Think beyond the “possible”

Avi Horwitz, Staff Writer

I never intended to write for The Observer—I submitted a one-time column in December 2019 in an effort to promote the climate strike Sunrise CWRU was co-hosting with Ohio Climate Strike (now Ohio Youth for Climate Justice) in the KSL Oval. Fast forward three years, and here I am writing my 20th column and set to graduate at the end of the semester. 

If there’s one overarching message I’ve hoped to convey through my columns, it is simply that a better world is possible—and it’s ours to demand and build together. In many cases, I’ve drawn on my experiences as an organizer, primarily as a leader within Sunrise CWRU. I thought it would be fitting for my final column to call on them one last time to share some of the important things I’ve learned about advocating for change on our campus. Most are invaluable lessons given to me by more experienced organizers, and a couple I’ve picked up on my own along the way. 

The first thing to remember is that no single individual on this campus—or anywhere for that matter—has the power to create change on their own. This is a job for collective action, and the best way to take such action is by starting or joining an organization. While more is usually better, an organization doesn’t always need to have a ton of members to make a huge impact—just people who are enthusiastic and committed to doing what they can. However, starting a new organization is tough, especially when many others are already doing the work you’re interested in. Seeking out an organization that matches your interests, values and goals is always the first and best bet. 

When you start trying to engage individuals with decision-making power, you’ll probably hear them tell you to stop and instead use “proper channels” at some point. The most dangerous “proper channel” known to man is the “committee.” Why, you might ask? Well, it might seem like a win when administrators offer to set up a committee—it’s easy to get excited when someone with power finally seems to be listening to your demands. In reality, committees give administrators a way to stifle the momentum of a campaign by keeping the pressure at arm’s length until the most experienced leaders in a campaign graduate and much of the work has to begin anew. 

The first time I was advised to use “proper channels” was in February 2020 as part of my efforts relating to Sunrise CWRU’s fossil divestment campaign. I had just used the Q&A session of one of the Entrepreneurship Speaker Series events to ask CWRU’s Chief Investment Officer, Tim Milanich, some very direct questions about the university’s investments in fossil fuels. Yet, it was only after taking this action that I first felt administrators began to take the renewed calls for divestment seriously. It turns out that direct confrontation and public pressure pay dividends. 

Another example from the same campaign is President Kaler’s statement publicly committing to divestment, which was finally released in November 2021 after a year-long wait. This happened only after I had sidestepped the “proper channel”—the Undergraduate Student Government (USG)—and directly emailed the president and his chief of staff. Jon Stone, a correspondent for the Independent, sums up my point perfectly in his tweet: “One reason people insist that you use the proper channels to change things is because they have control of the proper channels and they’re confident it won’t work.” 

Some people will tell you that direct confrontation tactics will cause those you need on your side to oppose your work, regardless of its merit. But in my experience, those who claim to be repelled by more aggressive tactics are simply using this as cover when, in reality, they wouldn’t have supported you under any scenario. A fair share of the time, no amount of facts or benefits will overrule the determination to preserve the status quo. 

You can be aggressive while still being strategic and disciplined—this is where having an escalation arc comes in. An escalation arc is a key tool to use in mapping how you will carry out a campaign, including doing your own research, educating others, making demands and, eventually, winning. Keeping in mind Frederick Douglass’ refrain of power conceding nothing without demand, it’s essential to be clear-headed and aware that you are not going to simply make the perfect argument that convinces someone in authority to meet your demands. They will only take action when doing so becomes more convenient than their continued inaction, and your escalation arc should reflect this. Therefore, demand, don’t plead.  

Early on in joining the Sunrise Movement, I also learned the importance of having a vision of what you are fighting, which is the idea behind the concept of a Green New Deal (GND): a 10-year plan to combat the climate crisis on a national scale by creating jobs and facilitating a just transition for frontline communities. We often find ourselves stuck in a pattern of using our energy to oppose harmful policies. However, constant opposition can be incredibly tiring unless the possibility of a better alternative underpins it. In Sunrise CWRU, our continuous critiques of the university’s climate action plan have been combined with our vision of a GND for CWRU, a framework inspired by the federal GND resolution specific to our campus meant to show how taking necessary climate action would benefit our community. Knowing and motivating myself with what I’m fighting for has always been the biggest key to keeping me motivated when the work invariably gets overwhelming and discouraging. 

My final and most important piece of advice is never to listen if anyone, regardless of their position, tells you something that is just and necessary is “impossible.” I’ll never forget the people who said fossil fuel divestment would never happen, or the members of USG’s executive committee whose advice—ignored, of course—was to drop an ask for CWRU to transition to a 100% electric fleet from our resolution, labeling it to be too ambitious in the short term. Of course, as of today, CWRU has made commitments toward both of these. 

What’s “possible” is simply a question of whether you’ve built enough collective power at any particular moment to make your demands a reality. It’s okay to admit that you don’t have the influence to make something happen at a given point in time. However, the answer is not to give up on your demands. The path forward should always continue to build your power and come back again and again until you win.