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CARLSON: Remove your blinders

Students should take a larger role in educating themselves about activism on Grounds

I was recently (and unsurprisingly) lamenting the lack of activism on Grounds as compared to our peer institutions of higher education. A fellow activist replied optimistically that while this may be the case, the activist community present on grounds is stronger than it ever has been.

This is a strength I can attest to: a few of my friends were arrested over just a month ago during spring break for protesting the dumping of coal ash water into Quantico Creek, and I witnessed large scale protests after both the Rolling Stone article and the Martese Johnson arrest in my first year. However, this does not mean these issues or the protests arising are in any way new to the University. While my fellow activist had all the right intentions in declaring activism on Grounds to be at its strongest, he was clearly unaware of the history of activism on Grounds. And if we as activists don't know our own history, who will?

Take, for example, the infamous 13-day hunger strike put on by the Living Wage Campaign in the spring of 2012, with support from faculty, students and other activist and non-activist CIOs on Grounds. Coming into the Campaign as a first-year, I would occasionally hear the words “hunger strike” whispered in reverent tones. As I became more involved with the campaign, I accumulated more institutional knowledge regarding the participants, the demands and the effects.

But chances are if you’re not a member of the campaign or you have not attended one of our interest meetings, you won’t have heard of it. Why not? It took place not too long ago, in the spring of 2012, though that first-year class has now graduated. In fact, it took place right before the infamous Sullivan ouster, which I’m sure many of you have heard of.

But the ouster itself is problematic with respect to activism on Grounds — why is it hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni (in the summer no less) were able to rally around a woman who makes over half a million dollars but can barely lift a finger to sign a petition for fair wages for the University employees they see on a daily basis? Why is there a Cavalier Daily article decrying the lack of females in top paying positions at the University but none looking at the demographics of those on the bottom? I doubt they would find white males to be so dominant in this group; it is not difficult to see that many of the lowest paid positions are held by women of color. Yet apathy abounds; many students remain unconcerned with the workplace conditions of those employees they interact with every day on Grounds. Yet they rallied around a president they likely have never spoken to who can most certainly afford such luxuries as savings and vacations.

While these distinctions are valid, the question remains: Why is the hunger strike no longer a part of our collective memory but the ouster is? The strike made national news too — there was a University football player fasting and there was national media attention and widespread support for the strikers. And in the end, there was no living wage. Where was our uproar? Where was the triumphant march down the Lawn?

At a recent retreat with the Living Wage Campaign, I had the opportunity to hear one of the members who had participated in the hunger strike speak. He described their year-long escalation plan, the minute details that went into planning, the medical repercussions, the various tactics involving media and the dedicated members that formed the core team, among other things. The results weren't completely nonexistent: they got national attention to their cause. And the University did raise the minimum hourly wage for a full time employee, just not to the level of a living wage in Charlottesville. But for a team that gave their all to a plan that didn't pan out, the question was: what now? If this didn't work, then what will it take? In twenty years of a campaign, what have we not done?

As someone who is fairly knowledgeable about the history of the campaign, I can confidently say there isn’t much. But what we haven’t done well is carry the conversation and the history across the years. Typically, undergraduates are at the University for four years, a turnover rate that administrators use to their benefit. Sure, we passed a referendum with 77 percent of students in support of a living wage for University workers in 2006 (before a campaign sit-in in Madison Hall to demand a living wage), but that class of students is gone and no one is held accountable.

Thus, in order to drive legitimate institutional change we first need to hold ourselves accountable; we need to be the forces who change the dominant conversation among the student body. The “we” refers to activists — but everyone on Grounds has the potential to be an activist. Sometime during your four years here, I recommend you take your blinders off and question something. Whether it’s the heteronormative “Bachelor”-esque “snap story” or the role of slavery in Jefferson’s visionary academical village or why exactly almost every member of the Board of Visitors was nominated by a governor to whom they donated tens of thousands of dollars — the conversations we have matter.

The breakthroughs, protests and fights of past activists matter, and we cannot let this part of our University’s history escape us. Of course, it helps to know basic facts about the campaign first, ideally before making a comparison between fair wages on a University level and proposed increases on a federal tax credit as in a recent Cavalier Daily op-ed (which also wrote off the “pithy stickers living wage stickers… adorning every other MacBook in Alderman Library”). A frustrating op-ed such as this one simply brings home the importance of taking an active role in educating yourself. As much as activists reach out to educate our fellow peers, our circles are only so large and we can only table so often. Even if it’s an action as little as asking one of the MacBook owners in Alderman about their “pithy stickers,” it’s something.

Clara Carlson is a second-year in the College.


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