Many Bowdoin students who are trying to make a difference in the world are doing so inefficiently. While it matters that we talk about important issues, it’s much more important for each of us to figure out what we can really do to help make the world a better place. Unfortunately, it seems like many students wishing to make a positive impact spend their time in futile campaigns regarding thorny political issues rather than getting their hands dirty and actually making an impact. Students miss great opportunities to do good work; instead, they spend time and resources trying to convince others to think like themselves.

At the root of all this is a general preference for “activism” over action. Although many great volunteer opportunities exist at the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good, most clubs struggle to find members. Meanwhile, the power of the U.S. dollar means that we can make important, life-changing impacts around the world by raising money for any of the the numerous organizations that work to help alleviate poverty. With big hearts but limited free time, Bowdoin students should use their time efficiently.

At Bowdoin, it seems like students have recently spent more time discussing divestment and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than any other cause. I don’t mean to pick on these two causes, but they seem to embody the futile advocacy that we often choose instead of actually making a tangible difference. 

Let’s start with the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), whose presence was everywhere on campus last semester. Regardless of your stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, people should understand that our efforts towards a boycott are unlikely to alleviate any suffering in the West Bank. SJP advocated a boycott that failed a referendum. Whether or not the referendum passed, however, it would not have made an impact on the conflict. There is absolutely no way that Bowdoin College’s decision to boycott Israeli products would have any effect whatsoever in this ageless struggle. Raising awareness for this issue will perhaps have a very slight impact, but will distract us from issues that we might be able to actually help. There may be some small merits to raising awareness for these issues (more responsible voting is an obvious one, learning from past mistakes is another), but there’s no way that it will do as much good as spending an afternoon volunteering or raising money and awareness for causes we can actually affect. I respect a lot of the people who have spent time working on this issue, several of whom are my friends, and I know what an important contribution they could make if they did something that could make a bigger difference.

The same can be said for the divestment movement. Even if you thought that divestment would not merely be a symbolic act, the benefits of advocating for divestment are miniscule. Those who make financial decisions at this school have made up their mind against divestment. President Mills was against it, and so is President Rose. Activists who sat in President Mills’ office in hopes of convincing him to divest were praised for their activism. But surely, given his refusal to divest, their time would have been better spent volunteering or advocating an issue that might actually change. In their quest to do good, they chose to try to engender pointless discussions rather than go volunteer for a cause that could actually help people.

The argument that the mere act of advocacy is good because it raises awareness about important topics is also flawed. While global climate change is a tremendously important issue that deserves our attention, getting us to be even more divided on tactics will hardly serve the cause. Why not devote our efforts to putting up solar panels or not eating meat? Furthermore, divestment is not something that we can really learn from. How many of us will be managing lots of money in the future? I can say with absolute confidence that I won’t. This criticism is not meant to put down those people who have advocated for divestment; I respect their efforts to do what they believe is right. However, their impressive tenacity and organizational capacity leads me to believe that they could be doing a whole lot more good if they focused their efforts elsewhere.

At Bowdoin, we’re all about raising awareness for topics and starting important discussions, but we aren’t about action. This disparity needs to change. “Starting conversations” shouldn’t be seen as a victory but as a means to action. The next time we feel like we want to make a difference, we should think carefully about how we can make the biggest impact. The thing to do, in most cases, is not to go tabling in the Union, but to go over to the McKeen Center instead.

Fortunately, we can make the world a better place by simply focusing our attention on the right areas. There are international causes begging for attention and action. There are tons of fantastic clubs doing phenomenal work that desperately need more volunteers. We have the capacity to actually improve people’s lives. From College Guild to the Portland Housing Authority and many others (the list goes on and on), there are avenues for making real, positive impacts in the lives of others.
We have a great student body with amazing potential. If we could take an approach that prioritized maximizing our positive impact rather than trying to convince others we are right on an issue that we can’t change, we could be doing a lot more good. It’s important that we speak up about what we think is right, but it’s even more important for each of us to figure out what we can really do that matters to make the world a better place. Let’s stop the bickering and get to work.