For their senior research, Alex Davis ’18 decided to look into the change in student activism at Knox and how student activist organizations develop, decline and collapse over time.
After finishing their research, Davis presented what they found on April 15 in a continuing series hosted in the Human Rights as part of an effort to increase the usage of the space by regularly hosting discussions there.
The main finding of Davis’ research is that with college being a transient experience, the founders of certain organizations will leave new members to fend for themselves after they graduate. The new members may lose steam and burn out, and then possibly dismantle the organization altogether. Davis noticed that students often search for instant gratification in the form of activism on social media websites.
“I wish people were more interested in being involved on the ground,” Davis said. “I think there’s a lot of instant gratification that goes on nowadays where people are like, ‘oh yeah I shared that thing on Facebook or I retweeted something on Twitter.’ And because of that instant gratification, they feel like they’ve done something and they feel like they are a part of something, but in reality … what does online activism actually do?”
Davis wishes to see more of what happened in the ‘80s when Professor of Political Science Karen Kampwirth was a student at Knox during the protest against the South African apartheid. Apartheid was a system of legal racial segregation — every person had an identification card that showed their racial status and determined all opportunities they would have, including where people could live based on their privilege. Kampwirth was a member of an activist group who built an educational shanty (a very small shelter made of wood) filled with newspaper clippings and staffed with a student to educate the community on what apartheid is.
“You can actually see it, you know there’s that whole history of the college on the third floor of Alumni Hall, there are a couple of photos of people like pounding, building a shanty, holding a banner,” Kampwirth said.
This set off the creation of what she called the “anti-shanty movement” where students who didn’t appreciate the look of the shanty on their campus took a stand against having the shanty stay, especially as it got close to graduation. This caused the campus to divide politically until someone torn down the shanty in the middle of the night and the pieces left had swastikas and other hateful rhetoric painted over it.
“My attitude at the end was like ‘good riddance Knox College. I am so sick of you and all of your bigoted students,’” Kampwirth said.
Kampwirth explained how the growth of the anti-apartheid movement on Knox’s campus was to get the college to pull out investments from corporations involved in the apartheid. Many other colleges and universities also participated in the movement and even built entire shantytowns to represent the brutality in which some South Africans lived.
Davis also noted in their research that Knox activists don’t use all the resources available to advocate for their causes. They encourage students to do as the anti-apartheid movement did and call the local news stations and other inner circles to create a discourse.
“I think that a lot of Knox movements have failed to capitalize on the media, and more than just social media because that’s more about inner circles, but I’m like if you call up a local TV station, then you’re in a different position,” Davis said.
As for activism on Knox’s campus today, Kampwirth believes it’s difficult to measure because movements like the anti-apartheid movement were nationwide. She believes there hasn’t been a movement to this degree on the campus since because it is all based on chance.
“There is a lot of you know, random chance to when things come up. So it’s hard to talk about de-activism because … we can’t be sure what will happen next week, probably nothing, but you know, you can’t be sure,” Kampwirth said.
The new Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter created by juniors George Jensen, Katana Smith and Soleil Smith has become prominent in activism on campus.
“I think that there’s a desire on this campus to be doing things and to be active and to put that energy somewhere where it’s productive, and I think that Knox’s YDSA chapter found that niche,” Soleil Smith said.
Smith wants to use YDSA, with the collaboration of other clubs, to make a difference on Knox’s campus. She believes that college students are often at the frontlines of activist organizations, and wants to continue to create a larger activist voice on campus. The YDSA has been collaborating with Common Ground during the push for defunding IVCF. Smith hopes to continue to collaborate with other clubs including M.E.Ch.A. and A.B.L.E.
“I would hope that students feel like they actually have the ability to change things, like not just on campus but in the city of Galesburg, in the country, just in general. We have a lot of power as college students, across the board in any country,” Smith said.
Freshman Poornima Tata has also found her activist voice in YDSA. Coming to college, she was excited to be able to be a part of something larger, since she didn’t have much of an outlet as a high school student.
“When I got here I saw all these options and I just jumped right in. Mostly I see it as anything you do that wouldn’t necessarily benefit you, but you put in the time and the work in for someone else, in whatever way you can,” Tata said.
Throughout this year, Tata has also been a part of the One Fair Wage campaign. She is advocating for restaurant workers to receive the same wage as other workers. She took an independent study devoted to fighting against the discrimination that comes with working for tips.
“It’s extremely racist because most of the people working in that industry are immigrants or people of color,” Tata said. “It is also very sexist because many of the people working there are women. The restaurant industry, in general, has a lot of sexual harassment because of tipped workers being paid in tips, instead of actually getting paid. Tips kind of encourage harassment of any sort.”