Opinion Student Life

Protest Culture at the Institute

by Emma Clare Maxwell

A treasure trove of political opinions and slogans lies tucked away on top of a shelf in the Picciotto Common Room (PCR). Cardboard signs bearing phrases from “There is No Planet B” to “Keep India Secular” to “UN: PAY YOUR INTERNS” form a visual archive of the issues the Graduate Institute students have fought for in recent years. Sadly, climate change is still occurring at a breathtaking rate, stoking interreligious tension is a particular talent of current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and about 80% of UN interns can’t expect anything more than a meager cost-of-living stipend for their efforts. Yet, even though protests have not brought easy solutions, hardly a week goes by without a member of the student body standing defiantly at Place des Nations, determined to make their voice heard.

Academia has something of an erratic relationship with popular movements. With a few notable exceptions, career academics rarely engage in political action and prefer to act as analysts or critics of both social movements and their political targets. Students, on the other hand, are a well-known catalyzing force for protests in almost every country. Graduate Institute students, in particular, arrive in Geneva with connections to progressive political causes around the world and are looking for a way to continue their support beyond writing papers or giving a class presentation. The proof is in the jumble of hand-painted placards in PCR, where the most specific of concerns are mixed with global complaints, and feminist, labor, and anti-racist rallying cries form a complete cardboard mosaic.

Connection to home

With a student body that represents 107 nationalities, it is no surprise that Graduate Institute students feel strongly about issues going on across the globe, and protests are a key way to connect to home countries. “Since you can’t be in India, the second-best thing would be to come to the Palais” noted Keshav Khanna at a protest against sexual and caste-based violence in India. While there are a plethora of activities, both on and off campus, protests allow students the chance to reproduce home.  While students appreciate celebrating their national holidays and eating their favorite foods, protests can feel like a more authentic way of keeping connections alive during times of crisis or instability. While students are well aware that one protest won’t have a strong effect on entrenched problems, it means something to show the activists pushing for change back home that they are supported by diaspora communities and friends from afar.

Beyond showing mere solidarity, protests become a way for students to deal with deeply personal questions of privilege, homesickness, and how to be a responsible citizen while abroad. Jason Nemerovski was living in France this year when the overlapping crisis of COVID-19 and racially and politically motivated police violence swept across the United States, his home country. “It was like watching everything through the looking glass,” he said of the experience. It shows a unique paradox for Graduate Institute students who are pursuing their studies in order to be better equipped to take on social issues, while acknowledging that their ability to study in a prestigious, international institution both shields them and makes direct action much more difficult. This drives Jason to push forward supporting social movements back home through podcasts, social media and organizing educational events. 

Yet, connecting politically while living overseas has its complications, and protests can bring a mixed reception. At the #DalitLivesMatter protest, Graduate Institute students and alumni talked about the careful balance required when organizing diaspora communities. “Being part of the diaspora brings responsibilities, but the diaspora is divided,” noted Mohammed Zanskar Danish, who graduated in 2019 but is still using his Graduate Institute connections to organize protests. Between bankers, scientists, diplomats, students and other types of immigrants, diaspora communities in Geneva tend to represent a wide swathe of backgrounds and political ideas. Diplomats and United Nations staff are prevented from protesting for the sake of impartiality, but other members of a community can take a dim view on bringing national politics into an international arena. “A diaspora is very important because it can bring shame or it can bring glory back home,” explained Sucharita Sengupta, “We are blamed if we protest outside the United Nations because they think we are shaming them in front of the international community… but we are not trying to bring shame, we are trying to bring the nation back to where it should be.” 

Global Solidarity

Perhaps the most valuable reason for students participating in protests is to cement mutual connections. Solidarity can be built in late night study groups and collective fear of the statistics midterms, but the strongest links are grounded in shared values, in knowing you have the support of your peers to make a statement that can carry both political and professional risk.  For a student looking forward to a career spent addressing racism, corruption or gender discrimination, nothing can be more valuable than have the support and confidence of like-minded friends. This attitude was reflected over and over again by protest organizers, who emphasized the needs for diverse groups of students to support each other’s demonstrations, even when they weren’t intimately connected to the issue at hand. 

The issues that Graduate Institute students take to heart are becoming even more interconnected. When it came to an anti-Bolsonaro protest, Pedro de Castro Souza observed that “It might not be black lives matter, its indigenous lives matter.” “Even though the topic is not exactly the same, it’s a protest against far-right policies that endanger all our communities,” agreed Matheus Fontes, who also attended the protest. Their answers seemed to echo a sentiment that surrounds a great deal of the political undertaking of Graduate Institute students: that a protest, an action, or a raised voice always has an impact, even if it’s just a small one, and a student body working together to make small differences adds up in the end. 

About the author: Clare Maxwell is a 1st year MDev student from the U.S. She has a journalistic background reporting on grassroots political movements in the middle east. You can find her at Instagram as @ClareThinksThoughts

Photo credits to Delcia Orona

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