The author bundled up. inside a makeshift shantytown at Penn State. (Photo: Courtesy Julie Parr)
Last Thursday night, when I came home from work and turned on the TV, I was immediately absorbed in the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing. I quickly forgot about everything else I was supposed to manage that evening — my son’s math test scheduled for the next day, in particular — and became lost in a vivid flood of memories.
1986. It was the second semester of my freshman year at Penn State. Disenchanted with fraternity culture and parties, I was trying to find my place among the 40,000 undergraduates. Like any college freshman, I had little idea of what my identity would become.
Three years earlier, a group of students had formed the Committee for Justice in South Africa (CJSA). In the fall of 1985, those students managed to get 7,000 Penn Staters to sign a petition asking that the University divest its endowment money from South African multi-national corporations in a protest against the racist Apartheid regime.
Somehow, CJSA found me, and one night that second semester, I found myself at an all-night teach-in off campus at a local church. I knew no one and felt out of place. But by the end of the night, I was thoroughly versed in a timeline of South African oppression, could sing a host of protest songs and had made a large group of friends.
Photo of protest, the author in the middle right. (Photo appeared in Penn State’s Daily Collegian)
In the ensuing year, I participated in a sit-in at the University President’s office, helped to form a giant circle of human bodies around Old Main, interrupted Trustees’ meetings with protests about our university policies, wrote letters to the editor, and in our most visible protest, occupied a homemade “shantytown” on the center of campus for 49 days. I will never forget that the first night the shantytown went up on campus under the cover of darkness — it was four degrees outside. The sleeping bags we had were inadequate. But maybe the cold in some small way helped to connect us to the suffering of others, thousands of miles from us, in a country most of us had never visited.
We passed out leaflets every day, we fought for space on the steam grate at night, we strategized about our next moves, complained about people who wouldn’t listen to our message, and hoped. More than anything else, we hoped that we could share some small part in changing the world.
Days and nights in the shantytown molded us for the rest of our lives. Since that time, I’ve joined ACT UP, run a needle exchange program, got a Masters in Social Work, run the book fair at our local public school, worked for environmental protection, and chose a career in non-profit fundraising.
A friend from that time said, “My acts of protest are smaller these days…school board, calls and letters to editors, volunteerism…but those values and the lessons of Mandela and Biko, the CJSA and shantytowns…well, those lessons stuck.”
On September 18th, 1987, many of us were present at the meeting of the University Trustees. At the start of the meeting, in a blink of an eye, the Trustees voted to divest the University funds from South African corporations.
I remember realizing then that all the “business” of the Board of Trustees must have happened in committees before we arrived. We activists had been prepared that day to disrupt the meeting with protests. But, within the first few moments of our arrival, a Trustee raised his hand and simply said, “All in favor of divesting University endowment funds from South African corporations, say aye.” And, then, shockingly, everyone did. We didn’t have a parade to celebrate like Penn State did when we won the football National Championship a year later. I don’t even remember raising a glass to toast the celebration. We knew that our victory was small. But, since 1987, I’ve experienced job promotions, marriage, the birth of a child. Little compares to how elated I was that day, and how satisfying it was to see our work make a difference.
With all the fanfare about Nelson Mandela’s death and memorial, it’s easy to see that we were on the right side of history. (Back then, Nelson Mandela was on the United States’ terrorist watch list.)
Over the last several days, the friends I made through CJSA all came together on Facebook to comfort each other. We remembered how Nelson Mandela made such an impact for us.
The overriding message that we all shared with each other was that we were so grateful for having been a part of Nelson Mandela’s movement. We loved him, looked to him for inspiration and were shaped for the rest of our lives