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  • Writer's pictureCole Cahill

Searching for the Activist Ivy

Does Columbia’s political scene today live up to our reputation?

By Cole Cahill

It’s a sunny afternoon on College Walk in 2003; the birds are chirping, Lerner Hall still has that new building smell, and the post-9/11 student body at Columbia has politics on the brain. Abram Handler, CC ’07, broke down a typical scene in a Spectator op-ed: Near the sundial is the Spartacus Youth Club, “a wacky clan of socialists who proudly assert to be the party of the Russian Revolution.” Members of the International Socialist Organization distribute pamphlets in Lerner. Lining the brick path of College Walk, protesters call for revolutionary Black liberation and “the defense of North Korea against the tyranny of the United States.”

This is certainly not a Columbia that I’ve ever seen. Compared to this depiction, today’s College Walk seems downright conservative. I keep my eyes peeled for campus uproar, protests, and direct actions, but with the major exception of the Student Workers of Columbia strike last fall, in-your-face political work is a rare sight at this University. Student groups promoting any political cause, let alone groups promoting the violent overthrow of the American state, are few and far between.

The deterioration of radical political activity here is indeed a relatively recent phenomenon. In the decades after the 1968 uprisings, Columbia sustained active chapters of radical student groups—organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, and Lucha, a radical Latinx student organization, all had active membership through the 2000s. The University’s radical reputation gained national traction, too: In 2006, after student protesters rushed the Roone Arledge Auditorium stage during a speech by the Minutemen, a vigilante border patrol group, Bill O’Reilly invited the president of Columbia College Republicans to debate the editor of this magazine on The O’Reilly Factor. O’Reilly called Columbia the “University of Havana North,” and the leading light of the "left-wing jihad.”

This characterization was generous, to say the least, but it aligned with a politically radical public identity for Columbia ubiquitous in the post-9/11 years. The “activist Ivy” image persists today in Columbia’s and Barnard’s branding—a student I spoke to recalled their tour guide telling them to expect a protest, a counter-protest, and a counter-counter-protest on any given afternoon—but the political climate on campus today is decidedly out of step with that claim. Perhaps more strikingly, the supposed Gen-Z vanguard leading the new era of radical left-wing politics is largely invisible. These are the students who were in high school for Trump’s election, who organized March for Our Lives walkouts; students whose earliest years of legal adulthood were marked by a global pandemic, a national uprising for Black liberation, and an attempted right-wing coup-d’etat of the federal government. December’s Harvard Youth Poll found 33% of Americans ages 18 to 29 considered themselves politically engaged, up from just 24% in 2009. Why, then, is College Walk so quiet? Is the politically engaged, radically bent version of Columbia dead in the water? Have Columbia’s radicals been absorbed by the institutions of neoliberalism?

Left-leaning political organizations at Columbia fit into two broad genres, each characterized by their proximity to institutional politics. In one camp are direct action–based organizations like Student Worker Solidarity and Housing Equity Project. While the days of radical flyering on Low Steps are largely behind us, these groups fill the void once dominated by the International Socialist Organization and Students for a Democratic Society. A flurry of direct action and mutual aid organizations, including Mobilized African Diaspora and Students Helping Students, surged in membership and support during the 2020 uprisings and the subsequent remote academic year, but are effectively dormant today.

Illustration by Hart Hallos

In the other category are the longstanding groups which tend to work within established political structures and institutions: the Columbia University College Democrats, the Roosevelt Institute, and the Columbia Political Union. These groups intend to be big tents; Roosevelt and CPU both identify as “nonpartisan,” and CU Dems describes itself as “a space for all people with left-leaning ideas.” It’s not impossible for talk of revolution or disavowals of the status quo to surface in these organizations, but they are each essentially committed to working with the powers that be.

There’s no official or unofficial census for campus club membership, but the most prominent explicitly political student organization at Columbia appears to be the Columbia University College Democrats. CU Dems, as it is colloquially known, is not a radical organization. At their weekly general body meetings, 15 to 25 members meet in a cinderblock-clad room in Lerner Hall to watch a peer-led presentation on an issue of national political concern—taxes, student debt, interest groups, to name a few—before opening the floor to discussion. The conversations are relentlessly lively; hands shoot up after the conclusion of every comment, and the moderator often assigns a batting order of speakers once the discourse gets going.

“In good news, the IRS just got a 6% increase in funding in the Omnibus spending bill, so hopefully, gradually, we will be able to keep people more accountable,” the discussion leader declared at a meeting on taxes in late March. The floor opened into a series of takes about how the federal government can raise taxes on the wealthy—some suggested closing loopholes, others emphasized reforming and funding the IRS. Before long, the congressional elephant in the room materialized: The moderator mentioned that the Senate shot down a proposal for a billionaire tax, only applicable to the nation’s 700 wealthiest people, within a day of its introduction.

“Tax the Rich, as much as it’s a nice slogan, is probably not in the foreseeable future,” a member said.

Of course, any discussion predicated upon changing America through institutional levers in 2022 is bound to run into the problem of congressional gridlock. Even with Democrats gaining control of Congress and the presidency in 2020, the progressive agenda remains at a standstill—recall Kyrsten Sinema enthusiastically thumbing down a federal minimum wage increase and the hollowing out of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last year. After years of insistence for young people to vote, call their representatives, and march against gun violence, the unrelenting paralysis of Congress has, in part, led to the majority of young people to believe American democracy is failing. In this room, though, people remain committed to pursuing change through the levers of Congress. Members often reminisce about the New Deal and other periods when legislation managed to enact material changes; progress might be at a standstill now, but they believe that one day, with enough effort and strategy, governmental institutions can bring about the sweeping changes the nation needs.

Jacob Kimbarow, GS ’24, is in the room every week. An Air Force veteran, Kimbarow came to political engagement through leadership roles in barracks’ councils and booster clubs while in the service. He exudes a military-style cordiality, and it’s clear he has a few years on his peers in CU Dems. But in many ways, he embodies the ethos of the 2022 college Democrat: He’s adamant about the pressing need for things like student debt forgiveness and universal healthcare, and he laments the out-of-touch Democratic Party establishment for standing in the way of real progress.

“The thing that I have hope for is not for my leaders now, it’s for the leaders that we’re going to have in 10 and 15 years,” he told me. I asked him whether the current state of affairs allows for that kind of time—the climate emergency is coming in a matter of years, not decades, after all.

“That’s the Catch-22 of it all,” he said. “I know when our generation, or our group, is in charge, things are gonna be different, but I don’t know if we can get there quickly enough.”

Kimbarow sees himself as part of a rising generation of reformers that will steer the nation in the right direction—once it gains control of the reins of power.

“If I’m having a conversation with Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, I have to act as if Nancy Pelosi’s having a conversation with the future Speaker of the House. I have to say that this party belongs to me, too. I don’t like the way that it’s going, I will be invested, and I’m going to annoy you. I’m gonna irritate you until I’m in charge,” he said.

Kimbarow’s approach does not represent every member of CU Dems; others have more tepid relationships to national Democrats and national politics in general, but still place their efforts in institutional approaches. Nikita Leus-Oliva, the president of CU Dems, a former organizer for the Biden 2020 campaign, and former intern for the DNC, doesn’t consider herself a capital-D Democrat these days.

“There are a lot of things that need to happen that are destined to be blocked by the political system that we currently have, because it was meant to do that,” Leus-Oliva said. “And at the same time there has never been a time that we need these things more. I think it’s a matter of changing the system; it's hard to try to fix a system when you’re still in the system.”

Talking to Leus-Oliva, I can sense that she recognizes the difficulty of reconciling her clear-eyed awareness of the need for structural change with the futility of the federal government in practice. It’s common for politically engaged young people to recognize the Sisyphean nature of electoral politics; their disillusionment with the system grows with each campaign and organizing endeavor, but they feel obliged to continue pushing through the available means. Leus-Oliva is steadfast in her will to push onward.

“I honestly think nothing short of revolution can bring a new system,” Leus-Oliva said. “So if we’re not organizing a revolution and we are still working within the system, we need those big sorts of changes.”

This attitude is shared by numerous members of CU Dems, who see engagement with “the system” as complementing, not contradicting, their support for radical politics. They see many of the self-professed radicals as effectively inactive—talking a big game about the uselessness of political work without engaging in any real alternative. To Sarah DeSouza, the club’s president during the 2020–2021 school year, that phenomenon pervades white Columbia students who stake out radical political positions.

“These are not people who are reading the Black Panther Party’s texts,” DeSouza said.

“It just very much feels like talking points and no action. Even if you don’t want to be a part of CU Dems, there are tons of ways to be involved in New York City.”

Much like her presidential successor, these days DeSouza finds herself feeling distant from the Democratic Party, and the gulf between her belief in abolitionist politics and the party’s moderate platform has left her feeling further from traditional political engagement than at any point in her life. Nevertheless, she tempers her disillusionment with the belief that policy and legislation remain viable avenues for change—in fact, some of the few tactics on the table for college students. “With the resources that we have, that's kind of what we are allowed to do,” she said.

The organization’s own means of putting beliefs into action are primarily their two annual excursions out of Morningside Heights: a campaign trip each November, in which members canvass for Democrats in contested elections, and a spring “lobby trip,” when they take a bus to Washington, D.C. to advocate for congressional bills.

The term “lobbying” is inextricable from its real-world reputation as a technically legal form of bribery. But rather than promising campaign donations, Dems members travel to Capitol Hill to earnestly attempt to persuade members of Congress—or, more often, their staffers—to support or co-sponsor legislation. This year, participants prepared talking points for legislation like the HALT Campus Sexual Violence Act of 2021, and a bill to federally replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

While at the Capitol, the students rarely waste their time with Republican representatives who categorically oppose anything within a 10-foot pole of the Democratic policy agenda. But as they lobby Democrats, the members confront the slim odds that their bills become law: Even if they manage to convince every elected Democrat, the Senate filibuster makes even the most minor legislation require Republican approval. Objectively, the odds of their lobbying impacting legislative outcomes are slim.

But Leus-Oliva thinks that’s okay. To her, the purpose of the lobby trip is to build community and educate members about legislative advocacy—moving the needle on legislation is an added bonus.

“Some bills, like Build Back Better, are never going to pass. It doesn’t matter who talks to who about it. It doesn’t matter. It’s not going to pass,” Leus-Oliva said. One group of students, she told me, still chose to lobby for Build Back Better.

Most of the club members, including Leus-Oliva, have no illusions about their influence over the Democrats’ agenda. “We are just a College Dems club, we’re not the Democratic Party. We’re not D Trip”—the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, that is—“we’re not any of these huge organizations. We’re not Joe Biden. We don’t need to put the pressure on ourselves to pass these bills,” she said.

“I think almost everyone that I spoke to after the trip said that they left the trip feeling like they have a real community and that the Dems community has been solidified—that to me is a better metric of success than what happens with the bill itself.”

Henry Magowan, CC ’22, a co-founder of the Gravel Institute, disagrees. Magowan has focused his energies squarely away from Columbia’s campus. As part of the team that ran Mike Gravel’s 2020 far-left presidential campaign, his political efforts garnered national attention during the primaries. He and his collaborators, Henry Williams, CC ’23, and David Oks, transitioned the campaign into the Gravel Institute, which focuses on producing left-wing political educational videos, last year.

To Magowan, the CU Dems lobby trip serves to legitimize a broken political system without materially influencing legislative outcomes. He sees Democratic officials as fundamentally unresponsive to the demands of student political organizations.

“This is just how the DNC operates. They tell you that they're listening and that they care about the young Democrats of America, but they basically fool you with taking the meetings in the first place,” he said.

The lobby trip, in his view, isn’t merely ineffective—it reinforces a counterproductive and inherently regressive approach to student political action.

“I struggle to provide you examples of the insider track being successful,” he said. “And once you get your foot into the Democratic Party and its entire apparatus, it is so easy to slowly see yourself pulled to the center, pulled to the right. That’s just how these things work.”

Lula O’Donnell, BC ’22, a member of Student Worker Solidarity, expressed a similar view. “There’s a constant pull of liberalism defanging radical movements. As a student organization, I definitely think that we have so much work to do locally,” they said. “There is so much power to be built right here that I don’t really feel a need to go to Washington, because all of the power we need to make these grand changes we already have.”

This semester, O’Donnell helped lead the revival of Student Worker Solidarity, a group originally coalesced in 2012 to organize undergraduate student solidarity with labor unions at and around Columbia. The group fell inactive during remote learning and remained defunct during the graduate workers’ strike last semester. The widespread support for the strike motivated O’Donnell to help reestablish a space to organize campus unions and leftist projects, including efforts in the greater community. Recently, SWS is working to connect Columbia students with the organization United Front Against Displacement to help oppose the privatization of the Harlem River Houses and other New York City Housing Authority complexes.

The fledgling group’s meetings are small, with about a dozen loyal members descending into a Pupin classroom each Monday night. But SWS is not alone in looking to channel more direct forms of political action outside of Columbia’s gates. Housing Equity Project combines outreach to homeless residents of Morningside Heights with advocacy for housing justice in Upper Manhattan, with particular emphasis on mitigating the gentrifying impacts of Columbia’s expansion into Harlem. Rebounding after a pandemic hiatus, the organization counts around 40 active members across its outreach, shelter staffing, and advocacy initiatives.

When Sam Howe, CC ’24, transferred to Columbia from Amherst, he expected the “activist Ivy” reputation to hold water. After seeking involvement in a general leftist political group—he emailed the YDSA chapter but heard back over a month after the fact—he found the student group working on political and community-based work that most compelled him was HEP.

“I think I knew that no matter what I’m coming to a rich institution that has a vested interest in keeping its student body alienated in some sense from the community around it and from serving that community. So I had no aspiration that I was coming to a school full of people who had the energy and time and motivation to constantly work and be activists,” Howe said. “But I was also disappointed to some extent to find how many people, at least who seemed to me, had little to no interest and did not do much reflecting in terms of their position in terms of the community.”

It’s meaningful that Howe found that HEP was the home of the political work he had in mind when he arrived at Columbia—it indicates a larger trend of leftist campus politics focusing more on systems around the University rather than working to change elements of the literal undergraduate experience.

Among students active in groups like HEP and SWS, there exists a sense that the best use of their political energies is supporting the people and communities grappling with the harms of Columbia’s institutional policies, whether that means rallying students to support a picket line for higher wages or organizing against the University’s role in pricing out Harlem residents. For better or for worse, the political culture of protesting campus speakers has fallen out of favor, and large-scale movements against campus sexual violence have faded out of the limelight—Take Back the Night, which was for decades one of the largest protest events at Columbia, was not even held this year. Today, the attention of Columbia’s leftist set is increasingly turned toward the material consequences of the university they attend.

It’s hard to know whether that shift places the era of communist flyering and internal protesting behind us—after all, the YDSA tuition strike garnered thousands of signatures demanding improved undergraduate learning conditions during the 2020–21 school year—but the classic objects of progressive campus politics are decisively not drawing widespread participation. DeSouza recalled a day this semester when anti-abortion protestors demonstrated on Barnard’s campus without drawing large-scale opposition. To her, that lack of urgency signals a complacency toward forces of oppression among Columbia and Barnard students.

“I have not seen any articles about that protest. I’ve not seen any talks about that protest. The fact that it was happening outside of our front gates—it’s a typical example of [how] we are complacent in our own oppression,” DeSouza said.

The two-year anniversary of the national uprising for Black lives, with its widespread radical demands for the abolition of police forces and reimagining public safety, is approaching. The memory of that summer, when the racist violence baked into our institutions demanded uninterrupted attention, had not dissipated when Columbia’s physical community reconvened last fall. As the academic year comes to a close, the momentum of that summer and the urgency to demand a new system hasn’t produced a new 1968. But as established organizations interrogate their approaches and newer groups set out to organize the student body, perhaps this is a moment of transition for political work at Columbia.

“People here are really smart, but I think people also need to be provided with more political education that is actually geared toward action,” O’Donnell said. “We need to collectively figure out how to not let homework get in the way of meaningful political change.”


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