Yuan: Change Within the Lines

Activism within dominant structures is just as legitimate as outside efforts.

by Ziqin Yuan | 5/29/18 2:05am

Activism can seem like a dichotomy, with little leeway between social justice warrior and champion of the status quo. But limiting people to these two categories obscures the effectiveness of a quieter form of activism that occurs within, not against, the status quo.

Different parties advocating for the same cause tend to approach advocacy in different ways. Some feel that it is more valid to direct their energy toward fighting against a dominant system, whether through rallies, boycotts or petitions. Yet others share that same cause but “sell out,” integrating themselves into the systems they believe need to change. While the former tends to require more personal sacrifice and dedication, the latter is necessary as well. In fact, activism within dominant structures should be encouraged, not dismissed or ignored.

When one pictures activism, the first image that comes to mind is likely that of a protest or a rally — something loud, disruptive and public. Protests, along with similarly public acts of defiance, use their shock value to reach a wider audience. Large protests are therefore valuable because they inspire people to become politically engaged, including those who might not otherwise be active in politics. Though critics may argue that this shock value may actually harm the cause that they advocate for, these forms of activism still serve the important role of opening up conversation that might not otherwise be addressed. Activism from outside established structures alerts and reminds sympathizers of a cause that needs fighting for.

Yet protests in themselves are generally not effective at convincing policy makers to change. That work must occur from the inside out, from those who understand the structures of power that maintain harmful policy and can therefore go through those structures to change that policy. Much of the value of activism from within the dominant structure comes from human psychology. People are more likely to listen to someone who they believe is similar to them, especially someone who they believe listens to their point of view as well. Yet much of its value is also practical — in the United States at least, it is very difficult to enact lasting change unless it is through organizational structures, whether that be a political party or a corporation or the courts of law. While this form of activism is much less likely to gain coverage in the press, it is ultimately much more likely to succeed.

The women’s rights movement is a case in point. In the 1970s, female activists fighting gender discrimination charged the streets to rally behind the proposed — but ultimately not ratified — Equal Rights Amendment. At the same time, others gained access to the very corporate structures that were limiting them. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman nominated for and confirmed to the Supreme Court. Though her relatively conservative ideology likely played a role in President Reagan’s nomination and colored some of her later opinions, her position on the bench was vital for women’s rights, and in 1992, she was the swing vote that upheld Roe v. Wade. Her track record of fairly moderate voting, which at times may have seemed counterproductive to women’s rights, nevertheless helped her gain the position to speak up when needed and taught her how to do it through a legal means that is difficult for others to undo.

O’Connor will never be known as an outspoken champion of women’s rights. Her voting record is considered fairly erratic, and her husband reportedly divulged that she hoped to retire under a Republican president. But her mere presence on the Court, and the moderate work she did, helped shape women’s rights for many future generations. Her career highlights a key point: once someone makes it far enough up the food chain, they can use their influence to support the initiatives they believe are important.

Protests abound on college campuses such as Dartmouth’s. From the Black Lives Matter protest three years ago to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protest this Homecoming, activism from the outside in is public and easily remembered. Yet these protests must go hand-in-hand with activism through the administration. When it was announced that the Pan Asian Community resource room and the Rainbow Room would be moved from their current location in Robinson Hall, students sent out an online petition protesting the move, gaining close to 900 signatures, and formed a working group to strategize on concrete steps to maintain the room. These steps are important both to increase awareness across campus and to create administrative change. Yet the most important step for students may be to collaborate with staff members who are working on their behalf to advocate for their needs within Dartmouth’s institutional channels.

At Dartmouth and beyond, those advocating for the same goal should work with, not against, each other. Though methods may clash, activists working both from the outside and within a system share a common hope for change. The worst scenario is when activism undoes itself. Though some may not be as willing to join in protests or other public acts of activism, they are not necessarily bound to be less effective at creating change. Activism from the inside is still valuable and legitimate, and the Dartmouth community should encourage the silent work that occurs within organizations as well as outside of them.

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