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Panel discusses advocacy, activism efforts at Notre Dame

| Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Fossil Free ND hosted a panel Tuesday in Geddes Hall titled “The State of Advocacy and Activism at Notre Dame” about challenges and resources for activism on Notre Dame’s campus. The panel, which aimed to encourage advocacy and open dialogue across campus, included members of Student Coalition for Immigrant Activism (SCIA), Irish 4 Reproductive Health (I4RH), Feminist ND, Fossil Free ND, Student Government, Native American Student Association of Notre Dame (NASAND) and Notre Dame Right to Life.

While each of the groups has had different experiences with the campus community, all expressed similar struggles with generating momentum and widespread participation. Part of that struggle, junior Adam Wiechman of Fossil Free ND said, are two forms of the “Notre Dame bubble.”

“I think that a lot of our students sometimes have the sense of living life in a bubble at Notre Dame, not necessarily being forced to grapple with some very real issues that a lot of other people just outside our University deal with,” Wiechman said. “And I think that because of that, when things like social justice issues are brought into the arena of issues at Notre Dame they have to compete with more immediate issues like a paper due the next day.”

This issue was seen, he said, in trying to get students to participate in rallies, which necessitates that students budget their time around academic commitments.

“The second form that bubble takes is cross-issue bubble-ness,” Wiechman said. “The way that works is that we have a lot of really passionate people at this university and a lot of people with issues that they care a lot about. But unfortunately, when you get really passionate about an issue here it’s very easy to just join that club, get really into that issue and then forget that so many of these things are interconnected.”

Another challenge, sophomore Anne Jarrett of I4RH said, was the frustration of having to appeal to an audience that does not “have skin in the game.” I4RH is not recognized by the administration and has not sought recognition, she said, because its mission to advocate for access to contraception and reproductive health resources often runs contrary to University beliefs.

“Things that are contrary to these identities are very difficult or become very difficult to advocate for or to fight for simply because if the privileged and prevailing culture is not interested in these issues, then they won’t really be talked about,” Jarrett said. “ … What’s most difficult for us is that because of that, activism, specifically the activism that our group is doing, is not really perceived as necessary or important.”

While Notre Dame Right to Life’s mission to uphold the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death does align with the Catholic ideals of the University, just having the support of the administration is not enough, senior Sarah Drumm said.

“I think a lot of students tend to put our club and other clubs into boxes, so most people on this campus see us as an anti-abortion club and aren’t really interested in anything that we do,” Drumm said. “But really we do events advocating for the dignity of all life in all of its stages, and that overlaps with most clubs on this campus, but people aren’t always receptive to hearing that.”

Senior Dom Acri of NASAND used NASAND’S continuous efforts to remove the Columbus murals in Main Building as an example of the difficulty behind maintaining a group’s mission through cycles of graduation, since remaining members choose to focus on other issues.

“When it comes to students and whether they identify with the group that they’re getting behind or identify as allies with, the biggest barrier is the lukewarm effort that happens through cycles of different advocacy campaigns,” Acri said. “Without the University’s support for a lot of the things that students on this campus are advocating for that I’ve seen in the last year, it’s really hard for us to organize.”

Many of the panelists agreed it could be difficult to work through the Student Activities Office (SAO) because it is understaffed and can be extremely inefficient. While Fossil Free ND has instead turned to Campus Safety to approve of their demonstrations, Wiechman said no one seems to know exactly what the rules or consequences of disobeying them are, and senior Emily Garrett said Feminist ND has all but dissolved due to the administration’s restrictions on their efforts.

“The SAO rules were something we were very, very aware of because the kind of intersectional feminism that we wanted to bring to campus may not always align with the Catholic mission,” Garrett said. “So something that we found to be a very fine line with SAO is this idea of awareness rather than advocacy. The administration and SAO tends to be very open to awareness events, not necessarily advocacy events, and honestly, because of that, Feminist ND hasn’t done a whole lot.” 

Part of the issue is the administration’s comfort with the status quo and unwillingness to act unless the issue at hand brings public scrutiny upon the University, Drumm said. Senior Carolyn Yvellez of Fossil Free ND — who hosted the panel — pointed to the “4 to 5” movement of a few years ago that incorporated student activism and public pressure to make Notre Dame’s campus more welcoming to LGBT students. Jarrett, along with junior Gargi Purohit of SCIA, said vocal, educated students are key to any advocacy effort on campus.

“One thing I think that people should keep in mind is trying to go to events like this — try to go to events where people are trying to educate you on a certain topic,” Purohit said. “ … Those are very critical parts of advocacy. Just remember that these issues are always ongoing.”

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