Like many Columbia students, George Joseph, CC ’16, isn’t sure where he will be in 40 years. But he is sure about one thing.
“If the world still exists, I will be very happy,” the sociology major says as we chat in a sparsely-populated Butler Café one afternoon. “That’s a point of fighting to make things better, because we don’t really have a choice if we want to continue existing.”
For Joseph, “fighting” means a curious mix of activism and journalism, two activities that he is perhaps most well-known for at Columbia.
Within months of his arrival on campus, Joseph was marching with groups supporting Barnard workers during union contract negotiations, better treatment of delivery workers at local restaurants, and higher wages at Faculty House. He once yelled at Scott Wright, VP for Campus Services, during Student-Worker Solidarity’s campaign to remove sweltering pizza ovens from the John Jay dining hall.
Joseph said he moved toward journalism in recent semesters after growing tired of the politics of activism. His byline has appeared in campus publications (the Spectator and the Lion) as well as The Nation and The Guardian, mostly on issues surrounding education, labor rights, and sexual assault.
“I definitely acknowledge that my writing is for a purpose and fits within an ideological framework,” he says. “But I would argue that there’s no writing that’s not like that, and in acknowledging what [writers] are doing, we’re actually being more truthful and honest about our task.”
Activism and journalism have a “symbiotic relationship,” Joseph says—protesters give reporters something to write about, while reporters uncover facts and scandals that inform protesters. “Both should ultimately be about a struggle to express truth,” he said.
To that end, Joseph says that most of his work is fact-based. “Deploying facts in a skillful manner is one of the strongest punches you can land,” he says. “If you have the facts, you don’t need the relish or embellishment.”
Still, Joseph’s many punches—whether delivered as an activist or a writer—have led to a fraught relationship with members of the Columbia administration. When Joseph approached University President Lee Bollinger last October during a Prison Divest protest, he said that Bollinger immediately said to him, “I know who you are.”
Then there’s Joseph’s more personal side: he’s a resident of Potluck House (his favorite spot on campus), a regular at Butler Café (his second-favorite spot on campus), and a customer of Melvin & Pat’s Barber Shop on Amsterdam and 110th Street.
Before arriving at Columbia, Joseph thought the school would be a “cool lefty place to come to.” He grew up in Denton, Texas, a college town just northwest of Dallas—where, he says, he experienced firsthand the racism of the south. That, combined with his family’s conservative Catholic background, “forced me to be critical about things growing up,” Joseph says.
After graduating, Joseph says he wants to continue writing and see where it takes him. He observes that other George Josephs tend to come before him in Google results: one, the founder of Mercury Insurance Group, has a net worth of $1.6 billion according to Forbes. Another, the one Joseph was named after, edited Gandhi’s Young India newspaper during the Indian independence movement. Columbia’s Joseph says he doesn’t like to think about where he might be in a few decades.
“I think 40, 50 years from now, everyone will be fighting in a pretty painful battle. But an important one,” he says.
— Christian Zhang