New Perspectives: Engage, Rethink, Give Back

Several Claremont Colleges professors have deep and unique pasts in activist movements, serving as an example for students who want to become more involved in issues they feel passionate about. 

For Jonathan Lethem, Pomona College Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing, activism runs deep. Growing up in Brooklyn to parents he describes as “hippies,” some of his earliest memories are of political protests.

“I grew up in a dissident political tradition with constant readiness for vigils, marches and so on,” he said.

At an early age Lethem said this lifestyle became ingrained as “a mode of social relations as norm.” A Vietnam rally is his first recollection of his parents’ activism, and support of the marginalized has become a theme in his writing.  

“It meant a lot to me,” he said. “I remained in sympathy with the legacy of protest—the activist style of being.”

Lethem went on to a career as a writer. He won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in 1999 for Motherless Brooklyn, which was praised for elevating the detective novel form by featuring a narrator with Tourette’s Syndrome.

On a book tour last semester for his newest publication, Lethem took a break to speak at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, New York City.

He donated books to The People’s Library, which describes itself as “[t]he collective, public, open library of the Occupy Wall Street leaderless resistance movement,” and read a prepared statement.

One of Lethem’s statements was a vote in support of the leaderless, multi-voiced format of the Occupy movement—the People’s Mic—which is not an actual microphone. It is a technique used by Occupy movements around the world to allow a large group of people to hold an assembly in the middle of a noisy city without speakers or amplification. The speaker makes brief, sentence-length statements in a normal voice, which are then repeated by those around them until the entire crowd can hear the message.

For Lethem, People’s Mic is an exaggeration of the difference between political speech and literary discourse.  

“It forces the speaker to distill their thought and opinions into essences,” he said. “That format is an act of resistance in itself. It fights the ugly propensity for black and white certainties in current media.”

For Kimberly Drake, Director of Scripps College’s Writing Program, activism comes in many forms. Some of her classes have included “American Protest Literature,” “The Cultural Politics of Punk and Hip-Hop” and “Forms of Anarchy: The Feminist Politics of Subcultures.”

Drake has hands-on experience, too. She describes her favorite activist effort: the Critical Mass Bike Ride, which consists of a large group of people (several hundred or more) riding bikes in urban areas and blocking traffic. These rides began in San Francisco and have since circulated around the globe.

The Critical Mass Bike Ride, like the Occupy movement, seems leaderless. Typically, participants receive an e-mail with the time and location of the ride’s starting point. To prevent law authorities from preempting the ride, notification, turnaround and action have to be quick. Usually, there are only a few hours between the announcement and the Ride itself.

The rides are cooperative in nature. To prevent legal action against one rider, all riders slow down to stay at a large enough size as they block traffic. Drake cited the immediacy of the situation as part of its power.

“You’re looking out the back of the group at a line of police cars, but you don’t worry about slowing down because everyone in the group will stay with you,” she said. “Meanwhile, you’re speaking to the car drivers all around you, maybe you own a car, but you’re making a statement about transportation, green movements, communities and forms of organization all at once.” 

Law enforcement often cooperates as well, Drake added. “In certain areas they would block the road to keep riders and drivers safe.”

The Rides end at a predetermined point, and all participants disperse on their own. It’s never really clear who is sending those e-mails.

For students at the Claremont Colleges, elevating a neglected art form may sound daunting, and blocking traffic on bicycles may sound audacious, but activism is still an option.

A brief stop by Pomona’s Draper Center for Community Partnerships drives home the point that being active in a cause a student believes in need only be stymied by a lack of willingness.

I asked what opportunities were available at the center and the receptionist gave me a flyer with twelve programs run directly by the Draper Center. They ranged from ESL tutoring to helping middle school students produce plays.

When I asked if there were any other opportunities they handed me a binder titled “Partner Programs 2010-2011.” It had over 100 programs that cooperate with the Draper Center.

If you are interested in environmental justice you can volunteer for Alterna-Break and travel to San Francisco on the college’s dime to plant gardens on Alcatraz.

There’s a section for Women’s Issues in the binder. You can help build libraries for female inmates. Through a different program, you can also help these inmates cultivate gardens. 

If you like the idea of blocking traffic in downtown L.A. while you cruise on your Green Bike, Drake told me that’s relatively simple, too. 

“We have a pretty firm set of institutions and structures in place, and altering them often makes people feel like they aren’t empowered,” she said. “But sometimes all you need to start effecting change is a sturdy bike.”

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