By The Mutual Aid Project
Last fall, UMass Amherst rolled out its latest campus-wide initiative, “Building a Community of Dignity and Respect: Honor Differences, Cultivate Belonging,” underscored with the handle Belonging@UMass. Messages extolling the importance of and strategies for improving students’ sense of belonging circulated through university internal and promotional communications, appeared thematically in conferences and academic talks, and were positioned as fundamental for improving equity and inclusion, and increasing student retention. This latest effort to address — and harness — student issues followed the unveiling of other campus slogans in recent years like “Hate Has No Home at UMass” and the trademarked brand campaign “Be Revolutionary(™).”
Understandably, access to housing is central to student well being. In the fall of 2022, over 100 students were relocated from campus housing to an Econo Lodge Hotel in Hadley.” Housing scarcity at UMass is a reality for many undergraduate students, particularly after their first few semesters of being prioritized for on-campus housing run out. Housing costs in the area for students and others are increasingly unaffordable. The high costs of housing (both on and off campus) along with high tuition and fees places additional stress and anxiety on students, many of whom work part-time or full-time to attend college, even while going into massive debt. (And for other students, it is simply finding available housing of any kind that is an issue.)
Students themselves are now taking action and over the course of the 2022–2023 academic year, a housing campaign emerged in concert with a broader coalition, including students calling for police abolition on campus. For many UMass students, feelings of belonging are not solved by simply living on campus, but are directly tied to police presence. Said scholar-activist Terrel James, “When you think about the amount of Black and brown students on campus who feel that UMass is a hostile environment, you must understand that police presence is connected to those feelings.” The campaign escalated through a number of actions, including protests at the central administration building and camp-outs in the middle of campus. Connecting these two issues, the UMass chapter of the Prison Abolition Collective, stated, “Putting more money towards police is especially egregious when about 900 students who requested housing are facing possible homelessness or being forced to drop out due to UMass’ continual over-enrollment and housing shortage.” In place of institutionalized policing, a growing movement is calling for community care and restorative justice.
What to make of this strange set of contradictions? On the one hand, there is indeed a sincere desire from many at the university to care for and create a place of belonging for students. This initiative, in fact, in part emerged from a campus-wide student survey, and like many community building efforts, articulates with the important work of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs aimed at responding to ongoing racism and other forms of identity based oppressions and exclusions. At the same time, many students experience the university, and as we will suggest below, the university’s orientation towards care as not only insufficient, but harmful. These conditions align with what amounts to the current cultural zeitgeist—a growing sense about the importance of connection and interdependence for shared survival within a world order that is increasingly structuring disconnection, violence, and despair.
Beyond Individual Well-Being
Young people in the United States are in a mental health crisis. According to a recent report from the CDC, in 2021, more than 4 in 10 high school students felt persistently sad or hopeless. In March, the National Education Association reported that “rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation on college campuses have never been higher” (2023 National Education Association) and that most college students suffer from at least one mental health problem. As Gabor Mate explains in The Myth of Normal, this crisis in mental health is directly related to physical health. And neither mental nor physical health can be understood or addressed by locating discreet, biological causation. For example, a lack of control over or alienation from the conditions of one’s life can manifest as depression, anxiety, and stress, leading to elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which can make people more susceptible to illness and directly bear on the longevity of one’s life. The idea of individual, atomized bodies, separate from mind and spirit, and from each other, is fundamentally at odds with scientific evidence that biology itself is interpersonal and intergenerational. In addition, well-being is dependent upon cultural beliefs and practices that create connection or produce alienation, cultivate care or inflict trauma, and structure life and death.
Mate joins the swelling ranks of decolonial, feminist, and Black radical scholars; anarchists and neo-marxists; cutting-edge biologists and ecologists; community organizers and activists; and indigenous scholars and communities who have been insisting for years that the dominant reality that we live in is undermining its own conditions of possibility, as well as much of life on earth. The foundations of extractivist, capitalist modernity presume the existence of individual bodies; centers individual achievement and competition; understands progress and development as commonsense pathways to well-being and treats nature as a resource to be used by humans. Outside of these colonially imposed boundaries exist relational ways of being where well-being is dependent on negotiating needs and desires between humans, and between humans and non-human others.
In the spring of 2023 we conducted numerous dialogues, reflections, and 17 semi-structured interviews with UMass undergraduate students, including those within our group and in our network, asking about experiences with and understandings of mutual aid, care, and well-being provided by the university and each other. The stories were at once sobering, instructive, and incredibly hopeful. It seems that many young people are in the process of rejecting the progress, development, and achievement narratives that the university is invested in, and are searching for, and enacting, relational worlds.
Institutional Support of Basic Needs
For many students, the university is both a new home, full of caring people — faculty, advisors, staff, and other students — as well as a source of much emotional and physiological harm. As described above, in the 2022–2023 academic year, student movements brought housing issues to the fore, so it was no surprise that housing insecurity was at the forefront of students’ minds when talking about the institution meeting or not meeting student needs.
Said one student who was worried about their own housing situation in the coming months, “The fact that they can’t guarantee housing to students is ridiculous. I think they should be ashamed that they can’t do that, and they are not solving the problem. They say they are [by building new housing] but they are leasing out land to private companies that jack up prices.”
The lack of housing was often connected to the market-based decision making of university administrators, and other students positioned housing scarcity alongside other basic needs that were threatened by the difficulties of attending and affording an education.
One student put it this way: “For a lot of students, they pay tuition and they can’t pay for food. They live off campus to like cut costs and they have some crappy kitchen that they can’t afford to put groceries in. Like students being pulled in all directions, you know, like the financial costs…even transportation. Kids are getting pulled in every single direction.”
This lived anxiety of being “pulled in every direction” was given more shape by a student who had recently experienced housing insecurity and reported, “It was scary…and also just extremely frustrating that this was happening to me…because I didn’t know if I’d even be able to like go to school that semester. And it was just very stressful. And it’s frustrating because there were just so many hoops that you have to leap through…and it’s just like, why are so many people forced to jump through these hoops? Why is this? Why does this have to be such an issue and then in all the other like off-campus spaces that were available, all of them are so incredibly expensive, that I can’t even afford them anyway… [I don’t want to] to take out a loan just to pay rent, and add even more stress into my financial situation just so I can go to a school that’s forcing me to pay all this money in the first place.”
The students we talked with reported different levels of both support and harm caused by the university around meeting their ownbasic needs, but they also recognized that some individuals and groups of students faced more or less hardship depending on race, social class, income-levels, sexual and gender identity, and so on. Material insecurity, anxiety, and depression were known to be widespread, making it difficult for many students to attend classes and engage in classwork in ways that felt good and meaningful.
Education and Well-being Beyond Success
Over the past decade a student success discourse and apparatus has built up at UMass, aimed at helping students “succeed.”( Success in this context means many different things related to individual well-being, inclusion, self-care, learning time management, and maximizing money.) Student success discourse also aligns with metrics that the university uses to rank itself against other universities in order to compete for tuition dollars: student retention, time to completion, and graduation outcomes. For many of the students we spoke with, narratives of student success are felt as a largely coercive efforts, to get them to think about their education, and themselves, in ways that they are trying to reject.
One student said that “student success” “makes me think of grind culture, hustle culture, succeeding, like in an academic institutions, getting a well-paying job coming out of here, like kind of hunkering down is — like, what a lot of students do to get through this place is, they say, OK, it’s four years, like, I’m going to go into a crazy amount of debt, and I’m gonna do whatever, and I am sure that these [university] programs might even encourage that.”
Another student, commenting on ideas about time management and maximizing money, said, “Why do I need to completely squeeze myself dry during my time here, during what should be the most fun, and engaging, and interesting years of my life?”
They went on to describe how, even though they receive messages from the university to prioritize their own health and care, these messages were in contradiction to harm they were experiencing because of the great financial burdens of attending the university, but also from being subjected to dominant notions about what it means to be successful, and the need to make the right choices to get them there. “The American education system just in general forces people to make decisions about how to live our entire lives…that they [should] learn to manage their time, maximize their wealth. It’s paradoxical as a university student to be paying 10s of 1000s of dollars to the institution that is telling them [to make rational, maximizing decisions]. And I don’t think [the university] can say students need to prioritize their health and well-being, because the entire system is based on exploiting the health and well-being of students.
For other students interviewed, there was a clear rejection of the figure of homo-economicus —the self interested, rational, resource maximizing individual — that students felt was embedded within dominant notions of success. “The student success model is preparing us to be workers, to make money. And in doing so, we are neglecting a lot of emotional needs…and not giving time and empathy towards ourselves. [Instead], we are in with these goals of like time management, it’s teaching us that that is the value of who we should be and what the end success is. That doesn’t really align with my values, which makes it very challenging. Because [graduating from UMass] as fast as possible is not the most important thing. Getting a high paying job after college is not the most important thing to me. And then, just like the culture of our society makes it challenging to have different values…I can’t really focus on the things that are valuable to me, even just the relationships in my life are very important to me. The school is kind of rushing us through because of [their concern with] the retention rate and wanting us to graduate in four years. “My goal is not to be a worker; it’s to be a community member.”
Said another student more simply, “I hate the rhetoric of success being tied to material wealth. Because, not everyone wants to make a whole lot of fucking money. I don’t want a lot of money.”
From Each According to Their Ability…
While students experience many individuals at the university–from faculty, to staff to administrators, as being helpful, kind and caring; at the same time, some of these same students experience university forces–including those intended as care and helping efforts–as structuring anxiety and hardship, and steering them away from the values, relationships, and ways of being in the world that they desire. What we have also found, however, is that students are caring for each other–and desiring to care for each other–in relational ways, where they are deepening their interconnectedness and interdependence with each other.
One student described how they started what amounted to a collective free store, by putting out bins with tampons and other items of need that floor mates took and added to, not only providing for social needs, but building relationships in the process.
Another student described an extended group chat that was for sharing “when anything was going wrong, or like if you want help in any way” if someone was sick, or needed material support or emotional care.
Students are caring for eachother through establishing interdependent practices, and also through creating collectively governed and used spaces.
In a campus dorm, an entire floor of students took it upon themselves to create a gender inclusive space, putting green tape on all the gender markers on all the bathrooms. Reported an interviewee, “there were a lot of queer people who were on that floor. The awesome students did it themselves, and then the [university eventually] took it down. It seems like the university is at odds with with fostering community, like building actual queer spaces.”
Another student discussed the way in which an “open learning circle”, facilitated by undergraduate students builds and strengthens community, but also reworked the meaning and purpose of education, away from notions of individual achievement and market success, and towards more relational learning and sharing of knowledge. These regularly held learning circles are completely facilitated by undergraduate students, take place off-campus during dinner hours, are not taken for university “credit” and are not used as places to study for tests. They are places of connection and care around their education, rather than alienation and stress. “there’s a lot of energy…you know, a couple of people share something that we’re learning and then turn into a really nice conversation where we kind of envision what we want our world to look like and what we’re doing in our personal lives, what what actions we need to take as a community to make that happen. So it’s a very energizing space and yeah, being in a casual setting where we can kind of reproduce knowledge just in an enthusiasm and I guess energy to make those changes…so many people really love it. And it’s like, they look forward to their Monday nights because they know it’s learning circle dinner. So there’s a lot of yeah, desire to participate in that. We usually have around like eight to ten, but we’ve had times where we’ve had like, 20 people and we had to split into multiple tables, because there’s too many people.”
One way to understand these student efforts for collective autonomy and care is that they are actively commonning the world around them. Many students experience most “student space” on campus as highly surveilled and controlled, while the number of authentically controlled and governed student spaces are perceived as few and diminishing. Spaces of care, explained another student “are manifested, are like taking back from the system or in places where there isn’t care. So I’ve heard this a lot at the housing protests. Taking back a space that is supposed to be yours, from a system that doesn’t care about you, and building a community where you all care about each other in that space. So, it’s on the lawn in front of campus on you know, a space that does not have care, and you build care. So the physical space itself can be anything, but I find it most, like, satisfying, when it is like you know, an administrative building or a large institution turned into a beautiful place for community.”
What we can see in these student driven efforts—and what we can see in many more student groups and organizations across campus–is a beautiful, flourishing of desires for the type of shared well-being that can be found through interdependence, commonning of spaces and places, and relational principles and practices. Desires for collective survival amidst a dying world. There is nothing that more clearly reveals both the violence and the impossible continuation of capitalist modernity than climate change. For many young people (and many people) this reality is felt as deep, existential dread. A 2022 study found that the majority of young people suffer from climate anxiety, with 45% reporting that “feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.” Of course. And given the current realities of climate change and the many warnings of imminent social and ecological collapse, the level of anxiety, and outright absurdity, that must be navigated while engaging in institutions and practices so heavily enmeshed in business as usual, can result in conscious and unconscious efforts to bury these feelings, or distract ourselves from them, or to grasp onto the dying narratives and stories about how to live in the world that modernity offers.
One of our friends, a recent graduate from UMass put it this way, “I so often feel like I am not doing enough or not doing the right things to help with [movements and projects that are] fighting against the system, but also, I sometimes I feel like since the world is ending, I just want to spend time being joyful, being together with my friends and chosen family.” From our perspective, these two positions–wanting to live in and through deep relationships, and wanting to fight against the violence of “the system”, are not in contradiction. Accepting that the dominant order really cannot (and should not) be saved, is a necessary part of building a politics through which other ways of being in the world can be fought for, organized around, and lived into.
The Mutual Aid Project is a collective of students, staff, and faculty that explores, researches, supports, and instantiates mutual aid at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and beyond. Current and past members include:
Andrea Mendez Cerame
Each edition of Becoming Human will feature an article, reflection, interview, poetry, or other types of expression that engage with a creative community or municipal effort. These will include original features that discuss a local initiative and also stories about efforts in other parts of the world that we might learn from. The growing narratives, relations, and power from which other worlds are being assembled, maybe, can help reorient our hope and desire—and resignation—away from the death drive of white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist modernity, and towards an open, uncharted horizon of radical egalitarianism and towards the reality that other worlds are in the making or already here. For the full introduction to Becoming Human that appeared in its inaugural column, look here. For a listing a previous columns, look here.
Acknowledgements: This column is in dialogue and solidarity with numerous collaborators and comrades including Vin Lyon-Callo, Meredith Degyansky, Penn Loh, Stephen Healy, students in Anthropology 340 – Other Economies are Possible, Anthropology 341 Building Solidarity Economies, Anthropology 597CC Community, Commons, Communism, and the pluriverse of world-making and world-defending efforts, movements, and projects in Massachusetts and around the worlds.