Despite the notion that political activism has died out on campus, political theater surfaced on Cornell’s campus Thursday in the form of a day-long event that included a series of open forums on the Arts Quad and the placement of a man-made tree stump on Ho Plaza.
The tree stump Thursday echoed back to the one that occupied Ho Plaza in the 1960s, serving as a meeting place for the campus to debate politics and current affairs. Organizers of the event Thursday said they wanted to bring back the spirit of the era, in which the stump served as a soapbox.
“We want [the stump] to be a community institution and a community space. We would like this to last and we would like the administration and the entire Cornell community to know that [the stump] is here now, political theater is here now, political activism is here now [and] political community is here now,” August Williams-Eynon ’14, one of the organizers of the event, said.
Proposing plans to ensure that the stump remains on Ho Plaza, participants agreed that they would write a letter to the administration explaining why they placed the stump there.
Eliciting support from participants, Ashley Harrington ’13 proposed that the letter should articulate the message that removing the stump would send: “We should send a letter to the administration saying that if you move [the stump], you would be silencing us, and I’m sure you don’t want to do that. But if you do move it, we will be forced to act.”
Just before moving the stump to Ho Plaza, students, faculty and staff gathered on the Arts Quad for what organizers called the “People’s School” — an open forum for Cornellians to discuss a range of issues that concern them. Topics ranged from loneliness, language and privilege to rape culture.
Though they started with 22 participants in the morning, the discussions brought in more than a 100 participants during its peak, according to Christian Leavitt ’14, one of the organizers.
Theadora Walsh ’15, a transfer student from University of California Davis, said that the People’s School was a valuable experience.
“Cornell is very different from UC Davis. There’s a kind of pervasive sense of community at Davis where you feel free to reach out to people, whether you know them or not,” Walsh said. “Cornell has that, but it’s not as strong. I don’t know why. I love Cornell but it’s definitely a concern.”
Furthermore, Ashley Harrington ’13, one of the organizers of the People’s School, said the event addressed the concern some have expressed that there is not enough visible political activity on campus.
Reacting to the violent string of sexual assaults and hate crimes as well as an article in The Sun last month that printed professors’ concerns that there was not enough political theater on campus, Harrington said that the event was a venue for students to have conversations that will inspire them to become involved in both campus and political activism.
“One of the points of [the People’s School] is to reclaim ownership of our education, to say that activism is present on this campus and takes many forms, that there is power in student voice and that we are standing in opposition to a culture that allows sexual assaults and hate crimes, both reported and unreported, to be perpetuated,” Harrington said.
Williams-Eynon also expressed concern about the lack of political participation on campus, saying that “right now, student participation in political events is very, very low.”
“We want to empower people who don’t normally speak about issues to feel like they have a voice, and that they will be listened to if they do [speak out].”
Leavitt added that the event was in part held to create an open space where the Cornell community can be forged across differences.
“We wanted a space that is permeable regardless of how radical you see yourself … or what background you identify with,” he said.
As part of creating what they called an open, democratic space, organizers said the format of the People’s School allowed anyone who joined to be able to facilitate a discussion with the topic of their choice.
Participants said the event was informative, noting that it exposed them to discussions on topics about which they would otherwise not know about.
For instance, Walsh said she “learned a lot about the legality of Cornell University’s land grant, about how Cornell University is on Native American land. I really didn’t know the historical narrative.”
Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky ’14 echoed Walsh’s sentiments, saying that she appreciated the variety of discussions that took place.
“There was … some critical discussion about the power dynamics and issues arising from the nature of the event itself, which I really appreciated,” Jeffrey-Wilensky said. “Those who spoke, spoke beautifully — there are some extraordinary minds on this campus.”