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The ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to Boston, and most notably to our university. International Affairs students particularly seem drawn to social activism of this sort and the opportunity to participate in a nationwide protest movement has brought a new sense of excitement to campus.

I spend a great deal of time advising progressive student groups, bringing civil society actors to speak to my class and creating programs meant to engage students in civil society development, democratic processes and social entrepreneurship. I try to teach students to fight for their rights and the rights of others, to be engaged, enlightened citizens, and to realize that small efforts can lead to big results. I eat and breathe this stuff, and, frankly, I am finding myself reinvigorated by the hope that monumental changes may be around the corner.

But during the Occupy Campus walkout last week, when the student organizers asked me to speak to the crowd, I balked. I knew that some of the student activists planned to lodge their complaints directly at the administration, on the high cost of their education and lack of job opportunities. My first instinct, sadly, was self-preservation, not social change. Why? Because I wanted to avoid scrutiny lest it might affect my chances at tenure.

A friend pointed out (rightfully, I think) that the protest was for the students, not the faculty, and if I truly wanted them to learn leadership, they had to do it themselves. She noted that my gripes are not with the university, per se, but with larger systemic inequalities that affect me in similar yet different ways (an unemployed partner, for example). And so, she counseled, better to let the students know that I support their efforts, but can’t be their Noam Chomsky.

Still, the hypocrisy of my fear bothered me, no matter how much I tried to justify it. I stood at the edges of the student crowd to hear what they had to say, and later that day, I joined the crowds in Boston’s Dewey Square to listen to Cornel West, someone who hasn’t been afraid to loudly stand up for what’s right. I was happy to be with the crowd, but still felt the sting of not being fully with my students.

But suddenly I was in the midst of a group of my students who had decided to join the march through downtown. They were thrilled to be there, and it was contagious. Just marching through the streets with them was enough. Through the crowd I watched a former student (who is now one of the protest organizers in Boston) introduce himself to Cornel West, and they shared a hug. What a great moment for him! But here’s the best part of my day—that same student then made a beeline to where I stood and hugged me. He said, “I just met Cornel West! And all of this happened because of your class!”

I didn’t incite my students to protest. And I didn’t give them a message to follow. But I’ve done what I could to give them the tools to speak for themselves. I am not happy with the reason for my original cowardice, but there are times we, as faculty, are better off on the sidelines, watching what they can do. And then doing for ourselves, in our own way.

Boston, Massachusetts in the USA

Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus. She is the author of Women, Civil Society and the Geopolitics of Democratization (Routledge 2010) and the forthcoming book Democratic Governance and Social Entrepreneurship: Civic Participation and the Future of Democracy (Routledge 2012).

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