Alumni discuss post-Colby activism, current work

Although Colby’s student population is generally highly involved on campus, whether in sports, clubs, or other activities, there is some debate over how lasting this participation is. Recently, there have been many conversations about “slacktivism” on campus, which is colloquially defined as the tendency of college students to have sporadic renewals of activism rather than sustained engagement in a cause. Does activism on campus transfer to life-long activism? What does that say about Colby and our campus’ culture?

When interviewing Colby graduates about how they engaged in issues during their time on campus, a common theme was apparent: most were hesitant to categorize their actions as activism. Ajima Olaghere ’07, former president of Students Organized for Black and Hispanic Unity (SOBHU) and student representative on the Board of Trustees, said in an email correspondence, “I wasn’t [an activist]. I was a student who confronted certain issues on campus alongside others [and] sought…to resolve them constructively….I prefer the phrase, ‘engaging in problem solving,’ which I believe serves as a more appropriate descriptor of the nature of work I [did at Colby and] continue to do today. I was more interested in taking decisive steps to address issues and the translation of ideas into action, than just the mere contemplation or raising of them.”

Omari Matthew ’14, whose central avenue for community engagement came from participating in SOBHU, echoed Olaghere’s sentiments about the label of “activist.” “Reflecting on my four years, I would be hesitant to call myself an activist in the traditional sense. What I did do often was reflect on what was missing from my Colby career and try to occupy those spaces with new ideas [and] a fresh perspective,” he said in an email correspondence.

While the interviewed alumni refrained from calling themselves activists, they spoke freely about the type of work they did while they were in college, as well as what they have done with their work since graduating.

Jonathan Kalin ’14, who addressed issues pertaining to multiculturalism, men’s violence prevention and sexual assault awareness during his time on the Hill, said that his activism at Colby turned into an important part of his professional life. “I’ve been lucky enough to be able to continue the Party With Consent movement beyond college [by] traveling to campuses [and] speaking, educating, presenting, [and] writing about the issue,” he said.

Eric Barthold ’12, who formed the Male Athletes Against Violence (which has since been renamed Mules Against Violence) with two other students, has had a similar experience to Kalin’s. He has integrated his activist work at Colby into his professional life, travelling to middle schools, high schools, and colleges across the Northeast to facilitate discussions about sexual violence and to challenge gender norms.

Though Barthold has continued to engage in the issues that he tried to address in college, he recognizes that there are some differences and limitations to his work post-Colby. “There is…a time-sensitive element of continuing my activism, however. Not only is sexual assault in college a very pertinent issue in our news, but I also realize that I have the privilege of being young enough to relate to the experience of those in my conversations….I realize that I will lose a little bit of that peer trust as I get older. So while I have the ability to be a fellow athlete, for instance, I find myself in a unique position that many other guest speakers can’t really occupy. So as long as I love facilitating and see the value in continuing these conversations, I see no reason to remove myself from that space,” Barthold said.

He added that while activism is currently part of his professional life, he also considers it as a passion that he will continue to pursue  regardless of how it plays into his career. “I…recognized very early after graduation that my work as a leader of MAV will always be part of who I am and will therefore find its way into any career I pursue. As an English teacher, I created a ‘Coming of Age’ literature unit that focused heavily on gender and included some of the activities in the MAV conversations. As a ski coach, I had informal conversations with my athletes on the way to and from competitions when elements of masculine pressure or rape culture emerged in conversation. And as a programs intern working for an HIV prevention NGO in South Africa, I found myself creating programs that linked pressures of masculinity to the spread of HIV,” Barthold said.

When giving advice to graduating college students, Barthold tells them that their current passions and work will carry on regardless of their chosen field and that they will still be activists simply by the informal conversations they will inevitably have with friends and colleagues. “[This] form of activism might not be as structured as it was at Colby, but as long as you are talking with others about your activism…you are continuing your influence on the world around you,” he said.

Olaghere, who currently works with people of diverse perspectives and skillsets to address persistent issues in the criminal justice system, takes a similar approach. Beyond direct activism, her sustained interest has contributed to her goals and daily life post-graduation. “My experience with asking uncomfortable questions or making uncomfortable observations while at Colby reinforced only what any good liberal arts education should do, which is to raise and sustain critical thinking….This mentality alone, not any specific ‘activism’ I participated in at Colby, has influenced my professional endeavors. I get to ask interesting and in some instances, critical questions, about our criminal justice system to fill gaps in our understanding of the system. I get to think critically for the rest of my life,” she said. 

While the interviewed alumni stand as exceptional examples of post-Colby activism, many students, particularly recent graduates, do not prioritize or have the resources to continue this work when they graduate. Once graduates enter the professional world and may not be surrounded by people who engage as they would at Colby, greater initiative is required to stay involved in activism. “So often it feels like you are only able to create a limited impact within your four years,” Barthold said.

Kalin discussed Colby’s campus culture and how it plays into the level of commitment people have regarding post-graduation activism. “I believe it’s very difficult to be genuine at Colby, however I do believe it is possible. In that sense, it could be that being genuine is activism,” he said. Matthew echoed Kalin’s views when he said, “The most important lesson that I took away from engaging in activism at Colby was that I made zero worldly change when I was there (everything I did will probably never leave the Hill). To be frank, Colby is not a place for world-changing activism. It’s a place to gain the skills and drive to do so.”

Matthew added, “Activism at Colby is very alive and genuine from the leaders of those particular movements. However, the heart and soul of activism—rallying people together to continuously organize around some central idea of change—is what often runs dry when dealing with Colby students. Activism is hard and emotionally taxing….When it comes down to it, the problem is not that Colby students don’t care….It’s just that they do not care enough to invest themselves in it for the long term.”

The Social Justice Alumni Panel, which met on June 22, 2014, offers an example of how activism has remained important in the lives of some Colby alumni. David March ’82 and Sarah Eustis ’96, both members of the Alumni Council, gathered a group of alumni in Los Angeles to discuss social justice issues. The panelists included Jeffra Becknell ’82, Rabbi Zhachary Shapiro ’92, and Elizabeth Beltran ’10.

Of the alumni that were involved in the panel, only Beltran could be reached for a comment. At Colby, she was involved with SOBHU and Colby Cares about Kids and often volunteered in the Waterville community. “Activism at Colby is a sensitive subject. I really think it depends on who you are….I can’t speak for all minorities on campus, but in my case, I came from a public school in NY that failed in preparing me for how rigorous Colby would be; I had to work twice as hard to be as good as my classmates who came from very prestigious boarding schools. I feel conflicted over the responsibility minorities at Colby assume when we step on campus. I think we should speak up, but I don’t think it should be the obligation of every student of color to be an activist,” Beltran said.

Beltran currently works at a private school. “I try to include components of social justice into my lessons because most of these kids really have no idea what the world is really like outside of Silicon Valley,” she said. She is currently looking to work for a charter school in Los Angeles. “I’m aiming for schools that serve the working class because I feel I can make a big differences in the lives of these children,” she said.

Post-Colby activism seems to vary, with some incorporating it into their professional lives, some claiming that it affects the way they think about the world, and some that have not continued their work since leaving the Hill. According to Kalin, “It depends on the person.”

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