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Student activism on campus 20 years after the strike

First-year student and volunteer coordinator Ava Anderson working in her office with Oakland-based arts collective "Rock Paper Scissors" (RPS), an organization that promotes creativity and collaboration in local communities with sustainable resources. (Lauren Soldano)

We’ve seen the photos.  We’ve looked into their faces. The memory of our brave Mills College foremothers who fought to keep Mills a women’s college is alive and strong. But what does activism look like at Mills today?

It looks different; many of the forms it takes now can’t be captured in a frame quite the same way. Despite recent on-campus protests such as those which occurred over issues of transparency and the firing of then Dean of Students Joanna Iwata in the spring of 2007, today’s Mills activists are women whose causes range from accessible education to prison abolition, to radical feminism and all kinds of ground in between.

Thought she may not be holding up any picket signs, first year public policy major Ava Anderson spends much of her time doing activist work with Oakland-based arts collective Rock Paper Scissors (RPS). RPS is a volunteer-run organization that fosters creativity and collaboration “to strengthen local communities and encourage sustainable practices and alternative models.” The collective is home to one of the state’s largest libraries, containing more than 2,500 titles.

Anderson first got involved at RPS by coming in and writing zines as a teenager. Today, she works as Volunteer Coordinator.

“It’s my job to organize volunteers, keep track of them, make sure we have enough, train them and do different volunteer programming, like throwing volunteer appreciation parties,” Anderson said.

In addition to being a drop-in arts lab, RPS regularly hosts free or low-cost classes  on sewing, silk-screening, creative writing and many other kinds of “radical crafting.”

“Radical crafting means using art as a way to inspire change and work towards different social goals,” Anderson explained.

Some crafts are for sale, including handmade jewelry, clothes and zines.

A lifelong resident of Oakland, Anderson knew about RPS long before she got involved. She began volunteering regularly after discovering the collective closed three times in a row due to lack of volunteers.

“I went home and e-mailed them that night,” Anderson said.

As Volunteer Coordinator, she now ensures the accessibility of RPS and aids in furthering its goals.

“Activism is any kind of work that has a goal of some kind of social or political change. There’s a million different ways you can pursue those goals,” Anderson said.

Currently, RPS collective is becoming a non-profit, but within the broad range of activists at Mills, there are mixed feelings about the role of non-profits in activist work. Junior Anna Basalev-Binder, a studio arts major, is critical of their radical potential.

“Non-profits can sometimes act as mediators between the state and social movements. Receiving state funding or getting grants from organizations that might have an influence on what kind of work they do can sometimes lead to the de-radicalization of certain organizations,” said Basalev-Binder, sporting a pink shirt that read “Non-Profits Can’t Riot” underneath her paint-splattered jacket.

Basalev-Binder’s early activist career centered around feminist and queer issues but has shifted in recent years to focus on prison abolition and ending police brutality. In Massachusetts, Basalev-Binder worked with COPWATCH, an organization with many chapters across the nation that works on “policing the police.” COPWATCH members videotape otherwise unchecked police activities in an effort to prevent or expose police brutality. Much of Basalev-Binder’s scholarship stems from past and present activist work.

Junior Anna Basalev-Binder at her workspace in the Painting studio. (Lauren Soldano)

“It definitely influences what papers I write, what I choose to write about, what I choose to study,” she said. “I get the opportunity to learn a lot from other students and professors who’ve been involved in a lot of different struggles. It’s great to get to talk to people and also get to have the academic resources to understand the theory or history of things.”

Mills can indeed serve as a springboard for activist struggles. The pages of its brochure reiterate the College’s focus on social justice. Although the coed status of the undergraduate program is no longer in question, some students are beginning to question self-representation in relation to actual practices of the College, including worker rights and the partially barbed-wire gate that separates campus from the Oakland community.

A handful of students met April 6 to discuss possibilities for a group focused on such issues. Students present, including junior ethnic studies major Lina Blanco, had all been involved in the March 4 budget cut protests at UC Berkeley.

“The purpose for the meeting is to get a sense of how [potential members] feel as students who want to mobilize to defend public education. Private schools face similar struggles to any public school,” Blanco said. “What we aim to do is to bring to light contradictions that occur between the administration and the experience of students. We also hope to build real bridges between Mills and this thing we’ve abstracted as the community; we want to have Mills be less of a monolithic, private, shut-off entity.”

Blanco has been involved in the movement to defend public education at UC Berkeley by participating as a student, an ally and a supporter of workers. So far, most of her activist work has taken place outside Mills. In helping the formation of a direct action base, she hopes to raise issues from the movement at large on the Mills campus.

“I remember my first year at Mills, seeing archives of the Strike and feeling really inspired,” Blanco said. “The archiving that had been done was really exciting to me as a student who wanted to be involved in community organizing and radical social justice activist work.”

The Strike archives have helped ignite an activist flame for current students, though Mills women’s activism today may be less easy to recognize as it spans many movements of many kinds.

“I think there are certain kinds of activism that are very visible,” said first year women’s studies and ethnic studies double major Anna Specht-Fleagle, an ally of the defense of public education and a participant in the direct action base-building initiative. “I think that this idea of what activism is really alienates people from activism. To me, activism means seeing the things you want to change institutionally reflected in the interactions you have with people and in the world.”

Watch the video of Ava Anderson at her workplace filmed and edited by Lauren Soldano:

Read more related Strike articles here.