Several weeks ago I went to the third annual St. Olaf Posse Plus retreat and participated in two full days of workshops which explored the theme “us versus them” and the polarization of identity, politics, race, gender, sexuality and religion. For those who are unfamiliar with the Posse Foundation, the mission statement reads, “The Posse model works for both students and college campuses and is rooted in the belief that a small, diverse group of talented students – a posse – carefully selected and trained, can serve as a catalyst for increased individual and community development.”
St. Olaf became a Posse partner school in 2014, and since then has enrolled three “posses” in the St. Olaf student body, each consisting of around 10 students. Before we left for the retreat, it was anticipated that over 100 St. Olaf students would be in attendance, most of whom would be the guests of Posse scholars, broadening the mission to include all students who wish to discuss and connect through these topics. As students loaded onto the buses on Friday afternoon, it became evident that around half of the students who registered for the event would not be coming.
Later that same week I sat in my literature class and together with our professor we discussed the history of oppression in the United States. We began with the “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, grazed over the conquest and enslavement of the Aztecs by the Spanish, touched on Huerta and Chavez’s farmworkers movement and puzzled through Vietnam, the Black Panthers and MLK. We arrived at the present day, touching on Trump’s immigration ban, on police brutality, on stolen land, on us versus them and on the retraction of civil rights from countless persecuted groups. We all had a sense that the current presidency is but the most contemporary point in the oppressive cycle that characterizes United States history.
After about an hour, we ended up pursuing the question that seemingly plagues every left-leaning student, myself included:
“What do we do next?”
Initially, this question struck a chord with me and I nodded along with my classmates out of desperation for an answer that nobody could give. After all, not everyone has the same understanding of the current situation and certainly not everyone will feel inclined to react in the same way. My classmates and I shared this feeling that while we vehemently oppose oppression and prejudice with every ounce of our belief systems, it can often feel impossible to ensure that such beliefs equate action.
Moving forward, several action-oriented ideas were put forth. The typical “call your senator, attend a protest” avenue dominated the list of proposed solutions, salient with the attitude that civic forms of resistance are the end-all-be-all of progressive pushback. In wake of these answers and a growing aura of desperation for a brighter tomorrow, a variation emerged:
“Once we’ve checked our two civic boxes, we are powerless to the forces that be.”
Over the next couple of days I processed this conversation, and while I agreed with what was said, something about it didn’t sit right with me in the context of U.S. history and the lack of student attendance at the Posse retreat. In the wake of hundreds of years of persecuted groups strategically fighting for their rights through both civic and grassroots strategies, this attitude with which we call our representatives, attend the women’s march and then wait for things to change disregards the fact that there is always and without exception more that can be done.
What I am coming to understand is that there is an unlimited number of valid and impactful ways to resist. Not everyone will be inclined to spend an entire weekend talking about the polarization of identity, and not every woman is going to be able to strike from work or class on “The Day Without Women.” However, as we discuss these topics in class and pursue a revolutionized future, it is essential to remember that historically, resistance has always been as much about grassroots empowerment as it has been about civic resistance.
Events on campus are constantly organized and carried out to facilitate discussion and connection across varying identities and issues. Over the past several weeks, Northfield community organizers have met in town with college students and Northfield residents to develop “planes comunidades,” and “planes familiares” concerning response plans for possible Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in Northfield. Furthermore, St. Olaf and Carleton students have begun meeting weekly, coordinating with organizers and sanctuary churches in Rice County to facilitate hosting programs and walking school buses in the case that undocumented residents are deported and Northfield families are left in need of external support.
There are only so many legislators to call and protests to attend before becoming exhausted and hopeless, and it can be easy to feel powerless in the face of such overtly oppressive executive action. Moving forward, it is essential to remember that resistance stems from public pushback against the government, but also from fostering action at the roots of a community.
Avery Ellfeldt ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Denver, Colo. She majors in Spanish, communications and cultural studies.