. “He tried to convince me not to apply,” says Wang, with a hint of guilt in his voice.

Wang feels that a firm understanding of the law is crucial to his future work as an activist. He rattles off a list of laws that codified discrimination against communities to which he belongs. But Wang is still uncomfortable about his post-graduate plans.

“Law is but one aspect affecting people’s lived experiences,” Wang says, “and a singular approach to addressing social problems. You’re buying into the system. You are working within the system.”

Zhao has similar concerns about how to bring about social change while wedded to the system—specifically, about how to balance her position as a university student and her interest in promoting environmentalist causes. “There’s that trade-off between investing in yourself, and your growth, and trying to use the resources that you have now,” she says.

“This was the big question I had earlier this year,” she says. “Do I drop my thesis to spend more time organizing, or do I do this really awesome educational experience for myself so that, hopefully, I’ll be able to translate it into more effective activism later?”

Sares recalls a meeting with his thesis adviser in which he was told it would be in his interest not to sleep at the Occupy Harvard tents every night. He ultimately took the advice.

Zhao decided to see through her academic plans, at the end of the day. “I’m still writing my thesis after some talks with very good advisers,” she says, laughing.


12:45 p.m. The crowd is as big as it’s going to get. Chaudhary and the protesters start walking northeast along Tremont St. towards the JFK Federal Building.

12:55 p.m. In front of the building, a semi circle of protesters gathers around a cardboard effigy of Senator Scott Brown. Two cardboard cats—bloated, clutching bags of money—accompany Brown as the protesters chant. This continues for about 30 minutes, but no audience forms from the passersby. Towards the end, an elderly lady turns to her husband. “It’s pretty cold here,” she says. “I wouldn’t mind leaving early.” They leave, then, discreetly.

A man in a suit passes by and takes a quick picture of Scott Brown with the fat cats. He smiles and saves the picture to his phone, and then he leaves.

1:25 p.m. Chaudhary has strapped on a make shift drum—an inverted orange plastic bucket—and is beating out chant-friendly rhythms while repeating the protest messages with the crowd. He chants along with all of the standards, all except for one of them, the one that goes: “We are the 99 percent! We are the 99 percent!”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:


An earlier version of this article referred to the website that Max D. Novendstern ’12 works on as In fact, it is