In April 2016, FBI director James Comey P’16 arrived on Kenyon’s campus to give a talk on cyber security as part of the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD)’s biennial conference — just months after the infamous San Bernardino attack, in which 14 people were killed and 22 were wounded.

What could have been a raucous atmosphere — Comey had raised plenty of ire elsewhere, in part because of his office’s attempts to strong-arm Apple to collect data from the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters — was anything but. Students were attentive and engaged, even if they strongly disagreed with Comey. “Comey was treated respectfully and thoughtfully,” recalled Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann.

Indeed, Brookings Institution Fellow Benjamin Wittes, who was also on campus to speak at the conference, publicly praised the “unusually good questions from students” — including one from a woman who asked Comey if America ultimately would have to apologize for FBI activities in the same way it had for Japanese-American internment in World War II. The questions, Wittes said, were sophisticated and tough.

Web extras: Read Wittes's blog post commending the behavior of Kenyon students during the conference, and watch Comey's keynote speech.

Perhaps Wittes should not have been surprised: Kenyon’s tendency long has been to grapple with issues through a combination of unshowy activism and real dialogue. In 1970, when the Kent State shootings caused many colleges to shut down temporarily, Kenyon chose to stay open and host symposiums to discuss activism and political violence. In 2015, a sit-in to show solidarity with University of Missouri students who were protesting racial intolerance at their school attracted 100 people. A few days later, at a forum about inclusive environments, students discussed both the importance of safe spaces as well as concerns that political correctness might prevent people of different backgrounds from interacting with one another at all. 

Even in today’s hyper-charged political environment, said Baumann, Kenyon’s tendency is toward substantive discussion and practical action, rather than disruption. Fittingly, the topic for the 2017 CSAD conference, in September, was freedom  of expression.

Some at Kenyon bristle at the inevitable comparisons to a certain Ohio peer — “I am uncomfortable with the stereotype of the ‘conservative Kenyon’ versus the ‘radical Oberlin,’” said Professor of Religious Studies Vernon Schubel. Kenyon does not have the same reputation as Oberlin of being an activism hotbed. For some, that’s a relief — for others, a disappointment.

The reality of Kenyon’s activism, both in its roots and current activity, is nuanced. There is plenty of activity on campus today in areas ranging from Black Lives Matter to demands for endowment divestment from fossil fuel-linked investments. But Kenyon has never grabbed headlines in the same way that Berkeley did when its protests of the alt-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos turned violent earlier this year.

Emily Carter ’17, who organized a trip from Kenyon to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January, acknowledged that Kenyon’s location can dampen student interest in certain types of activism. “It can be difficult for students to feel like we’re part of the larger conversation when we’re on such a small, rural campus,” she said. Still, she noted that regular events like Signs on the Square, which brings together students and community members at the Mount Vernon Public Square to discuss and debate topical issues, can help people connect on issues they care about while working together to change minds and policies.

Activism tin can phone illustration

“I’ll be honest, trying to make a change — especially a substantial one — at an institution like Kenyon is hard and slow,” said Maya Street-Sachs ’17, who spearheaded an education-in-prison program that will launch next year in the form of a pilot course at the Richland Correctional Institution in Manfield, Ohio. “No matter how many good-intentioned and like-minded people you have on your side, practicality and logistics will really sometimes slow things down. … Patience during a process like this is key.” (See “Activism in Action” below.)

Associate Professor of Chemistry Yutan Getzler, who said he has been involved “around the edges” of work on issues related to race, gender and sexuality at Kenyon, attributes the pace of change at the College at least partly to the fact that it is the oldest private college in the state, and one with “a strong sense of tradition and continuity that contributes enormously to the feel of the institution.” There are positive aspects to this, he said, but it also, perhaps, “contributes to a degree of institutional reluctance to change — or to change quickly.”

Often, when people think of the word “activism,” they visualize heated protests, chalking, posters spread all over campus and sit-ins.

Baumann noted that Kenyon “students will put up signs, they’ll hold rallies, they’ll organize occasional marches, they’ll talk to trustees, and they’ll generally do so in ways that are decent, sane, law-abiding and respectful of others.”

What leads to such a specific — and some might say restrained — approach to activism? In the American Thinker, Thomas Lifson ’69 argued that Kenyon’s geographic location — in Knox County, Ohio — may be one reason that civility in its activism reigns. At a small college in a remote town, people know one another, he noted. “A lack of civility has immediate and lasting consequences,” he wrote.

At Kenyon, Getzler observed, “the apotheosis of how the institution imagines itself is a kind of mannered reason … and if we are talking about activism (as it is commonly conceived), it may less likely be expressed in that form here. … It brings up the question, must something match our image of activism to be activist work? And is this question insightful or merely self-serving?”

Student energy always will be focused on creating social change, said Assistant Professor of Political Science Nancy Powers '83, assistant director of the Center for the Study of American Democracy. “College is a natural moment in life to become politically active,” she said. “Students are eager to find meaning and purpose for their lives, and they often have more time for activism than people later in life who have family obligations and full-time jobs.”

There is pragmatism to Kenyon students’ work, and a sense that respectful discourse — regardless of how strongly one feels on a subject — matters, said Jennifer Johnson, an associate professor of sociology.

Johnson has seen it firsthand. Just hours after the 2016 presidential election ended, two dozen stunned first-year students gathered for Johnson’s scheduled introductory sociology class. Clinton supporters expressed their sadness and dismay. And another student, who came from a family and community of staunch Trump supporters, explained the reasons why they cast votes for Trump. At the end of the conversation, another student piped up: “I’m glad we talked about this. If we silence people who disagree with us, we live in an echo chamber. That’s not what I want for my college education.”

Johnson is quick to add that a single class can’t lead to perfect unity. Raw feelings about the election persist. Nonetheless, that moment was a microcosm of some of the larger trends she sees at Kenyon, where there is a true sense of students trying to grapple with views different from their own, even as they may seek to change others’ minds. 

Activism or “slacktivism”?

These days, students can be activists without even looking up from their phones. From signing online petitions to participating in discussions on Facebook and other social media platforms, there are plenty of ways to raise a voice on the internet. But does it matter?

“There’s a place for internet activism,” acknowledged Associate Professor of Sociology Jennifer Johnson. “But I’m not sure people should always be content with agitating online. There are also reasons to take the higher-risk and more time-consuming forms of activism, such as going to a protest.”

In fact, a series of studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2013 found that offering token support for a cause — liking a Facebook page or wearing a ribbon, for example — does not lead to more meaningful support of a cause. People like to be seen as supporting certain values but don't always love doing the work to live those values out.

Nate Lotze '14, a onetime organizer for Environment America, added that time spend on internet activism might better be spent elsewhere. “The easier the action is, the less seriously a decision-maker takes it," he said.

Read another perspective on “slacktivism” by David Hoyt '14, Kenyon's social media producer.

Snapshots of the history of activism at Kenyon, from the 1960s through today

We worked with archivists, alumni and students to find out what activism at Kenyon has looked like during the past 50 years — and what it’s like today.

1965  Terry Robbins ’68 helped found Kenyon’s chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society and published the Vanguard, which critiqued the country’s involvement in Vietnam. He left Kenyon in 1966 to pursue a more radical — and ultimately tragic — approach as part of the militant left-wing organization the Weathermen. (He died when a bomb that he was building exploded.) In 1967, a delegation of students from the newly formed Kenyon Committee to End the War in Vietnam traveled to participate in a demonstration in New York City.

1966  As the women’s movement started gaining steam nationally, Kenyon had its own women’s issues to address: whether to admit women to the institution. The decision was anything but obvious. In 1965-66, the administration sent out surveys to students, who didn’t hesitate to express their reservations. Bill Campbell ’66 recalled his own concerns in a 2009 Alumni Bulletin feature: “We argued women would distract us from our studies, that dance weekends would no longer be special, that we’d have to dress better and behave in a more civilized manner, that we could no longer swim naked in the pool.” (In hindsight, he admitted the concerns were ridiculous.) Either way, resistance was futile — the first cohort of women arrived at the short-lived Coordinate College in 1969.

1967  A two-day Civil Rights Conference on campus was hailed by the Collegian as “an unqualified success in the balanced picture it presented of the quality of thought and techniques of activism.” Captivating the crowd was a young leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Said one professor of Jackson’s effect on students: “I wouldn’t be surprised if 30 Kenyon students joined him right now on a march to Chicago, if he asked them to.” 

Photos courtesy of the Kenyon College archives.

1969  About 150 student protesters and observers gathered to draw attention to a range of grievances, including a lack of a black studies program on campus, inadequate women’s visiting rights in the men’s dormitories and concerns about an inefficient student government. William Caples, the incoming president, was burned in effigy. Caples immediately scheduled meetings and an all-campus event to address student issues and said students “should have a voice in determining their own destiny.”

1970  After the Kent State shootings in May, many colleges and universities simply shut down for the remainder of the year. Not so at Kenyon: Exams were suspended in favor of “symposiums, open forums, and teach-ins on such matters as ... the right, manner, and limits of dissent; the use of force on campus; [and] the psychology and history of violence,” according to a motion brought to the Kenyon community. Kenyon’s chaplain at the time, Don Rogan, said it is “hard to convey the atmosphere of intense seriousness ... the feeling of participating in critical events as they were unfolding.” 

1986-87  The anti-apartheid movement spurred action at Kenyon: The Collegian dedicated four pages of the newspaper to discussing appropriate responses to South African apartheid. Students set up meetings with Kenyon trustees to ensure that Kenyon’s endowment was not profiting from companies that had significant holdings in South Africa.

1989  Alex Novak ’91 and David Horner ’91 founded the Kenyon Observer, a conservative political journal. The publication attracts some of the country’s top voices from the right, including Ross Douthat, David Brooks and Paul Edward Gottfried. (The Observer ceased publication in 2009 but was revived two years later by Jonathan Green ’14 and Gabriel Rom ’14; it now accepts works featuring all political ideologies.)

1993  When a Ku Klux Klan demonstration was held in nearby Coshocton on the day before the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Kenyon students arrived in droves for a counter-protest. Physics professor Tim Sullivan praised students’ approach. “Admirable, in our view, was the posture taken by the 150 Kenyon College students who conveyed a powerful message staying ‘silent and non-violent,’” he wrote in an editorial published in the Coshocton Tribune.

1997  While LGBTQ activism at Kenyon had started decades earlier — the first gay student association at Kenyon was created in 1973 — the late 1990s were something of a watershed at Kenyon, which included numerous on-campus speaking events hosted by Allied Sexual Orientations and a Kenyon-hosted conference by Linking Every GLBT Organization in Ohio (LEGO). The College also began offering domestic partner benefits to employees in the late 1990s.

2002  In October, the Iraq war was on the mind of everyone on campus — and off. The political science department hosted a forum to discuss a range of arguments, classified as “hawk,” “dove” and “owl.” An anti-war rally brought together students and faculty, who waved banners proclaiming “No attack on Iraq” and “That was uncalled for.” Kenyon students found the activity invigorating. As Jessie Katz ’04 told the Collegian, “It’s refreshing to see Kenyon pick up the tradition that the generation before us carried on,” she said. “[W]e do care about what’s happening to the world that we all have to enter.” 

2004  After long lines at the polls in Gambier — up to 12 hours for some — provoked national attention, two students took matters into their own hands: Matthew Segal ’08 and Jarrett Moreno ’08 used the event as a catalyst to create what eventually became, an organization that helped 300,000 voters register for the 2012 election. In 2014, they launched ATTN:, a media company that develops and distributes content designed for young progressives.

2013  Since at least 2013, students have been pushing Kenyon to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. In January 2017, 10 Kenyon students from the DivestKenyon movement received divestment training led by Ohio Students Climate Resistance. They held demonstrations, screened films, collected signatures and marched in front of the trustees. Emma Schurink ’17, a leader of the movement, said it’s about principle: “We understand that every individual, institution or city that divests communicates to the public that profit and greed, at the cost of humanity, is unacceptable,” she said of her commitment to the cause.

2014  Activist Leopoldo López ’93 H’07, the founder of Venezuela’s Voluntad Popular movement, turned himself in to Venezuelan authorities after being accused of inciting violent political protests. His sister, Adriana López Vermut, gave a passionate speech at Kenyon, thanking members of the Kenyon community for writing letters and taking action to make sure that her brother’s story continues to receive national attention — especially through, a website devoted to his case. Three years later, López was transferred from prison to house arrest, only to be arrested again, and then transferred, again, to house arrest.

Web extras: A 2015 Bulletin article focused on the "The Fight to Free Leo," and a 2017 blog post from Sean Decatur reflected on "Activism and the Liberal Arts" on the occasion of López's release from prison. 

2014  After Ferguson, Missouri, police shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, students marched on campus as part of the fledgling Black Lives Matter movement. About 60 students traveled to The Ohio State University to join larger protests happening nationwide.

2017  The day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, more than 150 Kenyon students participated in the Women’s March on Washington. For many, it was the first time they’d engaged in activism of any kind. Cameron Messinides ’19 said the march was not just a way to show support for women, but also to test out real activism for the first time. “I’m hoping to jump in head first,” Messinides said.

2017  Students, faculty and community members meet for Signs on the Square, a weekly gathering on the Mount Vernon Public Square developed by Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski. Attendees protest, show support and encourage discussion on political issues. Topics have included health care, immigration and the arts. Emily Carter ’17, who has been involved in various capacities, said it has benefited all attendees. “We’re starting to break down some of the walls between Kenyon and Knox County. Different groups coming together has helped cultivate a deeper sense of community and a more positive and open campus.”

Advice for your activist hour

If you’ve got an activist heart but a to-do list that seems to crowd out every available opportunity to take action, you are not alone. We asked successful Kenyon activists what they’d do if they could carve out just an hour a week to make a difference in areas that were important to them.

Nate Lotze ’14 is a campaign organizer for Environment America and works for the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.

Be the Change: “Living in accordance with the values underlying the cause you promote is the most important — and overlooked — thing that people can do. And remember that outrage isn’t activism, especially on social media. It’s possible to have convictions while still being humble, generous and open-minded.”

Recommended reading: “Defining ‘We’ in Environmental Advocacy” by Brooks and Goldberg and “These two resources offer essential insights on communication and how to get messages across effectively.”

Autumn Anderson ’14 works for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and participates in a variety of causes and protests in Harrisburg.

Learn to speak the language of your adversaries: “Understand not only your viewpoint, but the viewpoint of others. That can be a powerful tool in conversation and when crafting a message.”

Recommended reading: “Why We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “This book helps fuel my ‘why’ of activism: the reasons it’s so important to fight for progress, acceptance and equality in society.”

Siiri Morley '00 campaigned for Hillary Clinton and said she is now advocating for gender and racial equity, locally in Boston and beyond.

Take small but concrete actions: “I live by (the quotation popularized by Theodore Roosevelt), ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’ Figure out what you love and care about, what the world needs and what you’re good at. Discover where these things intersect, and you’ll find something that you are uniquely well-positioned to do. Donate your time and resources to a cause you care about; write an op-ed; call or visit your representatives; march in a protest. What’s important is to not let the enormity of the issues overwhelm you. Small actions are better than no actions.”

Recommended reading: Ms. magazine and #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter. “Following the BLM hashtag will connect you to fabulous activists and push your learning, all in 140 characters. It’s a great place to listen. Ms. magazine has been publishing relevant, engaging content for decades. They are still deeply relevant.”

Ian Millhiser '00 is justice editor at ThinkProgress.

Follow the money: “Get involved with the major political party you identify with. Fundraise. Attend party committee meetings. Fundraise. Make calls and canvass for candidates you support. Fundraise. Become an officer in your local party and work your way up the ranks. Fundraise. The question of whether Democrats or Republicans control the government will affect far more lives and have far more impact on whatever your primary issue is than anything you could possibly accomplish outside of government.”

Recommended reading: Vox, Slate and data-heavy journalism from the Washington Post and New York Times. “It’s important to read people who are methodologically rigorous, not just advocates with a byline.”

Tamara Parson Anderson '93 is co-founder of the Diversity Coalition of Knox County.

Get some face time: “I would recommend less time on social media venting about things and using that time for more face-to-face interaction. Communicate with each other personally. Formulate a plan together that is simple. Take action collaboratively. Volunteering time in person to help get tasks done, running errands, driving people places in and attending events is what works. Time is of the essence. Every moment is an opportunity to do something.”

Recommended reading: “Freedom is a Constant Struggle” by Angela Davis. “This is a great collection of inspiring, forward-thinking ideas based on her own experiences.”

Marco Saavedra '11 is an immigration activist.

Choose the beautiful world: “A practice that I would encourage to others is to ask: ‘What if I’m wrong?’ Take the time to answer that question, because it will help you see the other side of the argument. I pick sides to an argument based on how beautiful it is. To me, it is more beautiful to live in a world that listens, that considers the stranger and invites them in, in instead of persecuting, detaining and deporting them. That is what I’ve committed to.”

Recommended reading: “Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. DuBois and the essays of James Baldwin. “I took up Baldwin’s Challenge: ‘I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.’”

Student Activism in Action

Maya Street-Sachs ’17 doesn’t remember when she first heard about the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that allows incarcerated men and women to earn a degree from Bard College. What she does remember is her certainty that a similar initiative could succeed at Kenyon. She knew about the studies that showed that education for prisoners could reduce recidivism and increase their chances at post-release employment. And she believed her college could make a difference. “I knew that Kenyon could bring a liberal arts education behind bars,” she said.

It would have been easy for Street-Sachs to write a paper about this idea or give a talk about it on campus. Instead, she took action to turn her idea into reality.

Street-Sachs enlisted the help of Associate Professor of Sociology Jennifer Johnson, Assistant Professor of English Kathleen Fernando and Kenyon administrators. She secured funding support through Kenyon’s Summer Scholars Program to dig into the work. And it all led to Kenyon becoming a member of the national Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. In the fall of 2018, Fernando will teach a pilot course at the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio, with 10 inmates and 10 Kenyon students. Street-Sachs and Fernando worked together through an independent study course last spring to create a syllabus for a new course to be taught in the context of the prison. In the context of the independent study, they discussed the “pedagogical and moral outlook implicit in teaching in a prison classroom by reading educators like bell hooks, Paulo Freire and Dan Karpowitz, amongst others; as well as fictional texts that would fit the demands of such a course,” Street-Sachs said. The course, called “In Transit,” will focus on texts that grapple with the complex racial, emotional, sexual and gendered struggles that accompany the process of moving from one place or space to another.

“I couldn’t have moved this course along without being at Kenyon for a substantial amount of time. Being physically close that summer to the Kenyon community, the correctional facility with which we would be working, and the rural Ohio community at large was an important part of the process,” she said. “I cannot pretend that I understand the complex social patterns in Knox County, as I am not from this area. A summer is not a lifetime. However, each passing day that I spent here taught me different things about this area and how this course could look here.”

Don't Call It Slacktivism

David Hoyt

By David Hoyt '14

As the person in charge of managing Kenyon’s social media channels, I often spend much of the workday (and far too much of my personal time) scanning a Twitter feed. As a consequence, I’m abundantly familiar with the notion of “slacktivism” — the idea that these days, a lot of people are more interested in hitting the share button than hitting the streets to protest and effect real change. Last season on “Saturday Night Live,” the sketch “Thank You, Scott” satirized this concept brilliantly, with a choir surrounding the supine Scott (Louis C.K.) and singing his praises as he lies on his couch, trying to end racism by halfheartedly tweeting that black lives matter.

Sure, some people are more interested in capturing the perfect #resist moment on Instagram than in actually taking a stand, but does that mean activism is dying? Are millennials really spending so much time online that our generation is doomed to succumb to apathy and sloth?

My answer, obviously, is no. To begin with,
although vilifying new technology is always fun,
there’s nothing inherently wrong with using new
tools to achieve old goals. Why spend hours
writing longhand letters to Congress when a free service called Resistbot can help you make phone calls, mail letters and even send a fax (an ancient relic that strikes fear into many a millennial heart) in just a few minutes? Why solicit pocket change in the town square when crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe can reach a far wider audience and make donations easier?

Furthermore, as Erin Peterson explores in her article “A Pragmatic Activism,” social media has the power to amplify movements. With just two months of lead time, would the Women’s March on Washington have attracted half a million attendees (including three busloads from Kenyon) without the power of Twitter? On a local level (where the battles of democracy are truly fought), more than 500 Knox County residents are members of Gibbs Watch, a Facebook group that aims to hold Gambier’s congressman accountable and organizes frequent small-scale “Signs on the Square” protests (yes, real signs, in the real, physical world). Why sneer at social media when it serves as an effective activist gateway, helping millions of people get involved and leading at least some of them toward more tangible action?

And, despite social media’s reputation for turning every molehill into a mountain, it doesn’t necessarily have to clash with Kenyon’s brand of “unshowy activism,” to use Peterson’s phrase. Time and again, members of the extended Kenyon community prove that there are myriad ways, big and small, to effect change. For instance, after experiencing the infamously long lines of Gambier’s polling station in November 2004, Matthew Segal ’08 and Jarrett Moreno ’08 founded, which achieved the unglamorous but vital goal of registering hundreds of thousands of new, young voters before the 2012 election. Later, Segal and Moreno launched ATTN:, “a media company to help explain the issues in accessible and powerful content that would meet people where they lived through social media,” as Segal put it in a 2016 interview with Kenyon. A decade younger, Justin Martin ’19, whom we profiled in the previous issue of the Bulletin, is a prolific tweeter who uses social media to spread the word about disability rights and the importance of preserving Medicaid benefits.

So, yes, go out and march, donate to your favorite nonprofits (without forgetting about the Kenyon Fund), and occasionally put down your phone to pick up a sign. But don’t let anyone tell you that your posts, photos, videos and shares are a waste of time. Especially in an age of rampant misinformation online, using social media to spread facts and encourage truthful, honest debate really does matter. But, for the sake of those of us on the other side of the screen, remember to keep it civil — the Kenyon way.

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