by Janine Ko
photograph by Samantha Velasquez
Welcome to our senior interviews series, where we talk with the mentor-peer-elder-friends who have led our clubs and protests and movements and communities. If you would like to nominate a graduating senior to be interviewed, please fill out this form and we’ll contact them as soon as we can.
Can you reflect on how you started organizing with Students for Justice in Palestine?
I joined SJP my freshman year, around November, in the aftermath of an attack on Gaza. I wasn’t one of those Barnumbia students that comes into college with a clear plan for their extra-curricular life. I just wanted to come and get a feel of things and then join groups at my own pace, so I didn’t go to any of the activities fairs and I wasn’t really big even on attending events. Then the attacks on Gaza happened in November and I immediately felt a sense of personal urgency to be surrounded by people who not only shared my political views but also shared the impulse to be engaged—to do something about it.
I was having a lot of really frustrating conversations with peers, classmates, hall-mates, professors, all really loaded with justification of what was very evidently another asymmetrical war wages on a densely populated, miniscule strip of land. So, I joined Students for Justice Palestine—then a much smaller group. I think I, as in individual, have grown alongside SJP—now a very impressive, large, and diverse student organization. Since last spring we’ve also had the newly formed Jewish Voice for Peace, and this year we’ve witnessed the formation of an unprecedented solidarity network on campus between different social justice groups. My sophomore year, SJP did a lot of work with SAMI and Lucha, but watching these lines of solidarity be formalized and become such an engrained part of all of our individual groups’ functions makes it evident to me how essential intersectionality has become to our spaces. It’s been phenomenal to witness.
What challenges– new and old– do organizers with SJP continue to face?
I think it’s two-fold. On one hand there’s a very strong hegemonic prominence of Zionist political thought on campus within the student body, the faculty, and the administration. That has been an ongoing challenge that I don’t think is specific to Columbia’s campus. I think it’s something we can very easily observe all across the country and it directly correlates with the unwavering military, financial and political support that the Israeli government receives from the U.S. government.
The other challenge we face, one that has become more evident as our organizing becomes extensively far-reaching and our presence on campus becomes stronger, is widespread apathy. We’re really lucky to have a network of activists on campus that are engaged in so many different struggles, but, for the most part, a lot of students on this campus are unconcerned, at best. We need to push back on the upheld idea that if a cause doesn’t directly call upon personal identity, then one is immediately absolved of the responsibility to engage with it, learn more, and act. In my opinion, it’s a dangerous thing when folks do not feel proactively moved by human suffering, unless it’s in their own backyard. To me, this is what our work is about. It’s about cultivating a culture of collective responsibility, whether or not the subject matter directly impacts your day-to-day experience of this campus and the world.
Can you talk about how the communities you’re a part of take care one another? How you take care of yourself?
When your political and moral principles align, it’s very easy to develop friendships. We know each other on a very intimate level, and—at any given time—there’s someone in the group keeping tabs on you and making sure that you give yourself the care, rest, and attention you need.
I cannot emphasize just how important it is to be in a space that allows and encourages you to step back and recognize your limitations as an individual, a student, a soon-to-be graduate in pursuit of a job, a family member, a friend—in essence, as someone who has other responsibilities that do not exclusively exist within the spaces of your activism. I think that’s something I’ve struggled with a lot throughout my journey but it’s a life skill. Learn how to say, “today I’m prioritizing work and tomorrow I’ll help out with the statement we need to draft.” Or even, “today I’m going to sleep at 10 PM and tomorrow I’ll read through my emails.” Follow through with your commitments, while maintaining an intentional level of self-awareness.
What are you doing after graduation?
I don’t know! I will say that my experience organizing has taught me that I want and need to be making a career off of this very type of engagement with my communities. I hope I end up at an organization that will be primarily engaged in advocating a just cause, just as Students for Justice in Palestine is.
Who are your elders?
I am so fortunate to have a wonderful network of older faculty and professionals, involved in Palestine solidarity work, that have been unwavering sources of support and mentorship. As an aspiring lawyer and a social justice activist, I look to folks like Columbia Law School’s Professor Katherine Franke, who has successfully created a hybrid professional space, at the crossroads of legal work and social justice advocacy. I’ve looked to CSJP alumni, who have paved the path for continued commitment to the cause beyond the 116th gates. I look to the countless examples of Columbia faculty who have made careers off of principled intellectual battles.
But most of all, I look to my peers. I’ve learned immensely from the younger folks in SJP, who came in after me but have been the strength and power of our rapidly growing organization. It’s often from them that I derive a renewed sense of purpose and discipline, and it is always from them that I learn the most. These are the people that have kept me grounded and that forever keep me in check. It’s been a phenomenal learning experience to work alongside them.
Do you have any specific wisdom you’d like to leave to them here?
Make sure that you know yourself and pace yourself, always. One of the struggles with social justice organizing is how quickly people burn out because of how much non-stop involvement and effort it requires. Know that it is totally manageable if you find a healthy way of taking care of yourself, while effectively following through with your commitments. Most importantly, don’t ever let that passion and rage escape you, don’t let yourself become numb, and don’t let yourself burn out.
Who did you pick for senior scramble?
Honestly, senior scramble was wasted on me. I wrote down a combination of my friends’ names, and the names of folks that literally do not know I am living/exist.
Is there a space on campus that particularly resonates with you?
I don’t think this is what you’re looking for, but my favorite spot on campus is the second floor bathroom in Barnard hall. Aside from that, I think it’s more about the people that resonate with me, rather than the spaces.