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Sunday, Dec 4, 2022

A look inside Middlebury’s activist culture

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">Van Barth</a></span><br />Students marched in September after it was announced that the police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor would not be charged with her death.
Van Barth
Students marched in September after it was announced that the police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor would not be charged with her death.

Activists at Middlebury have spent the last year creating mutual aid networks, educating peers about anti-racism and fighting for a myriad of reforms both on-campus and from their homes across the country. While the pandemic limited in-person events, organizers saw their work become more urgent than ever as the effects of Covid-19 disproportionately impacted marginalized communities and exacerbated existing social inequities. 

In recent years, activism on campus has not been a rare sight. The invitation of Charles Murray, whose work the Southern Poverty Law Center says features racist pseudoscience and white nationalist ideology, sparked campus-wide protests in 2017. In spring 2019, students also prepared to protest the invitation of Ryzard Legutko, a Polish politician known for making homophobic remarks, before the college canceled the event out of a concern for “safety risks.” In October 2020, organizers used digital protest tactics during a Zoom debate titled “Was America Founded on Slavery?”, with some turning their profile pictures into a photo of the debate poster with the answer “YES.” across it.

Between these events, organizers have also pushed for reforms and created support networks at the college. When the college abruptly instructed students to leave campus in spring 2020, organizers created a mutual aid spreadsheet to connect their peers with temporary housing, rides home or to the airport, and other types of help.

The new, online learning modality coupled with the effects of the pandemic also created new challenges for students managing schoolwork, which #FairGradesMidd activists aimed to address by creating a Pass/Fail grading system. Over the summer, students participated in Black Lives Matter protests occurring across the country and organized Middlebury Cops Off Campus to dismantle policing on campus. Environmental groups have been active at Middlebury for decades, pushing the college to address climate change and divest fossil fuels from the endowment.

Middlebury students buy into activism to different degrees during their four years at the college. Over a dozen organizations at Middlebury are involved in activism and advocacy, from affinity groups to environmental organizations to community service clubs. And many students work outside of conventional organizing spaces to share resources on social media, plan or participate in events and advocate for causes of personal importance. Informal personal connections and intentional collaborative networks link these activist spaces, shaping a culture that is sometimes universal and sometimes unique to individual organizers. 

A year of online activism

Divya Gudur ’21 has been a co-manager of the Sunday Night Environmental Group (SNEG), worked with Divest Middlebury and organized with many other activist groups on campus. She said the pivot to social media has been essential this year and was a helpful tool for organizing during the pandemic.

“One of the protests we did last semester — against the event that the Hamilton Forum organized around ‘Was America founded on Slavery?’ — that whole protest was all digital organizing strategies, sharing resources on Instagram and asking people to show up to this digital space, because a lot of these conversations are now happening digitally,” Gudur said.

Charice Lawrence ’23 became involved with activism on social media in early 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and renewed national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. Throughout the year, she has fostered discussion about anti-racism, sharing information and talking with peers online. 

“On social media, it's been a lot of people wanting to have conversations, but also calling things I see out. People are obviously really well-intentioned, but the ways that some of the activism plays out is still racist,” Lawrence said. 

“When Elijah McClain was killed, everybody was like, ‘Oh my god he was so innocent, he didn’t deserve this.’ Even though it was well-intentioned, it was anti-Black rhetoric. So if someone is illegally selling cigarettes, that’s a death warrant?” she said. “Our activism can’t be conditional, and Black lives can’t matter only when they’re super innocent.”

Lawrence said that the relationships she made in her first year at Middlebury gave her a platform to speak about anti-racism among a predominately-white student body. Nevertheless, navigating race and identity in those conversations has been challenging, as she does not want her “likability” to be the only reason her peers listened to her.

“They shouldn't have to be friends with me to listen to Black people,” Lawrence said.

Arlo Fleischer ’21.5, who uses they/them pronouns, has been involved with several activist movements, including SNEG, Divest Middlebury, #FairGradesMidd, Middlebury Cops Off Campus and other groups at the college. They said social media has been a helpful tool for organizing, but has its limitations.

“I think sometimes it can come across as pretty performative, and that’s a discussion we’ve been having a lot, especially over the summer in terms of the Black Lives Matter protests when people got involved mostly by sharing Instagram stories,” Fleischer said. “Sometimes it can be hard to know what to do, but that’s when I think that, what’s really important, is taking that opportunity to be a student and continue to learn.”

Connection across movements

Students from different activist groups have also found opportunities to work together, often in opposition to an event or speaker. 

“Activism can be very visible in the Middlebury community sometimes,” Fleischer said.“I think about the way we as a community responded to the Charles Murray incidents, and Legutko being invited, and the Hamilton Forum lecture that happened earlier this year… In that sense, these are instances where the Middlebury community really comes together.” 

Connections between activist groups at the college have historically formed around informal personal contacts and friendships, but organizers have recently been working to deepen the networks that link activists to each other.

“I think sometimes it feels like activism here can be siloed, but everyone’s really trying to be more intentional about creating a more intersectional activist community on campus. I think with environmental organizing, we’ve been putting in a lot of work in working in solidarity with other organizations on campus,” Gudur said. “All activists, what they have in common, is the way they’re treated by the administration. So when we share strategies for organizing, when we share strategies for dealing with the administration, it is more successful. 

Fleischer has been working with Concerned Students of Middlebury to create an activist collective that formalizes communication across different organizations to make activism more effective and accessible. 

“When we rely on personal connections, it makes it really hard for first-years to get involved — you kind of have to know the right people. If someone graduates, those connections are just lost,” Fleischer said. “In order to continue those connections, we’re trying to hold cross-org mixers and social events to solidify these connections for years to come.”

Leif Taranta ’20.5, who uses they/them pronouns, first became involved with activism in Philadelphia during high school, and began working with SNEG, Divest Middlebury, the Trans Affinity Group and other organizations when they came to college. They organized with groups both on and off campus during their years at Middlebury and have spent the past year working for the Climate Disobedience Center and the No Coal, No Gas campaign. 

“There’s a pretty strong community around it,” Taranta said. “And also there’s a lot of people who are just exhausted and tired of doing this work, and tired of needing to do this work especially against the institution. So there were a lot of people supporting each other in that burnout and in the frustration.”

Activism beyond campus

Middlebury’s activist groups often play dual roles in on-campus and off-campus organizing, localizing nationwide movements to the college and bringing student voices to issues around Vermont and the country.

“A lot of student activism is targeted at the institution, thinking about ways to make the institution change,” Taranta said. “A lot of what I thought about was, “How do we keep that not just in a silo, how do we connect the work we’re doing on campus with the work people are doing off campus, in Vermont, or back home?”

Taranta said organizations at the college, in town and on other college campuses have shared strategies and missions that grew out of broader national issues. 

“I know Middlebury can feel like a bubble in terms of the ways that we get things done,” Fleischer said. “But also, there are a lot of real-world issues that reflect back at Middlebury. You see Cops Off Campus getting started out of the national Black Lives Matter movement, and there are Cops Off Campus movements at all these other schools across the nation. So while we’re a bubble, we’re also a thing that’s happening in a bigger movement.”

Lawrence said that being in Vermont and at an overwhelmingly liberal college makes some people blind to the ways they still contribute to racism.  

“With Middlebury, because this is such a liberal town and Vermont is seemingly very liberal, people think that there’s no possible way that they could be harming marginalized communities,” Lawrence said. “It’s like this protective shield — being in Vermont and being in a liberal place.”

Environmental activism

Environmentalism features prominently in the college’s history — and its admissions pitch — from Middlebury offering the nation’s first undergraduate environmental studies program in 1965 to student activists’ years-long and ultimately successful push for fossil fuel divestment. Gudur, Taranta and Fleischer were all involved in Divest Middlebury, and built connections with other student activists through the movement. 

“We saw Divest Middlebury as a tool towards broader organizing goals, for Middlebury as an institution to move towards justice, move towards relying on renewable energy sources in a just way,” Gudur said. “You replicate the same systems of oppression and destruction when students aren’t involved.”

Mainstream environmental groups — at Middlebury and across the country — are often overwhelmingly white spaces. Many of these organizations have worked to center their activism around environmental justice and make activist spaces more welcoming to students of color, but, as an op-ed published this year in The Campus highlighted, exclusivity is a lingering concern for many.

“It’s easier for people to use a metal straw than it is to constantly be checking themselves for prejudice, so it’s a lot about ease and comfort,” Lawrence said. “It’s also easier to be told that we all need to do this effort, that we all need to be using metal straws and recycling, than being told ‘You are the oppressor.’ They’re just very different messages.”

Fleischer said activists have been working to build solidarity across organizations and ensure that BIPOC students have a space in existing activism groups.

 “When we have conversations about whiteness in activist spaces, I think it tends to be in organizations that are commonly associated as having been white historically, so it's kind of trying to upend those dynamics to make space for BIPOC organizers. But there are already a lot of BIPOC organizers on campus, and expecting those organizers to come into white spaces isn’t necessarily the right approach,” Fleischer said. 


While often visible at Middlebury, activism at the college is not without its challenges. Resistance from the administration and other students has slowed progress and created tensions in the past.

“Middlebury really wants to have this image of supporting student activists and being really progressive and innovative, and honestly a lot of what that looks like is taking credit for a lot of student activists’ work while actually making student activism really hard to do,” Taranta said. 

In spring 2020, the college posted a photo to its Instagram account of a student protesting Charles Murray’s visit to Middlebury to highlight activism at the college. The student was one of 74 protesters sanctioned in the wake of the event, sparking backlash over the attempt to paint the college as supportive of activism when students were punished for their actions.

“There was a line to walk of being cordial with the administration, so that they would work with us and be willing to make a shift, but then also not wanting to sacrifice our own radicalism or our own commitment to much more transformational change than they were willing to talk about,” Taranta said. 

As an incoming SGA Vice President, Lawrence said she looks forward to having a greater platform to push for change at the college, but expects to be limited to incremental changes more than she wants.

“There are so many barriers that prevent SGA from doing more,” Lawrence said. “I’m really excited for it because we’re working on things like bringing in a more diverse staff for mental health resources, and things like that I think are incredible, and I’m so glad that we're able to do this. But there are other things that simply, we won't get approval to do if we suggest it to people in higher positions.”

Taranta also said that they had seen backlash from different groups at the college. When they advocated for changing the to-go containers in dining halls to reduce waste, some athletes strongly opposed the change. They also saw opposition from conservative members of the Economics department who pushed back against divestment, and from students involved in organizations like the Alexander Hamilton Forum and the Middlebury chapter of the American Enterprise Institute.

“There’s a very big, at least in my experience, divide on campus between students who are more on the left or — if not actively organizing for causes — supportive of them, and then really conservative, really wealthy students. They were not always very supportive, sometimes things became fairly antagonistic,” Taranta said.

Lawrence said there are structural barriers to what activism on campus can achieve. She said students work to get into Middlebury because of its elite reputation, and that reputation comes from elitism rooted in capitalism and racism. 

“I do think people are trying, but it’s hard to imagine systemic change at a place that is founded on oppression,” Lawrence said. “We can’t separate Middlebury from these issues because it’s what makes Middlebury, Middlebury.

Tony Sjodin

Tony Sjodin ’23 is a managing editor. 

He previously served as community council correspondent, senior writer, news editor and senior news editor.  

Sjodin is majoring in political science with a focus on international and comparative politics. He previously held internships with the Appalachian Mountain Club's Outdoor Magazine, political campaigns in Massachusetts and Vermont, and the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica's Environmental Hub. Outside of class, he leads kayaking and hiking trips with the Middlebury Mountain Club.