Day of Action organizers talk with attendees at the March 6 event.
Mary Hui ’17
Day of Action draws large turnout for sessions on social, political issues

More than 1,000 people took a break from their usual activities March 6 to attend a Day of Action organized by students in Frist Campus Center. The 12-hour event offered more than 60 teach-ins and talks by Princeton faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates about a wide range of social and political issues. 

“We wanted to provide an open platform to pull together ideas and commitments about what we can do going forward, both individually and collectively,” said Sebastien Philippe, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in mechanical and aerospace engineering and president of Princeton Citizen Scientists, a graduate-student group.

Phillippe said attendance for the event far exceeded the group’s expectations: Many rooms were filled to capacity, with people lining up in the halls outside to learn more about topics including environmental justice, Islamophobia and racism, gender inequality, right-to-life issues, and health care under the Trump administration.

In a session on science communication, Daniel Steinberg, director of education outreach at the Princeton Center for Complex Materials, challenged a group of students and scientists to explain their research drawing only from a list of commonly used words. Neuroscientist Sam Wang — perhaps better known for his website on polling and elections data — spoke on the politics and statistics behind gerrymandering, with redistricting scheduled to take place after the U.S. census in 2020. His session was so popular that it had to be moved to a larger room. 

Some talks were structured to be strictly informative, while others — such as a session on community organizing — had an activist bent, Philippe said. More than a dozen University and local organizations set up tables to share information and recruit members; 28 people registered to vote. 

Students said they came to the event to learn and to connect with others with a passion for similar issues.

“I’m a huge immigrant-rights advocate, but I realize that there are so many other topics on campus that people are passionate about. Being able to give them the space to teach me about something I may not know as much about is probably the most important thing that we can do for each other,” said Soraya Morales Nunez ’18. “Especially at a place like Princeton, because coming out of here you’ll have the resources to change the world.”

At a concluding session, organizers urged attendees to find a way to get involved — whether it be through contacting local officials, volunteering in the community, or some other action.

“Pick something and do it,” said Stevie Bergman, a physics Ph.D. student and member of Princeton Citizen Scientists. “Even if you try it and it takes up too much of your time and you realize it’s the wrong thing to do, you’ve learned something and someone else has gained something from your presence.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Citizen Scientists group and Princeton Advocates for Justice, a coalition of more than 25 student groups. Organizers said they hoped similar events would take place on other campuses. MIT plans a Day of Action April 18.  By A.W.

A Teach-In Sampler

Closing the Gender Gap in Science, Medicine 

Lack of space was no deterrent for Day of Action participants interested in “Closing the Gap: Gender and Prestige in Science and Medicine.” More than 30 attendees packed the floor to listen to Krupa Jani, a third-year graduate student in molecular biology, and Andrea Graham, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Jani and Graham centered the teach-in on three gender gaps in science: the representation gap, the wage gap, and the leadership gap. They began as scientists do — with numbers. Jani explained that not only do female scientists make less than male colleagues, but salaries for both men and women decrease as more women enter a profession. Even in a female-dominated field like nursing, men make about $5,000 more than women each year, they said.

For some attendees, these numbers were familiar. “Twenty years ago it was said that this is going to be a transient phenomenon,” said Jeanne Altmann, professor emerita of ecology and evolutionary biology. “But the numbers haven’t changed all that much.”

The presenters agreed, especially about leadership, where they cited a plateau across disciplines. From science to politics, women rarely occupy more than 20 percent of leadership positions, according to Jani. This is often in spite of a higher proportion of women receiving the required degrees. For Graham, this harms the whole community.

“Let’s have science represent the trainees of science,” she said.

The audience found this problematic as well. Jennifer Guyton, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology, highlighted the need to “face those hard truths and recognize where our own biases lie.” 

“We need to be actively thinking about women scientists and actively showing young children, particularly young girls, that they can be scientists,” said Jim Wu, a first-year Ph.D. student in physics.  By Nikita S. Dutta GS

Debating the Rights of Mother and Fetus

With the Day of Action focusing on issues more commonly associated with liberal ideologies, a teach-in about protecting the rights of unborn fetuses stood out. “If we’re not taking care of the unborn and preserving their rights, we really can’t say we’re preserving anyone’s rights,” said Matthew Igoe ’20, who began the conversation.

The session, “Promoting a Consistent Life Ethic Across the Political Spectrum,” featured Wilson School professor John Londregan, Ana Samuel ’00 *02, Allie Burton ’17, and Igoe. The audience consisted largely of graduate students, many of whom questioned the panelists on their views regarding the rights and health of the mother, birth control, the relationship between abortion and euthanasia, and the viability of the fetus at varying points of the pregnancy. 

“The question is,” Londregan said, “should we go the lengths of being willing to kill someone in order to affirm the autonomy of another individual, given that the pregnancy process isn’t a permanent one and given that it is a part of our natural life cycle?” 

Samuel advised listeners to support pregnancy shelters and equip women with an “abortion safety checklist” that includes information about greater risks for conditions such as placenta previa, future premature births, and mental distress. She also suggested forming a network of alumnae who have chosen not to terminate their pregnancies. 

“I would love to see a group of alums come out and show why they are so happy they kept the child — that would be very inspiring, I think,” Samuel said. 

Not surprisingly, the panelists and audience did not come to an agreement on abortion rights by the end of the short teach-in, and conversations continued as participants left the room.  By Anna Mazarakis ’16

Community Organizing: Sharing Experiences 

Professor emeritus Cornel West *80 listens to Christine Philippe-Blumauer GS at a teach-in on community organizing.
Ethan Sterenfeld ’20

“If we don’t get it, shut it down!”
“If we don’t get it, shut it down!”

Nyle Fort, a second-year Ph.D. student studying religion and African American studies, asked the 100-plus audience members at a Day of Action panel on community organizing to chant these words along with him, and they did. The chant was a rallying cry in Ferguson, Mo., Fort said, when he traveled there in 2014 to protest the killing of Michael Brown. Fort described how he and other protesters made it their mission to embrace the chant and “shut everything down” — from the streets, to the malls, to a St. Louis Rams football game.

“But in the midst of all of this,” he said, “we began to think, ‘OK, we’re shutting stuff down, but what do we want to build up?’”

That led to his work with other activists to create Books and Breakfast, a program to provide children in Ferguson with a meal and a book before school and to foster a sense of community in a divided city. Fort was so inspired that he decided to bring the idea back to his hometown of Newark, N.J.

“There were a lot of people who were jobless or in jail, and a lot of young people who were poor,” he said. “Although those aren’t the kind of issues that would be covered by [major news networks], they are the things that affect people in our community every day, and we have to respond to those things.”

Two other graduate students shared their organizing experiences, one working to abolish security checkpoints targeting undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles, the other in efforts to expand affordable housing in Arlington, Va. 

Cornel West *80, professor emeritus of African American studies, urged those in the audience to make their voices heard. Hatred and discrimination “bring out the best of the country,” West said, referring to protests and demonstrations against actions taken by the Trump administration. “The problem simply is, we’re not winning — and that’s why organizing is important.”  By A.W.