Nearly three years ago now I was admitted to Dartmouth College. It came with mixed feelings. The part of me that was groomed by the American education system was elated. Getting in was the culmination of the dream of professional life that most adults around me nursed. But by 18 there was a new consciousness blooming inside me. This one rejected the standard features of a successful life. It traded in reverence of professionals for militants. I stopped talking as much about the doctors in my family and more about the Panthers and SNCC members. Even in looking at my father’s time at Dartmouth, I privileged the stories of the anti-apartheid struggle over ragers at AD. I dreamt of taking my place in the Black Radical Tradition and struggling against all forms of oppression. How, then, could I square attending one of the oldest bulwarks of capitalism with the obligation to struggle against it?
Soon enough the answers came. Months after my admission, the campus was shut down by COVID-19. In an instant, poor, and working students faced homelessness, food insecurity, and other financial burdens. The College’s Barrier Removal Fund was depleted in short order with no sign of further aid. At the same time, Black faculty and students were exposing systemic racism on campus. Before I could even matriculate, Dartmouth’s pre-orientation illusions were peeled back before my eyes. Now more than ever I doubted what good could come of entering an institution so steeped in racism and classism. And then the Dartmouth Student Union was formed.
This collective of upperclassmen established a mutual aid fund, political education programmes, and advocacy campaigns to address the crises at Dartmouth. Their first letter articulated a radical vision for a world beyond capitalism and Dartmouth College. Soon after, I attended the DSU’s inaugural Freedom School. Our main discussion was around Robyn D.G. Kelley’s “Black Study, Black Struggle”, which called for students to use their positions within the university to sabotage its ability to serve capital. It gave me a sense of clarity and purpose in this new phase of my life. I later read a line from George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye that perfectly encapsulated our historical obligation: “Wherever I find myself on bourgeois soil, I must struggle against it.”
New Visions, Early Defeats
That summer, I threw myself into organising with the DSU, primarily on the Freedom School and the 2020 Dis-O Guide. There I met Kaya Colakoglu and Sheen Kim, who have since become my comrades to the hilt. Together, we made great pains to lay out Dartmouth’s political economy. We found that Dartmouth’s core functions were: (1) to reproduce state ideology through its academic organs, (2) to replenish the ranks of the professional-managerial class, (3) to provide support for imperialism through research and development and military recruiting, and (4) to turn a profit for the College’s stakeholders through neoliberal austerity. This is all maintained by mass exploitation, which began with slavery and genocide in the 17th century, and continues with the present-day exploitation of workers, graduate students, undergrad workers, and faculty and staff. It became clear that to mount an effective resistance, we needed to organise a mass movement that penetrated all levels of life at Dartmouth.
As we moved into the fall, interest in the DSU began to fall off. Many of the students who supported the DSU at its outset were, in my opinion, motivated by the pop-activism craze that came in reaction to the summer uprisings against the police. In this time of racial reckoning, people and institutions alike scrambled to position themselves as progressive. White students posted black squares and donated to the mutual aid fund, and in so doing eased their own consciences. Dartmouth made hollow gestures to racial justice in the form of DEI hires and the removal of racist landmarks like the weathervane. But ultimately racial justice in the fullest sense requires revolution. There can be no justice for the enslaved and colonised of the world until their wealth and political power are won back. There can be no justice for the Abenaki people until they have sovereign control over their land. Fundamentally, a world where this is achieved is inimical to Dartmouth’s interests.
And so, when the uprisings died down and race relations were no longer the topic of the evening news, many people went back to not caring. It became harder and harder to replenish the mutual aid fund. Demand letters for increased academic leniency in the face of lockdowns and a rash of student suicides fell on deaf ears. And we weren’t properly organised to force the College back to the table. In their estimation, it was safe enough to ignore us.
Kaya, Sheen, and I determined that in order to build this movement we needed: strong ideological grounding and new tactics on the ground that would force the College to recognise us. We first set about this work with the foundation of Dartmouth’s Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter. Our broad hope was to establish the YDSA as a nucleus that connected the various student organisations and their struggles on campus. Our first attempt at this were the Nakba Day protests in the spring of 2021. At the time, the struggle for Palestinian liberation was gaining international attention in ways we had never seen before. We wanted to bring the issue out of the media sphere and onto the ground at Dartmouth. We exposed Dartmouth’s ideological and financial support for Israel and hoped to launch a divestment campaign like the one against Dartmouth’s investments in South Africa. We allied with Al-Nur, the DSU, the Afro-American Society, and Graduate Women in Stem and Engineering for this. The protest and vigil brought out hundreds of community members and was the first mass action since the start of the pandemic. For many of us, it was our first experience putting on events like this. It was also our first experience with repression at Dartmouth.
Campus Safety and Security removed our chalked slogans and threatened our membership over continuing to chalk. Reactionary groups like the Dartmouth Review accused us of antisemitism (despite collaborating with Jewish Voice for Peace on our actions) and tried sicking Zionist hate groups on us. Anonymous posters on Librex called us terrorists and fantasised about running us over with bulldozers. It was psychological warfare waged by formal and informal forces of the College. They wanted to scare us into backing away from our demands and letting it fall to the wayside like so many other student campaigns at the school.
Ultimately, it did not pick up enough steam and attention from the BDS demands faded. The agenda remains open, however, and we continue to hold Palestinian liberation at the heart of our activities today. Every demonstration we’ve put on since, many of us have adorned the keffiyeh around our necks. We also are actively pursuing BDS through our union work.
One of our main theories on building a sustained movement on campus was that labour was the best vehicle for long-lasting organisation. The nature of undergrad life generally and with the D-Plan specifically makes a lot of campaigns on campus ephemeral. As we have seen with movements like the Freedom Budget, Dartmouth can combine intimidation tactics with simply “waiting it out” to crush student rebellion. We needed a way to reliably draw in students as they came in., and Dartmouth Dining Services was the prime arena.
Students in DDS generally come from the campus’s most marginalised communities. They are students who don’t have the money to pay their way through college. Their need-aid usually comes on the condition that they hold a work-study job and as a freshman, DDS is your surest route to employment. Many of us in YDSA were already DDS employees. I had to join last winter as a dishwasher to satisfy my financial aid agreement. In a regular year, we face the general dishonour of serving rich, white students with short tempers. But since COVID, we also became part of Dartmouth’s “essential” workforce. The College’s yearslong downscaling on DDS staff and agitation against SEIU 560 left DDS infrastructure wholly unready to take on the demands of the pandemic. In my first year, the Class of ’53 Commons and Novack Café were the most reliable sources of food on campus. Additionally, Novack was one of the only common spaces where students could gather. This led to a serious demand increase that left student employees overworked and overexposed to COVID-19 with insufficient pay.
This had the effect of sharpening our class and racial consciousness, which was promoted further by agitation from the YDSA and the newly reactivated Dartmouth Radical. We were also in contact with comrades from Kenyon College, who were among the first wave of the undergrad labour movement. By the time tensions reached their breaking point in October of 2021, we were poised to seize the moment and steer it towards the creation of the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth.
The ensuing terms have proven our theory correct. The SWCD’s campaign has yielded the most tangible concession from the College in my time here. Sick pay and a 150% raise became a reality mere days after we went public in January. What’s more, it connected us to the SEIU, Upper Valley labour organisers, and the national student labour struggle. These have been heady times for us, where it seems we finally broke ground after slow years of building.
Now, we must make these gains permanent. The SWCD is undergoing contract negotiation and union building. At the same time, Black student organisations have formed the first Black Student Congress and are on the move. Lenin once said, “there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” This doesn’t mean that great changes simply fall into our laps. Ultimately, we are still agents of history and cannot leave developments up to spontaneity. What it does mean is that there are opportunities for decades to happen, and they will only come if we can seize the time.
I’m somehow already approaching the twilight of my time at Dartmouth, with just four terms to go. Each minute will be spent pursuing the commitments I made coming in. Soon, though, it will be in the hands of the new generation. Already we have seen stunning leadership from the class of 2025 in the union. And for all the 26's reading, I invite you, as upperclassmen once invited me, to fight for a better world.
The Dartmouth Radical