Documenting Student Activities and Activism on Campus: Bringing Activist Alumni into the Fold

By Bryan Whitledge

AAblog-04CMU Stop Hate Walkout, November 15, 2016. Image courtesy of Steve Jessmore, Central Michigan University.

Activism is nothing new among the students on college campuses. As the cycle goes at colleges and universities, those activists will hopefully become degree-holding alumni. With this constant turnover, one hurdle that pops up for archivists is how to document campus activism as people leave for the next chapter in their lives. In the attempt to capture today’s activist movements, there are some benefits to be had by working with other campus activists, even decades after they left the institution. At Central Michigan University (CMU), a fruitful relationship with alumni who participated in a variety of groups and movements during the Vietnam War-era not only helped the archives round out the information about that time of activism at CMU, but has been of use to build a relationship with today’s activist students.

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Freedom Hall at Central Michigan University, ca. May 6, 1970. Image courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

In 2016, some members of the robust activist community that existed in and around Central Michigan University in the late 1960s and early 1970s decided to get together in what they deemed a “No-Class Reunion.” This was perfect opportunity for the Clarke Historical Library to get involved. While the Clarke has relatively complete holdings of “official” records from that era, documents from the activist movement are far from complete. This No-Class Reunion gave the archivists a chance to speak to the publishers of the underground papers, the organizers of the marches, and those who pushed through the doors to occupy the ROTC building and deem it Freedom Hall.

 

Out of the 180 or so “No-Classers,” about 20 took the Clarke up on the offer to visit the archives. These alumni were impressed and excited to see the vast amount of materials already collected about their activism, and they were delighted to think of how they could contribute more to the holdings. Some of them also agreed to participate in a recorded discussion about their experiences, which would be added to the historical documents.

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“No-Class Reunion” participants, 2016. Image courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

Before turning this relationship into a positive tool for connecting with current activist students, staff at the Clarke learned some interesting facts about the activist alumni that could be true beyond the Mount Pleasant campus. First, the No-Classers did not have much contact with the university in the traditional ways other alumni do. This could possibly be explained though their student life experiences, which did not include what are normally deemed traditional activities like Greek life, athletics, clubs, and such. Regardless, the No-Classers did not arrange the event with the Alumni Association, but they did reach out to the archives. It seems that the archives and, more likely, the chance for activists to document the history of the change-making in which they were involved, may be the best link a University has with activist students.

The second bit of information learned from the No-Class Reunion is about building trust and forming bonds between activists and an official university entity, like the archives. For the No Class-ers, the trust was built easily, most likely because their age and geographic distribution meant there were few to no negative consequences to be had for contributing to the historic record. On the one hand, time and distance make trust-building come easy. On the other, the strong bonds formed with the No-Class-ers gave the archives credibility with some current activist students. The Clarke has since been working with a few very active students to add historic context to their documentary project exploring activism at CMU.

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Central Michigan University students during an anti-Vietnam War Rally, ca. 1969. Image courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

In an effort to have as complete a record of campus activism as possible, the Clarke found that working with alumni from decades passed payed off. The benefits were not only found in adding to the historical record and helping forge bonds with today’s activists. There were also lessons learned including the fact that the opportunity to document change-making could make the archives the best point of contact activist students will have with institution as alumni. Even so, it may take time – nearly five decades for the No-Class-ers – before activist alumni are ready to share their stories and part with their records.


Bryan Whitledge is the Archivist for University Digital Records at Central Michigan University. During his time at the Clarke Historical Library, he has worked in multiple reference, access, and outreach capacities.

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