Opinion | Staff Editorials

A reorientation to activism

How many Columbia students does it take to change a lightbulb? Seventy-six: one to change the lightbulb, 50 to protest for the lightbulb’s right not to change, and 25 to stage a counterprotest.

Most first-years have probably already heard that one, and most of them either rolled their eyes or told the funnier version about Dartmouth not having any electricity. But many students end up being proud of the joke and the sentiment it conveys. It’s often their first self-deprecating remark about what it means to be a student activist at this University.

This year, the class of 2018 was given the benefit of a slightly longer introduction to student activism in the form of the 2014 Disorientation Guide, a revival of similar guides from the early 2000s. Groups including No Red Tape Columbia, the Coalition Against Gentrification, and Student-Worker Solidarity created the 42-page document, which provides an overview of different activist movements at Columbia. The guide introduces first-years to efforts ranging from reforming the sexual assault policy to pushing Columbia to divest from the fossil fuel and private prison industries. If you have not read it yet, we encourage you to do so.

The Disorientation Guide places these movements into the larger context of Columbia’s rich activist history. One article from past guides discusses the 1968 students who stormed University buildings to protest Columbia’s involvement in the weapons industry and its encroachment upon the surrounding Harlem community. While reminding us of our legacy of protest, the authors identify policies and practices they feel have betrayed that legacy, from the Manhattanville expansion to the exclusion of trans women in Barnard’s admission policy.

When talking about both historical and contemporary activism at Columbia, the 2014 Disorientation Guide is almost uniformly loud, angry, and provocative. But there is no doubt that the authors of this guide have provided valuable insight into the issues relevant to the community. This is particularly important for participating groups who normally do not have a large platform or regular sources of funding.

To be sure, Spectator has not always done the best job of commenting on student activism, but as we noted during our first editorial, this is a new semester. We want to encourage first-year students to think critically about Columbia and Barnard’s history and the role that students can play in achieving social change. If you’re turned off by this sort of aggressive activism, don’t worry. In your time here, you’ll see that there’s good reason to be angry. But you’ll also see that there are a variety of ways to become involved with issues about which you are passionate.

Activism at Columbia is not just limited to the prescriptions of the Disorientation Guide, which, in general, criticizes working with and through the system. In fact, many of the groups that submitted content for the guide engage in activism of this sort. No Red Tape Columbia has persistently attempted to work with administrators (even when rebuffed), and Barnard-Columbia Divest put a ballot initiative on last fall’s student council elections. Activism at Columbia can also happen through journalism—for example, Anna Bahr’s work on General Studies student debt.   

Activism takes on many forms, and there’s no need to feel boxed in to any particular style or to back away from a movement because you’re unfamiliar with the rhetoric or because it makes you uncomfortable. Whether it’s joining one of the many groups that contributed to the Disorientation Guide, running for student government, or connecting with one of the hundreds of organizations throughout New York City, we encourage you to educate yourself, explore your interests, and identify ways that you can contribute to Columbia’s tradition of student activism.

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To respond to this staff editorial, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

Disappointing that Spec has decided not to take a more critical look at what is in the Disorientation Guide.

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j posted on

very glad to see spectator seriously shift its attitude towards campus activism...journalism can play an extremely important role in supporting positive changes to our community. here's to hoping that important issues will continue to be given fair attention

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anon posted on

Well this didn't want my eyes to sink into the back of my head slash cry, which I was not expecting. So kudos.

But seriously, a nicely written and thoughtful editorial. Thanks.

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Anonymous posted on

I guess the one who changed the bulb is a SEAS student :-)

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Anonymous posted on

RE: 76 students to change a light bulb? Shows you Columbia has 75 lazy rich idlers who'd rather sit around and pontificate the calculus of the social situation rather that actually taking action and doing something useful. Ah!! One student did change the bulb. Must be work study.

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Anonymous posted on

thank you for this thoughtful editorial! while the tone of dis is angry and radical, my hope for the guide is that it helps enable a space for many kinds of activisms to develop and cultivate safe spaces for those marginalized by this university.

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