Revolution in the Making

In the library of Ida Noyes Hall, in front of an ornate fireplace and wood- paneled walls, underneath the carved ceilings and hanging chandeliers, Bill Ayers sat behind a table and spoke to an attentive crowd of fifty or so student activists: “The world is too fucked up to look at all at once. You can’t. If you do, you’ll kill yourself.” The educational theorist and former member of the militant revolutionary organization the Weather Underground spoke honestly about the life of social justice activism.

After joking about his own privileged past and his transition from arrests and political resistance to teaching and eventually training educators, Ayers condemned an education system that views education as a commodity. “Every child is of incalculable value,” he said, calling for a curriculum based in questions rather than statements and in learning from the world rather than about it. He spoke emotionally about the potential for change with the Obama presidency. “I was in Grant Park. I went to the place where I was beaten bloody forty years ago and I started sobbing.” But he warned against complacency. “Presidents won’t save us. With any luck, we could save Obama with a fundamental movement for change.” He directly challenged his listeners about the difficulties in resisting popular ideas about social problems. “There are 2,000 black and brown men in prison a few miles away from us,” he said, “and we’re still anesthetized to accept that as natural.” He held that dialogue and education could reveal the most radical projects of social change, from school reform to prison abolition, to be in the best interests of all. In his most effective moments, Ayers described social justice as inseparable from a meaningful life: “Don’t let your actions make a mockery of your values.”

After lunch and a panel discussion with community leaders, the participants formed small groups to discuss and network. They shared personal issues of resisting social injustice from the perspective of privilege, and it was clear that justice was as much about articulating and understanding problems as in organizing actions to solve them. Facing the uncomfortable dilemmas, one young activist resolutely echoed Ayers’s sentiment: “We’re not in it because ‘soon we’ll get there.’ We’re in it because we don’t want to live any other way.”