The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary May 5, 2007

Oberlin Can LEAP Over the Town-Gown Divide

Oberlin students have a reputation for activism. Various student organizations and students acting independently have taken steps against all kinds of injustices – organizing protests, lobbying for changes in legislation and even dominating the realm of electoral politics this past election with an impressive combination of both partisan and non-partisan activity. There are few national or international issues that Oberlin students have avoided or refused to take on. Despite all of this, Oberlin students have traditionally left a large, important arena completely ignored: local politics. There are many reasons for this, of course, and every time a local issue is placed on the ballot a variety of arguments appear as to why students should stay on the sidelines. Most of these arguments center around the idea that it is simply “none of our business,” either because we are “only” living here for four years, because we don’t pay property taxes or because the issues being debated don’t “directly affect us.” Students, wishing to be sensitive to the town-gown divide, traditionally accept these arguments and remain quiet on local issues.

Before I delve into a discussion of why student involvement in local issues is both legitimate and necessary, let me take a step back to describe what is at stake. On May 8, voters will vote yes or no on Issue 11, a program designed to put laptops in the hands of every Langston Middle School and Oberlin High School student. The program, modeled on several other successful programs nationwide, is designed to provide a much more flexible and robust learning environment for kids in the Oberlin school system. Due to several limitations on the school system’s revenue, this levy is one of the only ways that the city can boost funding for the resource-strapped schools. If “LEAP” (Laptops for Equity and Achievement Program) is approved, it could mean serious benefits for many Oberlin middle and high school students.

Issue 11, however, is not guaranteed to pass and might need the support of both the town and Oberlin College students. This means overcoming several doubts that students may have about getting involved in local politics. First, there’s the issue of property taxes. Despite the fact that LEAP will only require a minute amount of money per household (about $2.63 per month is a higher estimate), students feel uncomfortable voting for a program that they themselves won’t have to pay for. Furthermore, because the issue doesn’t directly affect them, they feel they have “no right” to voice their opinion on the matter. This is odd given the nature of democracy, where we would feel completely comfortable voting for things that might not directly affect us (pushing for federal legislation, let’s say, to overturn anti-choice laws in states where we will never live) and things that we probably won’t have to pay for directly (like advocating closing certain tax loopholes for corporations with headquarters in small islands overseas).

Those afraid to “meddle” in local elections take their argument a step further, saying they have no right to participate because they’ll leave Oberlin as soon as they get their degree. Now, this still means that Oberlin students are staying at Oberlin for four years, a significant amount of time, but I think this argument points to something deeper: Many students are afraid to consider themselves part of the “community.” The town and the College are seen as completely separate entities, as if you can be involved with one and not the other. College students aren’t “residents,” but merely passers-by for four years. This is an incredibly destructive way to think about one’s role within a larger community; it ignores a fundamental truth that Oberlin activists should know better than anyone: people don’t exist in isolation. If you live in a community for an extended period of time and benefit from the institutions (both commercial and social) that it provides, it follows that you have an obligation to fight for and work towards a better environment for all those who live in that community with you. The so called town-gown divide only exists because we create it with an incredibly backward way of thinking. Next week, I think we all can take steps towards ensuring that the community that we are all a part of can share in the benefits of a high quality education and still have time to fight injustice half a world away.


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