Students, you have power. You are stressed, tired and much is demanded from you here. You worked your tails off to be at the University of Michigan, and you are paying more for it now than any generation has. You have, since you were babies, been told to put your heads down and focus on your own advancement, your own grades, your own career path. And you are facing an uncertain world whose problems will be heaped on your shoulders when you leave here, if they haven’t been already. With all of this facing you, it is far too easy to forget the power you actually have, right now, together.
The results of the election have shrouded the future of our country in uncertainty while also leaving our campus community shaken. Watching the world we knew change around us, it is easy to feel helpless. But my message to you is simple — so simple, in fact, that it will require you to sit with it in silence, to clear your head and breathe it in slowly in order to understand how much it really means. My message, to repeat, is this: You have power.
In the past, students from this very university, students who were no older than you are now, made the world shake. They drew national and international attention to an anti-war movement that rattled Washington D.C., they joined in decades-long fights for civil rights, they marched, they protested, they organized, they connected, they learned from each other. They forced those in power to listen because they, too, had power. They demonstrated, they filled the streets and university buildings, they turned the Diag into a bullhorn. They had power, and you have it, too.
You have power to protect our home. Whatever your political affiliation, you have power to create, from within our own community, a collective roar of knowledge and solidarity that demands to be heard, from the dorm room to the Oval Office. You have power to listen to each other, to plan collective actions, to fail and get better and get back to work as many times as it takes to achieve your shared goals. Together, in your friendships, in the values you believe in, in your devotion to learning, you have power to overcome the self-conscious fear of reaching out to others, to combat the seductive allure of just giving in to apathy.
You will find your greatest strength together. It will truly amaze you how quickly things will move once you start talking to one another, making plans yourself to meet and discuss and brainstorm. But don’t forget to use all the University resources you can. They’re here for you. Talk to faculty and staff; they will help you. Reach out to graduate students; we will join you. Our job is to help cultivate and expand your power as thinkers and citizens. Make no mistake — this is your school, your community. And you are being called upon to defend them.
Create spaces for open dialogue. Cultivate the most rigorous and challenging academic environment. Do the hard, patient work of finding common ground, researching, discussing, confronting different ways of seeing the world. But when a worldview revolves around destroying that space for dialogue, around intimidating and forcibly silencing others, stand up against it, together. Because you have the power to do so.
Understand there is much to fear now, but also understand how fear works. The actions of a handful of trolls sneaking around campus at night, or preying on vulnerable individuals, can create fear within a whole campus community, amplifying the impact of such cowardly acts of hate far beyond what they deserve. What is most destructive about this fear is the way it erodes the most basic trust between neighbors, the way it makes classmates doubt one another’s intentions. Fear can, if you let it, destroy a community. Fear can also, if you fight it, fail miserably in its attempt to intimidate and divide. And you have the power to fight it.
You have power to actively create the community we need, to take the time to reach out to others, especially those who are the most vulnerable, and make the effort to show them what kindness and tolerance truly look like.
Face the truth that millions upon millions of people who voted in this election, and millions who abstained from voting as well, have expressed a world-rocking dissatisfaction with the status quo. Confront head-on the complexities of history, not only to better understand where we’ve ended up now, but also to more effectively chart where we must go from here. But remember that history does not “happen” — it is made. There’s no time to take a “wait-and-see” approach. Who, exactly, are you waiting for? We are encouraged to believe that our civic duty goes no further than voting once every four years on Election Day and then taking what we’re given. Nowhere is it written that this is how things must be in the hazy, always-unfinished project called democracy.
Democracy is always unfinished. Democracy is always at risk of dying, always reaching out to the next generation that must give it breath and blood and courage to move forward. You may not have asked for this responsibility, but we have the power to bear it, together.
Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-Ph.D candidate and GSI in the departments of Comparative Literature and History at the University of Michigan.