I am a committed member of the left. After Trump’s election, I founded the Damage Control Action Network (DCAN), an anti-Trump student group focusing on local government. DCAN has been able to do some good things in the surrounding community — pressuring the city of Claremont to pass a sanctuary resolution, and helping to plan and execute a Know Your Rights Resource Fair for undocumented families in the city of Pomona (alongside IDEAS, Pomona ESL, and community organizations). These are small things, but I want to make clear that the following criticisms of college leftism are from a fellow left-wing activist. Still, they are undoubtedly criticisms.
To me, certain strands of college leftism can be unproductive, self-indulgent, and rooted in private liberal arts college (LAC) elitism. If college students are to effectively combat systemic oppression, elitism in college leftism must be scaled back or stamped out.
I think the best indication of what is wrong with Claremont Colleges leftism is our image in the surrounding communities: to a surprising extent, we have none. As I began doing work in Claremont and Pomona, I was shocked at how many people committed the, “Oh, Cal Poly Pomona?” mistake. That seems indicative of a lack of community engagement on the part of much of the left-wing activism here.
I do not mean to say that this kind of effective community engagement is nonexistent — that would be ignoring organizations like the 5C Refugee Advocacy Project, IDEAS, the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success, Homelessness Action Team, Upward Bound, the Weekly Writing Workshop, etc. But many of the progressive and radical groups on campus rarely leave the bubble at all, preferring to discuss ideology and theory over action.
I respectfully ask those leftists who do not leave campus: who does it help to hold leftist ideology but not apply it? Does the homeless Pomona resident benefit in any way when we spend the meeting discussing Marxist theories? Does the undocumented family get closer to healthcare when we take a photo for Facebook captioned “Single Payer Now!”? I don’t think leftism is effective or particularly beneficial if you cannot point to a way that an individual or community has been empowered by your action.
On a separate point, the Claremont Colleges left can sometimes become so concerned with “wokeness” that its leftism can itself become exclusionary and elitist. Such college leftists center their own ideological needs over potential marginalized beneficiaries of their time, energy, and power.
This manifests in a variety of ways. There are the “purity politics” of those who will not work with imperfect partners because they are insufficiently radical, despite the positive impact their engagement might have — critiques are valid, but never more important than the push for concrete change, especially when there are no better alternatives.
There is also the tendency to speak in academic, theoretical language, where the college leftist effectively locks the marginalized group they are supposed to be “advocating for” out of the conversation.
A related tendency is going into conversations with members of a marginalized community with the sole aim to “educate” them, as opposed to listening. This orientation is highly paternalistic, as it assumes that the community member the college leftist is talking to somehow does not understand their own oppression, though the college leftist has that ‘understanding’ because they have taken a class at Pomona College. These are just a few ways in which “wokeness” can be a tool for exclusion.
I don’t know exactly why college leftism is the way it is, but I have a few theories. One is quite simple — many students don’t have the time or energy to engage in off-campus activism. We are students at an elite college, and many students must face the added weight of being at an institution that seems inhospitable to people like them.
I understand those concerns, and they complicate the issue. I am a second-generation Indian-American, but I am also an upper-middle class, straight cis man, and these privileges allow me to devote time and mental energy to activism that not everyone enjoys. This goes for other privileged students, too — especially since so many who are not privileged on this campus manage to do this work anyway.
But there is something else. Our college culture can be so insular that it prevents adequate acknowledgement that as students at an elite private LAC, we are part of a tiny aristocracy. We are privy to opportunity, mobility, resources, and social and intellectual capital that the vast majority of people never have access to.
While the campus is alive with dialogue about power relations within the colleges, we need to begin one about the power relationship between the colleges and the community. That will be a fundamentally uncomfortable conversation, but so is every conversation about power and privilege. We need to reckon with the elite aspects of our positionality head-on, and try (as best as we are able) to use that power to amplify the voices of marginalized communities around us. In Pomona (and in Claremont), there are dozens of organizations that would love student engagement and manpower, and tens of thousands of people who could benefit from the institutional power of the Claremont Colleges (so long as we amplify community voices, not displace them).
It is imperative we do the work to create those bridges. If you don’t know where to start, I could help refer you to one of the many organizations that do this work already. Let’s use our power to do our part.
Shayok Chakraborty PO ’19 is a Public Policy Analysis-Politics Major from Los Angeles, California. He has a pretty good beard.