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Students create social movements working group

It’s a Tuesday night a few minutes before 9:30 p.m. and Bradley Rydholm’17 and Sarah Tweedale are waiting outside the door of a house a block off campus on Chapin Street, books tucked under their arms.

After a knock, Kendra Schiffman opens the door, and the visitors make themselves at home on chairs and couches in the living room. Schiffman sits at her desk, surrounded by tall bookshelves and piles of children’s books. The small talk quickly turns into an engaged discussion about whiteness and inclusivity on campus. Macy Tran’17 and Sam Yim’19 arrive, adding their voices to the conversation, which transitions into an analysis of the connections between the Black Lives Matter movement to the Civil Rights movement. Because of the informal nature of the group, discussion can get sidetracked, like brainstorming a list of Black Lives Matter documentaries, but Schiffman is not concerned about keeping such a strict timeline — and the group tries to bring the historical context to current news.

Schiffman, a Teaching Fellow in Sociology, was not able to teach her Social Movements class this semester — but students still wanted to study the topic somehow, so she opened up her house for these informal meetings every other Tuesday night from 9:30 to 11 p.m.

Tran was “really bummed out” when she found out the course wouldn’t be taught, so she and another interested student, Nicole Fredericks’17, reached out to Schiffman asking if they could meet with her informally to learn about the topic. Except for this year, she has taught the course every year — at Beloit College and Albion College — since 2011.

“Coincidentally, I had already been thinking about doing an informal group because I really missed teaching the class this year, especially when so many people have been moved to engage in protest actions against police brutality and since the presidential election,” Schiffman said. “However, many students tell me they don’t know the history of protest in the U.S. or haven’t learned about how social movements organize and sustain themselves. So it was an exciting possibility to be able to explore that material with students who really want to learn about it. Then Macy asked if other students were interested and we went from there.”

Image by Beloit College

A core group of about six students commit to coming every time, while about 15 students come less often. Most participants are already involved in or passionate about social justice work. Instead of lecturing, the discussion meanders casually. While Schiffman contributes her huge wealth of knowledge, she makes a lot of space for students to add their own perspective. There are no tests, and the readings are referenced more in passing.

Schiffman calls it a social movements working group. “It’s not for credit, so it’s simply a group that wants to learn together for the sake of learning. I wish I could create this dynamic in every class I teach,” she said. “So when the foundation of the group is simply everyone’s desire to learn more, it creates an incredibly collaborative and engaging dynamic. So even though we meet at 9:30 at night (to fit in with people’s schedules), and we’re tired, I’m completely energized by our discussions.”

Tweedale, who serves as Sustained Dialogue Coordinator, describes the vibe as “casual, but the energy and interest from the people in the room is really engaging.” Tran thinks of it as almost a book club discussion. While the meetings are based off of the original syllabus, the group collectively decides what readings to include for next week. Tran sends out an email with the readings and encourages others to share relevant resources. The group is currently discussing connections between the Black Lives Matter movement and Civil Rights movement.

Yim enjoys how laid-back the group is. “When Kendra [Schiffman] speaks, I feel like I’m catching up with an old (and very wise) friend,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve ever volunteered for more homework without receiving some kind of formal credit for it, but I’m glad I have a spot in the room.”

Tweedale, who studied Sociology as an undergrad, is also excited to be part of the course, with her passion for inclusivity and social justice. “Most people don’t know that in addition to my Beloit College life, I am a full-time graduate student in an Organizational Leadership program through Concordia University. I am writing my thesis on building investment in identity-based social movements, so this group could not have come up at a better time to give me some accountability to get writing as well as a lot more material to add to my body of research,” she said.

Studying social movements is a personal passion for Schiffman. “One of my main areas of specialization within political sociology is social movements,” she said. Her dissertation, written at Northwestern University, “examines how political institutions affect social movements’ ability to bring about the change they want,” she described. “The reason I decided to study social movements in graduate school is because I wanted to understand how to bring about systemic change,” she said. She also came across a lot of sociological empirical data connecting “how the social world works were from social movement scholars” while an undergraduate.

“I think the fact that there’s a group that includes students, staff, and faculty that are voluntarily getting together outside of class and work time says a lot about the depth of interest in learning how to bring about social change on campus — that has also been reflected in the participation in other efforts on campus, such as SIC meetings and the #GetWoke series,” she said.

Tran calls it a “beautiful thing,” to see students willing to do extra reading “just because we all care. It makes my heart feel warm and full.”

She hopes the experience can help her bolster her own community organizing work. “I want to learn from movements in the past in order to apply that to our current context. … I want to come out with the tangible tools for not just organizing, but sustaining movements,” she said.

As the clock reaches 11 p.m., the conversation has reached its stride — Tran is hastily scribbling notes, grinning to herself in a rapid fire discussion about the role of churches in the Civil Rights Movement. Rydholm starts talking about the unique organization of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, and the non-hierarchical culture at the Standing Rock Sioux resistance camp against the Dakota Access Pipeline, where he and other Beloit students spent fall and Thanksgiving break. While some participants have slouched into the couch cushions, there is an underlying urgency of the importance of the material.

Schiffman is excited to see this group emerge, especially considering the current political situation. “There are more and more people willing to do something to bring about systemic change, but many don’t necessarily have the organizing experience or know how, and it’s more difficult when you’re not in a position of power,” she said. “What we learn from protest actions and social movements from the past (including the very recent past), is that ordinary people who may not hold a lot of individual power have brought about significant change through organizing sustained collective action with others. So for those who hope to understand how to bring about change, it’s important to learn about what others have done (or are doing) to inform what we do now and in the future.”

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