June 3, 2019

UChicago's Small-Minded Activism

The recent dialogue about reproductive justice shows that students must learn to be activists in their broader communities.

My four years at UChicago have been full of organizing, advocacy, and activism. I’ve worked to commit myself to principles of equity and justice through my extracurricular pursuits and academic explorations. I tried to dedicate myself to fighting for change both on and beyond campus for marginalized communities and oppressed peoples. From my position as Class of 2019 College Council representative, to my work with Students for Justice in Palestine, and then my role as a founding member of UChicago United, I strove to help empower my peers and create lasting change on campus. My passion for justice expanded to include reproductive autonomy after I received Metcalf funding to be a summer intern with the local abortion fund in Philadelphia and then became a volunteer with Planned Parenthood of Illinois.

But as I learned more about the conceptual framework and history of reproductive justice, I began to realize there was little to no discussion of the topic on UChicago’s campus. The only existing organization related to reproductive rights or justice was located within the Law School and specifically about reproductive justice in law. I wanted to bring discussions of reproductive justice to the greater UChicago community, and I wanted to position the discussions within a model that emphasized the need for advocacy and action beyond our campus.

In the spring of 2017, I circulated a Google form to gauge interest in forming an organization on campus around reproductive justice, and I was pleasantly surprised that more than five people on campus even cared about the issue area. Then, in the fall of the 2017–18 school year, Project Reproductive Freedom was founded. We were officially granted RSO status in the winter of 2018, and since then we have hosted a teach-in about reproductive justice, quarterly Paint Your Orgasm study breaks, and fundraised hundreds of dollars for the Chicago Abortion Fund. Our biggest project took place this month from May 20–24: a full week of events that explored different facets of reproductive justice, uplifted the work of local Chicago organizations, and fundraised over $2,000 in support of reproductive justice.

Going into this month’s Reproductive Justice Week, the members of Project Reproductive Freedom were nervous but eager to highlight so many incredible organizations and increase our presence on campus. Given the recent attacks on abortion access and bodily autonomy throughout the United States, we felt like our week of events would provide a great opportunity for people who wanted to learn about and fight against these attacks to get introduced to our group’s work.

Then, on Tuesday, May 21, with the introduction of a College Council (CC) resolution that aimed to restrict College Council funds from paying for abortions, we witnessed an uproar on campus about abortion rights and access. Although it was clear there were some anti-abortion folks, the vast majority of those that packed Reynolds Club on Tuesday evening stood staunchly in opposition to the proposed resolution which, if passed, would have prohibited the Emergency Fund from using Student Life fees to provide money for abortions.

As the event created to rally people at the College Council meeting was shared across social media platforms, I was surprised to see hundreds of students so vocal about their outrage and expressive of their support for abortion rights and access. It was exciting to see so many people on campus rallying for something I am so passionate about, but I couldn’t help but feel confused and frustrated. Where was all this support for abortion access when we were fundraising for the Chicago Abortion Fund, which provides financial assistance for people in and traveling to Chicago for abortion care? Where has this support been around the Reproductive Health Act and repeal of the Parental Notification Act in the Illinois legislature? Who were all these people standing in the name of bodily autonomy, abortion rights, and marginalized people? It seemed to me that most of the UChicago students were primarily outraged because theirs and their peers’ access to abortion was being threatened. Abortion rights are a hot topic in the national news right now, and showing up to the CC meeting in the name of abortion rights was a sexy and on-trend way to perform progressive activism.

As someone who is genuinely committed to organizing and advocating for the reproductive rights and freedom of all people, I felt insulted by this performance. It was disappointing to see that there are so many people who support reproductive choice but just are not interested in being a part of something sustainable that would not directly implicate their own freedoms. However, as a seasoned student organizer and activist on this campus, I wasn’t surprised to see students acting simply within their own self-interest.

Time and time again my experiences on this campus have shown me just how little students here seem to really understand and value organizing. Organizing is about building power through mobilizing people and resources. Performative activism that doesn’t do anything to create change is not activism. Project Reproductive Freedom aims to build power by leveraging our position and resources as UChicago students to uplift and support local and grassroots reproductive justice organizations in Chicago. We are working to make reproductive activism accessible on campus beyond the occasional polarizing outburst.

I am hopeful that this campus’s tradition of performative, reactionary activism can change—in all my years on campus, I’ve seen a level of organizational and radical imagination that is truly inspiring. But we will never be able to embody the kind of change we endlessly theorize about in classrooms if we don’t organize beyond our own elitist, ivory-tower self-interests. To my fellow graduating fourth-years and my younger peers: Don’t forget to situate yourself in this world, in this city, and in this neighborhood. You are privileged. You have a voice. Use it for someone other than yourself.

Qudsiyyah Shariyf is a fourth-year in the College.