A week after one of the biggest school shootings in American history and a moment that many have considered a watershed moment for activism surrounding gun rights, students have yet to organize substantive action on campus.
In an Orient survey sent to the student body this week, students were asked to rate their peers and their own level of political activity on a scale of one to 10—one designated as “not active” and 10, “very active.”
Of 378 responses, on average students rated their peers’ activity a 5.3 out of 10, and rated their own level of political activity at 4.7 out of 10.
William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Constitutional and International Law and Government Allen Springer, who has been at the College since 1976, believes that Bowdoin has never had a culture of political activism.
“During the periods that I’ve been here, at least, there haven’t been any big periods of extended student activism that was really broad, in the sense that large number of students are doing it,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem as broad and as deep as it’s been at other places.”
Orient survey data, paired with interviews of Bowdoin faculty and student activists on campus demonstrates that political activism is not widespread and vigorous on campus, but selective and usually most practiced by minority groups.
Six self-identified student activists among others were interviewed for this piece. These students are leaders of identity or issue-based groups on campus and have actively been involved in a variety of causes.
What they, and what others on campus, consider political activity varies. Some students believe intellectual fearlessness falls under this definition of political activism.
“I’m politically active in the sense that I actively try to challenge, and therefore strengthen, the political opinions of my friends,” said Miles Brautigam ’19. “[It’s activism] because it’s improving the Bowdoin institution of rigorous thought.”
Activists criticize this conflation of intellectual engagement and political engagement. According to Emily Ruby ’19, who was a co-leader of Bowdoin Climate Action for two years, “If you spend a lot of time trying to be politically engaged with those ideas, you should try to implement them, and actually be an active member of your community.”
Bowdoin’s location, isolated from major city centers where activism often thrives, was cited by many interviewed as a potential source of the lack of a fervent campus activism scene.
“Part of the challenge, too, part of living in Maine is that you often feel distant to the places where things are really happening,” said Springer. “I think there is a sense that the issues aren’t sitting right in front of us in a way that they might be if we were down in D.C. or Baltimore.”
But Assistant Professor of Government Chryl Laird said that Bowdoin’s location should not be an excuse for students.
“Even here in Maine, there are various organizations that I have found,” said Laird, pointing to the example of an anti-gun group run by local moms. Through this organization and others, Laird has engaged with issues that she feels passionately about, while simultaneously becoming closer to the Brunswick community.
Bowdoin students become politically active in ebbs and flows. Times when activism has peaked recently on campus have been during backlash against the “tequila” and “gangster” parties, as well as reactions to the election last winter.
“During those times, people were really coming together, particularly students of color and some white allies,” said Daisy Wislar ’18. “They were coming together and saying, ‘This is not the Bowdoin we want,’ and pushing in really effective ways.”
However, students interviewed agreed that Bowdoin students have a short attention span. After times that engagement becomes vogue, it typically tends to decline after several weeks, losing traction with all but a few students on campus.
This ebb and flow is largely due to the fact that students on campus rally around certain issues, but not others. For example, the student body did not organize after the events surrounding Charlottesville and bombings in Bangladesh and Libya, and there has not been significant action in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, nor for the impending DACA expiration in March.
Bowdoin students often blame low levels of activism on the stresses of college—many students have little time for anything besides academics and extracurriculars.
Wislar believes that the ability to prioritize academics, sports and friends over political activity speaks to the lack of diversity on campus.
“I do think there is privilege in being able to step back, there is privilege in posting something on social media and walking away from it,” said Wislar. “I know that as a white person I am not faultless in that, but there is privilege in being able to be frustrated but not enacting change.”
Rebkah Tesfamariam ’18, president of the African American Society and a student director of the Center for Sexuality, Women, and Gender (SWAG), echoed Wislar, saying, “I think there are many people on campus that are very comfortable going to class, doing their homework and hanging out with their friends, and that’s it.”
However, this privilege does not extend to students who have been directly affected by problems, changes and disparities both within and outside of Bowdoin.
“A lot of the students who are the least engaged are the least confronted by the problems. And I think that directly impacts their level of engagement,” said Ruby.
With other students last spring, Wislar wrote a set of demands—called the Demands for the Disabled Students Association—and a petition calling for greater accessibility. Wislar identifies as disabled and has been personally affected by the College’s lack of accessibility.
Students of color cite similar personal reasons to act.
The Orient survey indicates that non-white students typically identified themselves as more politically active than white students. Students who identified as black, for example, ranked themselves at 6.67 out of 10, 10 being most active, compared to white students, who ranked at 4.63, on average.
“Students who [are] white were already at schools that were predominantly white, so coming to Bowdoin isn’t anything different,” said Laird. “There is nothing that would signal to them that suddenly they should be more cognizant of their political activism.”
This contrasts starkly with perceptions of students of color.
“I think that many minority students see that it’s their obligation to change things on campus, because they want it to be better than how it was for them the first couple of years here,” said Tesfamariam.
This obligation can be seen in recent political activism on campus that has been largely spearheaded by minority groups or individuals. This fall, natural disaster relief was led by the Latin American Student Organization, including tabling and a piña colada fundraiser. The Asian Student Alliance also contributed by raising money through a bubble tea sale.
Because minority groups are often politically active, a sense of solidarity has developed between groups. “I think one of the best things about being in a group of minority students—part of the Multicultural Coalition—is that we really try to have each others’ backs,” said Cindy Rivera ’18. “If we say, ‘Hey guys, we really need support on this,’ everybody’s gonna get behind it and support it. When you’re already oppressed in a certain way, you’re more likely to understand how oppression affects somebody else.”
Aside from feeling inspired to enact change on campus, minority students often feel burdened to do so. For the rest of the semester after the “gangster” party in the fall of 2015, Tesfamariam felt pressured by the administration and her peers to lead discussions and inspire change in reaction to the events.
Though Tesfamariam is a proud political leader on campus, she also feels as if this consistent expectation can be taxing.
“It takes a toll, it really does,” she said. “It takes a toll on minorities’ relationship with other students. We become this homogeneous group that is supposed to have one idea of how things should run, and some people don’t identify with that. It can be harmful and divisive.”
Both Tesfamariam and Nur agree that activism needs to increase among privileged members of campus so that minority groups do not feel burdened to spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy being politically active.
“I think activism is the voice of the oppressed, a way to have people in power in the majority, to have some kind of inkling of the experiences of people who live outside—in the margins,” said Nur.
In order to make this connection between isolated groups and the majority of campus, the goal of many activists on campus has been to make activism easier and more accessible for the greater student body—in the fall BSG organized vans to carry students to a rally in Portland against ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
The Orient survey indicated that 40 percent of Bowdoin students considered using social media a way that they are politically active. Student activists the Orient spoke with agreed that, to some extent, social media can be a helpful tool in disseminating information.
“I feel like I learn from people’s posts. It’s a way for people to engage in activism in this new millennial way,” said Tesfamariam.
If misused, social-media can also become counterproductive.
“I post, I show people that I’m politically aware, and it becomes performative. It’s so self-gratifying, and we’re in a feedback loop,” said Laird. “You feel like you’ve done something, because you’ve gotten in an argument on Facebook. But did you really do anything? Anything tangible?”
Springer noted that he believes that the lack of activism on campus is not because of students’ indifference towards issues.
“For students who are not as clearly engaged, actively engaged, visibly engaged, there’s often brewing, just below the surface, a lot of concern that I ought to be doing more,” said Springer. “I teach a course about U.S. foreign policy. I see it in the papers that people choose to write about, they say, ‘This is something that really bothers me.’”
Laird believes that Bowdoin often falls short of educating students how to convert this passion into tangible changes, despite the College’s efforts to bring in activist speakers.
“As much as we try to teach you knowledge, and educate you, I think one of your own biggest powers regardless of education level is to know what’s going on in the politics around you and how it relates to you,” said Laird. “All that knowledge doesn’t do as much if one doesn’t know what to do with that knowledge, and I think it would be good for the institution to think about that for students. How political you want your students to be can very much be signaled by the institution itself.”
Looking forward, students are hopeful that collaborative work between both students and the administration can result in effective change.
“Bowdoin has been around for a really long time, so I think that we are hesitant to change,” said Wislar. “Not necessarily to change in the small ways, but to really step back and look at what it would mean to revolutionize what it means to exist on this campus”
However, many students find the administration accessible and generally willing to listen to their grievances. According to Tesfamariam, “I think that, though it is hard to implement large, institutional challenges, there have definitely been some wins.”
For instance, when the Women’s Resource Center and the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity merged last year, Tesfamariam, and other student leaders of the Women’s Resource Center insisted that ‘women’ be included in the title of the new center. This was taken into consideration, and was ultimately included.
“They listened to our voices a lot, they cared about what we wanted and what we thought,” said Tesfamariam. “And I really love and respect that. I think I’ve really grown to appreciate that about Bowdoin since I’ve been here.”
Upon reflecting on their own activism and time here, Wislar offered advice to younger students who might be considering becoming politically active on campus: “Don’t underestimate the power you have on this campus, to shape it and leave your mark. I think that this place can really beat people down, but remember that you have a voice that you can use.”
David Zhou contributed to this report.