{ What Did I Learn from Oberlin Anyway? Despair and Defiance. }

Violence and grief are everywhere this month.

Grown Americans screaming for endangered orphans to be sent back to their home countries, where they daily face assault or death.1 The deliberate bombing of Gazan civilians in schools and hospitals.2 A passenger plane shot down, killing hundreds, including infants and AIDS researchers.3

Even the machinery of justice itself seems broken. The impossible news of the Hobby Lobby ruling4 eclipsed the act of stunning hypocrisy in which the Supreme Court justices ruled that buffer zones in front of Massachusetts women's health clinics were illegal;5 its own buffer zone — five times larger — remains intact.6

Amidst all the pain of the world, what's an Obie to do?


I turn back to the lessons Oberlin taught me, beginning with this:

Evil is all around us.

While some of the world's misfortune is random in nature, too much is not. Famine is man-made;7 epidemics, often;8 modern slavery, always.

And this:

You are complicit in the systems of evil, from which you benefit.

In the suffering of the underprivileged, in the grief of mothers and the starvation of children, I am involved. I'm not saying it's my fault that much of my food and almost all of my clothing has been made by slaves,9 or that I ate cows fed corn from cropland that could have fed humans,10 or that my family's tax money funds warlords.11 I didn't know. But I know now.

The culture of Oberlin encourages self-reflection, especially on matters of privilege. 12 Racism, classism and sexism all directly benefit me even as they impoverish all of us.13 I have been further privileged to have been spared — so far — the direct effects of climate change.14

Some say privilege-checking goes too far; I disagree. I can't say that this knowledge has made me any happier, and I hesitate even to claim that it's made me more effective. Although I am less likely to do harm out of ignorance, I am more likely to be paralyzed, knowing now that that I know very little. But I believe that it is necessary to know that I have blood on my hands.

However: it is somewhat disingenious — and worse, counterproductive15 — to focus only on personal responsibility while letting industry off the hook. The webs of inequality and injustice are vast. They are woven not only by the ignorance of "average Americans" but by the machinations of the powerful, many of whom work hard to conceal their actions.16 It's not just a matter of cleansing my own hands. I know we must work together to force the mighty into the river and fish the impoverished out of the flood.

How?

I don't know.

But Oberlin has taught me:

We can make change. You can help.

This is not a matter of fact, but of faith. I refuse to believe that there will always be children working to exhaustion to make toys and clothes for luckier children elsewhere. I refuse to believe that poverty is necessary to wealth, that famine and plague are inevitable.

This faith trembles and quakes in the face of climate change. I don't care. I have to keep fighting.

Oberlin has given me many, many models. Gloria Steinem, Ishmael Beah, Wendell Berry, Toni Morrison, Janet Mock, Philip Rutter: as an Obie, I've had the honor of seeing, in person, these heroes of our time.17 And my peers are poised to join them: from holding our own administration accountable,18 to promoting global justice, current students and recent grads are carrying the torch. Here is a very small sampling of the work my friends and peers are doing right now:

My friend Mia is the Development Officer at Sojourner House in Rochester, which provides supportive and transitional housing to women and families.

My friend Hilary cofounded the Mountain Garden Initiative, which helps schools in eastern Kentucky start educational gardens. Recently the Letcher Farmers Market became the first place in the country to provide "free meals cooked onsite from market vegetables" to kids, many of whom rely on free or reduced meals to eat lunch during the school year.19

My friend Anita is living in a small community of post-undergraduate women that focuses, through ten-month fellowships, on religious social justice work. (Because it's her home, I'm not giving details, but it looks wonderful.) She'll be working with an area nonprofit.

My friend John, firebrand and champion organizer, is currently working with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, which reduces violence and provides support to local peacemakers around the world.

My friends Ari, Sarah, Lila, Noah, Jamie, Rae, Ben, and many others are doing science of many types to understand and improve the world; Emily and Alicia are working in wildlife rehab; Ray, Eli, and Elizabeth are studying medicine. Many others, all of whom I cannot name,20 are doing vital work at home and abroad.

Contrary to Oberlin's former slogan, none of us is going to change the world on our own. We each work in increments. Will it be enough? Factually: I don't know. Faithfully: it has to be.

I defy the "realists," who try to balance profit with the life of the world, or who shrink into hopelessness at the state of things. I defy the powerful and the complacent, the cynical and the corrupt.

I am cynical and complacent myself sometimes, but looking to the peacemakers gives me hope, something to follow: candles on the water, shedding light.

Lately I've stayed up nights worrying about the world. I want to throw light into the darkness, too, but I don't know where to begin. Years ago I picked "climate change" as the worst threat and "farmer" as the intersection between my joy and the world's needs. I didn't consider justice work or social work because I thought I would hate an office job. Now I'm not so sure. Farming sustainably is important, but is it as important as labor reform, or animal rights activism, or drug rehabilitation? There is so much work to do, and I have the time and privilege to do almost any of it. So, I'm officially taking advice. Feel free to email me.

But on this I do not waver: the work must be done, can be done, and will be done. Despite everything.

— - — - — - — - — - —

Footnotes and Sources

[1]
Adults courageously screaming at buses full of children
Most Americans support sheltering kids instead of rushing to deport them

[2]
July 24th: bombing of UN school deliberate
Ceasefire holding as of publish date

[3]
CNN's summary of the known facts
AIDS researchers on board

[4]
New York Times article on Hobby Lobby and corporate personhood

[5]
Boston Globe article about the ruling
Massachusetts responds with a new law

[6]
The irony of the Court's decision

[7]
Edward Goldsmith on Famine
Thomas Keneally on Famine

[8]
New York Times on the catalysis of epidemics

[9]
Polaris Project factsheet about labor trafficking in US Agriculture
NESRI factsheet about "legal failure and corporate complicity" in modern-day agricultural slavery
Salon article about the ubiquity of sweatshops in garment manufacture

[10]
Cornell article about the inefficiency of grain-fed meat

[11]
The Nation article about the Congressional investigation that found US payments "fuel warlordism, extortion, and corruption."

[12]
The events of March 4th catalyzed a campus-wide reflection. Here are responses by Paris, Dara, Margaret, Chinwe, Ida and Simba. The Oberlin History Lessons Project is shared by Andres here.

[13]
I think it's important when reflecting on the state of the world to recognize my position in it, and the ways in which systems of injustice advantage me personally. I became aware of them at Oberlin and the knowledge will go with me, reminding me to fight harder.

Racism is so pervasive that I don't know all the ways in which it has advantaged me, and it's impossible to figure it out: race and poverty are inextricably linked due to discrimination. Here is one example. If I were black, traffic stops would be between 1.8 and 3.4 times more likely to end in my arrest and 2.1 and 5 times more likely to involve the use of force, even though I would not be more likely to be carrying contraband.

Classism is not just wealth — it's heartbreakingly obvious that rich people (and I am one, although I didn't know it growing up) have better opportunities and higher standards of living than the poor — but also the pernicious idea that poverty is a failing of will, effort, or ability. I never knew that I believed it too. It's not like my parents raised me to be classist. We rarely talked about wealth; we volunteered to feed the hungry; we pay school fees for a girl in Guatemala, Diana, through a wonderful organization called Common Hope. But I believed that success is a product of hard work and ability, that that's all it takes. So I believed its darker corollary. Now I know better.

Sexism is trickier due to personal circumstances, but it must be mentioned, since it directly disadvantages 50% of the world's population (and, like classism and racism, indirectly disadvantages even the powerful, by depriving us all of the great things that underprivileged folks could have been doing if not repeatedly smacked down). I am aware of sexism in the world at large and in my own beloved field in ways that would have shocked pre-Oberlin me.

[14]
Perhaps the greatest advantage: to be living in the brief golden era of the fossil fuel industry, before climate change floods my hometown, causes worse famine than ever seen before, and wreaks general havoc.

[15]
This incisive piece by Derrick Jensen maintains that living the simple life is not a sufficient substitute for political action. I highly recommend it.

[16]
Halliburton manager ordered Deepwater evidence destroyed
GM concealed ignition defect, killing 12
It turns out to be really difficult to Google uncovered corporate lies if you don't already know the companies involved. These are just a couple I remember hearing about at the time.

[17]
Gloria Steinem: an in-depth article on Ms. magazine and Tess on Steinem's visit to campus
Ishmael Beah: Leslie Braat on a talk given Ishmael and his mentor Dan Chaon in NYC
Wendell Berry: a biography and my favorite of his poems
Toni Morrison: Yitka on Morrison's 2009 convocation and Chinwe on her 2012 visit
Janet Mock: her official website
Philip Rutter: Badgersett's website

[18]
Oberlin Transparency Project
Recent campaign to prevent OSCAns and people with smaller meal plans from suffering a reduction in financial aid

[19]
Summer feeding program first in nation

[20]
Some of them are working undercover or on direct action; those brave workers I definitely cannot name.

You can find more blogs about activism here and more about post-Oberlin life here. As well as the posts about March 4th linked above, some of the many excellent posts that may be of interest include: Ma'ayan's post about the visit of another luminary (not to Oberlin, alas, but not at all far away); Ida's reflections on her activism journey here and here; sounds of protest by Ali; and posts from five years out by Yitka '09 and Alice '09, both of whom are doing cool things.


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{ Responses To This Entry }

Holy smokes, Griff. This is intensely amazing - and I dig the heck out of the hefty footnoting. Reading this post made me feel, for a few minutes, exactly as if I was back in Oberlin again. Mad; uncomfortable; both itching to start a fight with the world and to sit right down on my little butt and examine my life and choices real thoroughly.

Every day that your life overlaps with mine, I count my lucky stars.

Posted by: Ida on August 7, 2014 7:33 PM


Don't worry about climate change (formerly called Anthropogenic Global Warming). The real culprit is not CO2 but water vapor. This is not included in the models (all of which are wrong) because it's too hard to model. A paper that I recently wrote was rejected by a "learned" society because their official position was AGW was settled science. It's not. After 50 years being a member, I resigned after writing them a nasty letter calling into question whether they were scientists or devotees of a new religion.
I'd be willing to discuss this with you at our leisure in greater detail. Just consider the differences between living in the Medieval Warm Period (800 to 1300) and the Little Ice Age (1300 to 1860).

Love,
Papa

Posted by: Robert Radulski on August 8, 2014 8:15 AM


Griff, personally I could always picture you working a farm of some kind. I am not sure I could operate on conviction alone, though that can be strong and motivating. In the daily grind, I think you need something beautiful and rewarding as well, something that comes easily and frequently enough and meets your natural passions. So I agree, I find it very hard to picture you in an office job. Don't you need animals? You need animals!
Also, I love that you mentioned Wendell Berry. I have always thought of Wendell Berry in conjunction with you. A crazy thought came to me, can't you meet him? Or correspond with him, ask him the very question you posted, see what he says, if anything? Just a thought!

Posted by: Muriel on August 8, 2014 11:09 AM


My dear friend,
I am beyond thankful for you and your courageous heart and the deep and abiding love you have for all beings on this planet.
The program that I am doing is through the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, TN (www.scarrittbennett.org). It is an intentional living community of female-identifying people who feel led to do volunteer work for a year with a faith-based and sustainability focus. I am working with an area nonprofit called Plant the Seed (planttheseed.org), which does experiential environmental education through gardens at schools and other community spaces.
Lastly. You are a peacemaker. From how you handle yourself to your friends to your community and your people (whoever they may be!), you bring peace.
You bring the light, you are a candle.

Posted by: Anita Peebles on August 8, 2014 1:16 PM


Wonderful article, Griff. I don't believe you should settle for something that will make you unhappy and dispassionate, for clearly your passion is strong right now. Do something that will keep the fire lit - and if an office job will dim that fire, I don't suggest it. We need more bright, fiery souls doing what brings them the greatest joy they can get out of their work. Fulfilling work must serve both your passion for justice and your passion itself.

Posted by: EKM on August 8, 2014 6:20 PM


Most important pick something to focus on, stick with it, and run with it. Then the whole world will open up to you. Probably the best thing about maintaining an agriculture backdrop is that one stays grounded, always a good thing. It is possible to do more than one thing at once too.

Whatever your heart says is what you will do. Trust it.

Posted by: Woody Plaut '71 on August 8, 2014 8:12 PM


Wow, everybody, thank you so much for all your kind and thoughtful comments! For those of y'all concerned about my office job curiosity, I should clarify: My consideration of an office job isn't some noble sacrificial impulse, but a new realization that I can have an office job and also live a life consistent with my stringent personal conduct code. I've been on the Cape for a couple of weeks now and it's the first time in a long time - probably since high school - that my job (especially full-time student) hasn't defined nearly everything about my life. I'm working about 30 hours a week and I have plenty of time and energy to spend on other things - things that now include mostly cooking and writing, but could theoretically include milking, woodworking, and canning. The biggest sticking point would be the commute from any land cheap enough to live on to any town large enough to employ me.

Ida: I wonder if our stars overlap, too? I count mine when I get to read your insights! What a joy it is to share the world with you!

Papa: Let's. I remember reading about the postulated role of water vapor in climate change in Cows Save the Planet; Schwartz interviewed Michal Kravcik and Juraj Kohutiar, who contend that the loss of water from the continents is as important to the change in climate as CO2. And NASA certainly acknowledges the importance of water vapor feedback.

Muriel: You are so right; I definitely do need animals! I got to shake Wendell Berry's hand after he spoke at Oberlin. He is a great man and a great hero. But he and Wes Jackson, who spoke with him, don't have the same understanding that Obies do of social justice. The Q & A after their convocation was somewhat disheartening, because something kept getting lost in translation. So I'm not sure he would be the one to answer my questions, although I so admire his work.

Anita: Thank you for sharing your work with us! And thank you for your kind words. You are such an inspiration to me (I mean, obviously. I said so right up there). You bring such love wherever you go!

EKM: That is excellent advice. Don't worry, I will be sure to do something that keeps me burning. I just don't know what yet.

Woody: That is excellent advice, too, and especially useful right now as I flap around like a stuck hen. Thank you.

Posted by: Griff on August 10, 2014 8:47 PM



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