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Where Do We Go From Here?

“And putting yourself on the line is like killing a piece of yourself, in the sense that you have to kill, end, destroy something familiar and dependable, so that something new can come, in ourselves, in our world.” —Audre Lorde

By Salma Abdelrahman and Nicholas P. Whittaker, Contributing Opinion Writers

Nicholas: This semester, we’ve been trying to capture the essence of student advocacy and activism in our column. This has been, in part, a selfish project. While we hope our words have had some small impact on our readers, we also know that they have helped us come to terms with our own identities as student advocates and activists. We have developed our own conceptions of and philosophies on the work we do in the public eye. We have learned about the history of our work, and contemplated its future. We have become better public servants for writing this column.

And yet this semester the two of us decided to quit the Undergraduate Council, the primary platform of our public service. There are multiple reasons for this decision, but perhaps the most pressing is also the most simple, and most selfish: We are tired, and the work we do isn’t sustainable. In this column we’ve discussed the weight that pain and exhaustion place on activists. And now, that weight has—not forever, but for now—gotten the better of us.

Salma: I’ve been on the Undergraduate Council for a year and a half now. It’s been a learning and growing opportunity for me, built on a lot of pain. The UC is where I learned how toxic the subtleties of misogyny can be, how the small things—being interrupted constantly, incessant questioning and doubt about the value of the work I produce, and the lack of credit and credibility afforded to women on the Council—could be internalized, making me feel smaller and less competent.

The UC is also where I learned that institutional change, especially at Harvard, takes more than just time. It requires hell-raising, passion, drive, anger and, on top of that, the energy necessary to quell that fire, to guide that fire in the right direction, to make sure it doesn’t consume us. I’m proud of the victories we’ve had on the Council. Nicholas, you successfully pushed for the establishment of a caucus system to ensure minority representation on the Council. A physical space for belonging seems more like a possibility now than it has ever before. But I’m starting to question—are these successes worth it?

N: It’s hard for us to write these words, because it feels like a failure. I wish I could continue to invest time and energy into the Council, even in spite of the too-often structural and cultural toxicities woven into the organization. I feel a responsibility to continue, a responsibility to the communities beyond myself. And failing to fulfill that responsibility feels wrong.

But it’s a failure I’ll have to swallow. The “tireless” activist is a myth. Sometimes the exhaustion cannot be surmounted. Modern activism is a never-ending and soul-crushing assembly line. “Activists” are interchangeable pawns for movements rather than humans in their own right. Movements are subsumed into the status quo, allowing it to refresh itself by normalizing discontent. The status quo is (and will be for the foreseeable future) systemic oppression. Thus the interchangeable activist becomes a constantly-refreshed feature of “the way things are.”

Is it any wonder, then, that we are tired? This activism is unsustainable.

S: My energies thus far have been mostly invested in fixing and improving our campus community. That’s what has defined my experience on the UC has been so far. I’ve found myself constantly butting heads with this age-old institution and its traditions. And for what? The change we’ve made here has been incremental at best, and those who see its benefits are already some of the most privileged members of our society, just by nature of the fact that we go to Harvard. The work we have done is not radical because it exists in an inherently elitist and exclusive institution. If there are any boundaries we have pushed, they have not extended beyond these gates.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done on campus, but it’s time to move forward, to expand my advocacy to the issues that exist outside of the walls of our classrooms and extracurriculars. I’m doubling down on advocacy around the issues that I care deeply about beyond the Harvard bubble—prison reform and community empowerment and engagement for those who have been most marginalized. I’m working hard to understand my own privileges and how, despite existing at the intersection of so many marginalized identities, I can nonetheless be an oppressor. My foremost priority moving forward is understanding my positionality and remedying the harm my existence as a student here has caused.

So the question becomes: Where do we go from here, from this place of failure, defeat, and destruction? Right now, my answer is reinvesting in the world beyond Harvard. We’re going back to communities, with the skills we’ve acquired from our work on campus repurposed.

N: One of the most incredible experiences I’ve had at Harvard has been performing and producing for BlackCAST, Harvard’s only Black theater student organization. Being surrounded by a community of Black artists was life-changing. In that communal space I felt more meaningfully engaged and more tapped into the needs of my community than I ever felt as a member of the Undergraduate Council. And this is not to say that I am not proud of the work I did as a Council member, or that it wasn’t important, and that it mustn’t be done. But it is to say that without BlackCAST, I would’ve “burned out” a long time ago. Without a space where my activism could become more communitarian, more viscerally personal, more about me as a human being than me as an “agent of change”, the assembly line would’ve run me ragged far sooner.

As a member of BlackCAST, I joyfully experienced a new sense of activism, one far removed from the assembly line of modern activism. This, I think, is the same kind of activism you describe, Salma, one that thrusts us back into the community by making us see ourselves not as replaceable cogs in the assembly line but as human members of that community. In this new activism, the humanity of the activist and the people they serve is highlighted above all else. This is an activism that finds itself in critical self-examination, in understanding the ways in which oppression is lived and breathed. This is an activism that finds itself in spaces of joyful creation as much as in institutional bureaucracy. This is an activism that presupposes self-care, and validates the rage and pain of activists. This is a radical activism.

This is where we go from here.

Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator in Leverett House. Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 is a Philosophy concentrator in Adams House. Their column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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