Few of us think Boston College is perfect. A wide range of harms beg for our attention: rape culture, institutionalized racism, alcohol abuse, homophobia, the disgraceful situation for those who are handicapped, and BC’s investment in fossil fuels. These are difficult to address for many obvious reasons. They are not entirely of BC’s own making and there is disagreement about how to address them. Perhaps most importantly, substantial change at large institutions is inherently difficult. We must wrap our heads around this notion in order to make the most change during our short time here.
For students, organizing for social change is, in a word, tough. Students come and go quickly. Academics, social life, and sports keep most students extremely busy. Only a small (though growing) number of students have time for something that “could jeopardize their academic success,” as any administrator worth their salt will tell you.
Students who do fight for change often form groups that become dependent upon the institution—for money, access, and basic rights like putting up fliers and holding meetings. Those that maintain their independence are reprimanded if they “step out of line.” They are given insidious advice by (mostly) well-meaning people: “Focus on something smaller, maybe just one issue,” “Secure your place in life, then you can really change things.” Or, the terribly offensive and illogical “[Issue X] is not actually that bad because...just look at how far we’ve come!” Adding insult to injury, BC encourages critical, and sometimes even radical, thinking in class, but stifles student attempts to enact what they learn in the real world. For example, I help my students understand institutional racism, but BC’s official spokesperson says institutional racism doesn't exist at BC.
The real power holders see organizing for social change as dangerous. The board members, president, high-level administrators, and wealthy donors who control BC tend to disapprove of change, especially if it’s significant. Apart from being wealthy and influential, these people tend to be white, male-identifying, older, and heterosexual. The power holders want what they think is best—they aren’t “bad” or “evil”—but their perspective is limited by the homogenous group of powerful people around them. Life is pretty great for these people, and they typically have worked very hard to obtain their position. So, they are firmly invested in the status quo—whether on campus or in society more generally—because it’s the reality they and their similar-minded colleagues helped foster. They’ve been working toward the current status quo for more years than most students have been alive.
In short, the deck is stacked. Students are playing a game they barely understand against people who have virtually all the good cards and nearly all the chips. Students, just like the power holders, want what they see as best for the institution. What these separate parties see as best just happens to be different—very different in many cases.
Here’s the thing though. None of this should stop students (or faculty, graduate students, workers, or non-wealthy alumni) from organizing together for change. Power is always contingent. It is always dependent upon those underneath it to continue accepting their subordinate position.
When students organized and took action over investments in a morally bankrupt South Africa, power trembled and responded. When students organized over Jim Crow segregation and performed sit-ins, power quaked and answered. When students organized and protested over military madness in Vietnam, power shook and reacted. When students at BC organize collectively and insist BC respond to and address its many institutionalized injustices that we—those of us without power—face, well let me promise you, power will panic, and it will respond.
So, listen to your peers. See and understand what they are experiencing. Use what you learn in class. Most importantly, take collective action. Join Eradicate Boston College Racism, join Climate Justice, join any number of efforts with your peers fighting for what is right. Fight with love in your heart, righteous anger in your gut, and a critical mind that would make any Jesuit proud. Know that the odds are against us, but the situation is always stacked for the powerful—until it is not.
Bobby Wengronowitz, MCAS '19