A community’s charge and dream for climate change recognition and reconciliation was realized when more than 150 activists united along Seneca Lake for the Geneva Climate March on Sept. 27.
In particular, three professors at the Colleges who are affiliated with the Geneva Women’s Assembly were instrumental in coordinating the march.
In this article, the Herald connects with them and reflects upon the political spectacle and their collective struggle to attain climate justice in Geneva, explores the essence of political activism, candidly addresses concerns of student apathy on campus and explains what this civil action means for the future of the Colleges.
Last year, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Ricky Price was invited to join the Geneva Women’s Assembly alongside his peers and acknowledged that social justice activism is a crucial component to his scholarship.
However, he admits that it is easier said than done within his profession as a scholar in higher education.
“Generally, in academia you’re punished quite heavily if you’re involved in the things that you talk about. There’s an idea that you lose objectivity. I come from a different training and different school of thought,” Professor Price says.
From his perspective as a policy scholar, Price explores the ways in which institutions shape lives, particularly from a focus on the LGBTQ community and HIV/AIDS research.
Despite suffering backlash from the academic community by participating in action, Price’s passion for social justice transcends his occupation for the sake of his sanity and well-being.
“It’s difficult in those arenas to preach the politics but not participate in the politics, just morally and ethically. It’s not good for my job, not good for my job prospects, but it’s good for my soul,” he says.
For Price, this participation included the climate march, which was organized with merely two weeks of planning. Price mentions that the GWA “gets things done in short periods of time.”
“The capacity to do actions is every strong because they built a strong network of people who can volunteer and help and they know how to delineate tasks without being directed by one person,” he states.
After one brainstorming session it was clear to organizers that connecting the global to the local and individual to community were crucial components in creating a successful climate change coalition in Geneva amid the week of global climate strikes.
The half-mile parade route was designed to spotlight past environmental transgressions, including the former Geneva Foundry and Marsh Creek spill site, in addition to El Morro Restaurant as a way to highlight how climate migrants come to the city seeking refuge.
Meticulously planning for the march was never easy and necessitated precision and focus in the form of finding speakers for the rally, marketing and publicizing the event, walking and measuring the route, designing posters and banners as well as purchasing props and costumes for political skits.
Despite the absence of any scientists or HWS students as speakers at the climate march, Democratic Party Ward 4 incumbent candidate Ken Camera ’74 was invited to speak on behalf of the Geneva Women’s Assembly by Democratic Party Councilor At-Large candidate Tamarie Cataldo.
Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Hannah Dickinson, another one of the professors involved with the GWA and organizing the march, wrote rhythmic chants that, according to Price, “cohere a message and strategy together” and ease anxieties about jumping into social activism.
“When [people] first think of activism, they’re either really nervous or fear repression, which is a real fear, but … I learned in AIDS activism that the more creative and more fun it is, the more it builds community and then people want to come back for more because they take the rage, they take the anger that they feel from things that are happening in the world to build community rather than alienating ourselves,” Price says.
He also emphasizes that marchers should be proud to exercise their First Amendment rights, rather than being fearful to speak and assemble freely, especially when it comes to the prevalence of internet trolls.
“You ignore the trolls. You laugh at what they say cause they’re funny, but they’re missing the point,” he says.
Prior to the march, online trolls imposed tactics to address the alleged hypocrisy of climate activists that partake in modes of political and social activism. Price considers these comments as nothing short of “defensive and reactionary.”
More importantly, however, he believes that the aims of activism are supposed to “annoy people” as a disruption of norms and mindsets, which was what the Geneva Climate March essentially accomplished.
But beyond trolling, Price sees that there is still plenty of room for solidarity among the climate activism movement in the hopes of building a better world. He also acknowledges that activism is not the end of this conversation but rather the start of something new.
“The action builds into something else. Obviously doing a rally is not going to end climate change but it raises awareness and it starts to show people that the community is interested,” he states.
This semester, Price teaches a course titled “The Politics of Climate Change.” He sought for his students to step outside of the classroom to march downtown, but turnout from his two sessions and the rest of the Colleges was low and less than anticipated.
“I tried almost for two or three weeks to get students from HWS to speak at the rally or be involved. There were definitely a handful of students there and that made me feel great, but it was much easier to get the middle schoolers in Geneva there, like they were ready to go,” Price says.
In class, Price explored with students “Why HWS isn’t on the frontlines of this like many other small liberal arts colleges and big universities are as well. So, where is the action?”
From his perspective as a visiting professor, it seems that a desire to act out exists but a social stigma as equally powerful, if not greater, forces a sense fear or embarrassment upon students at the Colleges.
Students have confided in Price and disclosed the consequence of being seen on campus as someone who is different, politically or socially, and the costs incurred for “stepping out of bounds.”
But even beyond the march, Price admits that he was shocked when he did not see any hurricane relief efforts organized on campus for the Bahamas.
“Things you typically see at other universities or colleges, there’s a reticence here and again I don’t know what causes it,” Price says.
Aside from social stigmas, Price adamantly feels that many students are overwhelmed based on their varying levels of responsibilities during college life, which places additional burdens on them to attend events throughout campus, “pulling them in different directions,” as he puts it.
Professor of Political Science and Director of the Fisher Center Jodi Dean also contributed to crafting the climate march and shared similar sentiments.
Dean adds to Price’s comment about alleged campus apathy by mentioning that Geneva should “not just be a background for four years of fun.”
Professor Dean also admits that she was surprised with the march’s turnout and expected to see more HWS students in attendance.
In comparison, she claims that 300 people participated in Geneva’s We Are Seneca Lake mobilization in 2016 during January while cold winter precipitation rained down upon activists.
Ultimately, Dean thinks that the vast majority of students “don’t see a reason to march in Geneva,” further elaborating that they may not even think of the city as “their own home” despite living here for the tenure of their undergraduate studies.
Dean is adamant on reminding readers that climate change does not universally affect everyone in the same way.
“Climate change does not affect everyone equally. Everyone is not equally responsible for it,” Dean says.
In contrast, Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Hannah Dickinson differs with Professors Price and Dean.
“I guess I am not sure that HWS students are apathetic,” she says.
Instead, she believes that they spend hours a day navigating issues on campus, especially the structures of race and how to find inclusion within the Colleges. Dickinson credits this justification as a main reason why students are not getting involved in Geneva’s local politics and social actions.
“Students here are navigating a whole variety of challenges and issues. I think that if you’re spending, right, hours every day thinking about how to navigate racism in your residence hall or in Saga or in the classroom and that’s where your organizing energy is going around, making a more anti-racist campus, it’s hard for me, I think, to blame those students for not getting more involved in Geneva politics. I can understand that,” Dickinson states.
Dickinson also sees the ongoing struggles on campus that preoccupy students as struggles “to make this campus itself more egalitarian and environmentally just.”
However, she also offers that students who are either frustrated with campus politics or the political system are encouraged to participate and mobilize with the GWA.
Dickinson notes that the City of Geneva offers many opportunities for students to get involved with community organizing, radical or feminist politics.
“I do wish that students would understand that there are opportunities to do that work in Geneva,” she says.
Similarly, Dickinson is proud of their most recent action that was predominantly organized by “working class women of Geneva.”
But when it comes to reflecting on the climate march, she is grateful most of all for the Geneva middle schoolers leading the charge through the city’s neighborhoods, which gave the march a “real community-oriented-feel where marchers “claimed the streets for themselves.”
Following the march, Dickinson hopes that this action will continue to unite institutions within the community, particularly the Colleges and city government.
Dickinson considers cooperation in creating climate change propositions with the city as a component crucial for the movement, which has been characterized as a people’s struggle for climate justice.
“It’s everyday people who live and work and raise their kids here,” Dickinson says.
Although Professor Dickinson recognizes the gradual changes both in the city and on campus regarding climate change awareness and policy action, she still thinks that the proposed solutions both by city government and the Colleges are far too small.
When it comes to the Gearan Center for the Performing Arts that holds a LEEDS building certification, she asks, “Why are we patting ourselves on the back?”
Despite the mounting ceremonial victories collected on behalf of the environment in Geneva, Dickinson believes that the Finger Lakes Institute can help solve the puzzle of how to keep Seneca Lake sustainably producing accessible drinking water for future generations.
A lesson Dickinson wishes to leave for students espouses that someone does not need to be an environmental justice advocate to get involved in the movement that has historically expanded to encompass more than just “white guys and tree huggers.”
With Geneva’s Climate March in the back mirror, a burning question still remains: how will Hobart and William Smith Colleges continue sparking conversations about climate change?