Student activism is an inherent part of Penn’s culture and history. In fact, tactful disruption, combined with administrative allyship, led to the creation of Penn's Cultural Resource Centers. Even during the height of the pandemic, students took to the streets in their local communities to protest against police brutality and systemic injustice.
However, upon their return to on-campus life, students lost much of this momentum. The institutional knowledge necessary for student leaders to effectively advocate for themselves has been absent. On top of all that, many students suffer from burnout and poor mental health that largely stems from Penn’s intense productivity-driven culture.
More recently, some of this student activist energy has begun to resurface. With this increase in loud, outspoken advocacy, student protestors need more formal training and to be more welcoming to people who might be able to support their causes.
My first protest at Penn was held in solidarity with Ukraine. But, to be frank, I feel that it was stunted by the organizers’ lack of cohesion and preparation. The organizers of the protest were not on the same page about the chant. Even more importantly, the chants were in Ukrainian, and they had not let the protestors know what the terms meant before having us say them out loud. These terms should not have been given to us without further information.
Also, the organizers appeared to have not tested out their sound system before, so many protestors could not hear activists, students, and scholars at all as they were giving their speeches. The organizing team did their best, and they meant well; however, they also distracted us from the protest itself due to a lack of experience.
The next protest was at last year's Convocation, when the UC Townhomes Coalition interrupted the Penn President Liz Magill's address. Few people know this, but most of the planning happened at the last minute and only because a couple people stepped in.
Before their intervention, the posters were not prepared, the chant was not written, and the protesters were not gathered. Although this protest ended up being incredibly impactful, it was also primarily driven by a couple of students and alumni, without whom nothing substantial would ever have occurred.
I attended the protest and kept tabs on their planning as an active observer, not as a protestor. So, as my peers shouted or darted back and forth handing out Disorientation Guide flyers, I was around to answer questions. Freshmen were very curious about the protest and the Guide. The fact that no event was hosted for these students to discuss the articles was a huge missed opportunity that few people appeared to recognize.
The breaking point was when a crowd of student organizers flooded the field at half-time during the 2022 Homecoming weekend football game. I recall some alumni turning to me — not angrily, but out of confusion. “What is going on?” they asked. “Why are they protesting?” I looked around and realized that there was not a single flyer, infographic, or activist in the vicinity to educate people on why the event was being interrupted by students protesting for three separate causes: saving the UC Townhomes, divesting from fossil fuels, and investing in PILOTs.
I answered their questions on each cause to the extent of my knowledge. I did the same later when I went to check on the students who were arrested and University administrators refused to respond when people asked what was happening. One of the alumni responses I experienced was instant support, which might come as a surprise since much of the reports on the event only reference the alumni who became verbally aggressive.
Representatives from Fossil Free Penn told reporters that they wished to pressure and get the attention of wealthy alumni. But I want to invite student organizers to ponder more deeply about whether they might have lost as many potential supporters as they eventually gained.
While it might be tempting to become defensive, I want to remind everyone that this column is not an attack. No matter what University press releases say, the disruptions fortunate enough to be touched by the more seasoned, tactful organizers have caused much positive change at the administrative level. It is, however, a criticism. Movements throughout history have fallen because of a lack of tact in their approach and of clarity in their messaging.
Passion and noise is not enough. Thorough honesty in messaging is important. Appreciating nuance is vital.
As activists, we must show accountability. If we are going to cause a disruption, we must also be prepared to follow it up with a healthy form of reconstruction and growth. Any other approach leads to an outcome that is as toxic as the systems you are trying to fight.
I theorize that none of these missteps I have described came from places of malice. Instead, they stem from an overall lack of formal training. This may be a hard pill to swallow, but Penn student organizers need to be trained. While drive and enthusiasm are necessary for any social movement, these traits are not enough on their own.
In general, every activist needs to have certain skills to effectively organize and advocate to varied audiences with similarly varied levels of understanding. Based on the close observations I have made, I believe that there are many gaps. Student activist groups must become more open to building new relationships for these gaps to be filled.
By investing in training for fellow students, more seasoned organizers — like some of those connected with the UC Townhomes coalition and Fossil Free Penn — can help such groups build the knowledge they need to create real change. Activists with more experience should also offer their fellow activists the facts they need to make informed decisions about their participation in potentially incriminating actions before encouraging them to commit to said actions.
Student activists could also turn to community leaders and faculty members, many of whom already have decades of training and experience. The bottom line is that something needs to be done. There needs to be open workshops and welcoming discussions. There must be a greater focus on education and building community. And our peers must be willing to own up to their previous shortcomings.
TIMETHIUS J. TERRELL is a rising College senior from middle Georgia studying psychology. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.