Throughout its history, Oberlin has been at the forefront of activist activities, and in order to highlight this aspect of the Oberlin mystique, we decided to compile a collection of soundscapes that capture Oberlin Activism. To encapsulate this progressive atmosphere on campus, each person focused on a different category: environmental, political, and social activism. Although these categories have some overlap, Oberlin has taken particularly strong positions in relation to these issues. Drawing from various sources such as our own recordings, YouTube videos, songs, etc, we have created a collection that represents the larger soundscape of activism on the Oberlin College campus.
Oberlin’s eco-friendly culture emphasizes conservation, sustainability, and environmental awareness. One example of this is the annual Ecolympics. This campus-wide event challenges students to reduce their energy and water consumption by as much as possible within a three week period. Whichever dorm reduces their consumption the most wins bragging rights and - of course - an ice cream party. This tradition makes students more aware of how they consume resources and what lifestyle changes they can make to help protect the Earth. Also, Oberlin is home to the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, a completely carbon-neutral building. This is one of the many steps Oberlin has taken toward making the entire campus carbon-neutral by 2025. Finally, the sounds of a protest cheer, recycling bottles, and chirping birds encapsulate the spirit of Oberlin environmentalism.
Within its liberal atmosphere, students and faculty at Oberlin have fought for better political situations, locally and globally. Many students participated in Anti-Vietnam War Protests by holding silent vigils, sending supplies to the Vietnamese, and creating media events - as our sound collection demonstrates. Political activism on campus exists in various forms, from boycotting Coca-Cola products because of the company’s violations of labor rights to a public denouncement of Jeffrey Sachs that was planned completely through social media. Although the forms and means of political activism at Oberlin have changed over time, the pursuit to improve political situations all over the world remains a powerful cause among Oberlin students.
Finally, Oberlin has always been a symbol of acceptance and social activism. It was one of the first interracial and co-educational schools in the country, and it played an important role in helping slaves escape the South through the Underground Railroad. Students are at the forefront of a multitude of movements, and are thus hyper-aware of the issues that plague their colleagues and people around the world. Whether it presents itself in the form of preferred gender pronouns, an informative text exchange, or the performance of a traditional slave song, the Oberlin soundscape is intertwined with and representative of social activism.
When these nine sounds are brought together, Oberlin Activism becomes a tangible soundscape. Whether it is the sound of glass bottles being recycled, students speaking out against the harmful practices of a famous economist, or outlining one’s preferred gender pronouns when introducing oneself, activism on campus defines the Oberlin experience.
This recording was made during the People’s Climate March in New York City. The march's goal was to influence the discussion of environmental policy at the upcoming UN summit. 50 Oberlin College students were a part of the estimated 400,000 marchers present, making the PCM the largest climate action in history. The recording captures a cheer said by marchers throughout the day. Made up of simple call and response, it helped unite marchers through song and inspired a sense of community and connection. Similar chants were used in a variety of marches, including the Occupy Wall St. Movement. Banging drums, cowbell, and a general cacophony of spirited voices make up the background noise, further characterizing the atmosphere and energy of such a large assembly. The use of peaceful protest has brought about some of America’s most important reforms. In the future, people power – and Oberlin – will continue to fight for the change the world needs.
This is the sound of someone collecting a large number of recycled glass bottles in order to transport them to a recycling plant. Oberlin is very dedicated to reducing, reusing, and recycling. Across campus, almost every trashcan is coupled with a recycling bin. In the recording, it is also evident that there are many bottles to be collected. This demonstrates how Oberlin students genuinely make an effort to recycle what they can instead of throwing everything into the trash. There are even signs describing what materials can and cannot be recycled posted to help students determine what belongs in the recycling bins and what goes in the trash. In addition to recycling, each hall in the dormitories has a compost bin managed by a student volunteer. Signs outlines which materials are and are not compostable often accompany these bins. These campus-wide efforts show Oberlin College’s dedication to environmental activism.
This recording, consisting ofat least three distinct birdsongs, was captured on a rainy morning in the gardens surrounding Oberlin College’s carbon-neutral Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies. The soundscape’s proximity to this particular building connects to Oberlin’s incredible dedication to environmental preservation and education. One demonstration of Oberlin’s environmental activism is the annual Ecolympics. This is a campus-wide competition to see which dorm can reduce their energy and water consumption by the most within a three-week period. However, environmental awareness exists outside of the Ecolympics as well. Students make composting and recycling a priority throughout the school year. What is even more impressive is that Oberlin College aspires to be a completely carbon-neutral campus by 2025. The combination of the beautiful birdsongs of nature and the most environmentally progressive area of campus unifies what Oberlin is fighting to protect and how it is taking steps to ensure preservation.
On October 29th, 2014, Jeffrey Sachs, a well-known economist, was invited to speak at Oberlin College as part of the Convocation Series of 2014. Many people disagreed strongly with Sachs’s practices, and a group of students who stood against Sachs’s actions were scattered throughout Finney Chapel. A faculty member introduced Sachs, and almost before he could speak his first words, several student leaders stood up and shouted the transcribed phrases below with other students repeating the call. Those students argued that Sachs’s neoliberal ideologies destroyed the lives of the poor working class. In the process of this protest, social media took a significant role; students created an event titled “Speak Out Against Sachs!” on Facebook, communicated with each other, and organized the protest. The emergence of new forms of communication marked a shift in the way Oberlin students expressed their opinions.
One characteristic of Oberlin vending machines sets them apart from most vending machines across the country - they do not sell Coca-Cola products. This traces back to 2004, when Coca-Cola was accused of violating human and labor rights in Columbia. The members of Oberlin’s Student Labor Action Committee and the Purchasing Committee debated what actions should be taken regarding Coca-Cola’s treatment of its workers and decided to ban sales of all Coca-Cola products on campus. Susanna Duncan, one of the SLAC members at that time, mentioned that since colleges like Oberlin “have a tremendous amount of purchasing power, it is important that they utilize that power to hold corporations that have dealings with the College accountable to just labor standards” (Taylor). In the spring of 2014, Oberlin College has lifted the ban on Coca-cola products, but its vending machines are a remnant of the communities previous political actions.
The Vietnam War, which occurred in November 1955, had a great impact on Oberlin students. “By the later part of the sixties,” said Paula Gordon, class of 1968, “people our age were being killed and were killing and it was very real to us. So subtly goes away in a hurry.” This urgency led the students to argue for civil rights and to participate in various anti-war activities: silent vigils held every Wednesday at noon; demonstrations in Cleveland, New York, and Washington, DC; illegally crossing into Canada and sending supplied to Vietnamese; presidential campaign of anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy(“War Protests Continue,” Oberlin Review, 10 Sept. 1968, 19). This piece of music, composed in 1975, was also a part of the anti-war activity, Anti Vietnam War Protest media event. Directed by Herbert Blau, a notable experimental theater director who moved to Oberlin College in 1971, this event attracted attention from international media.
This recording is of iMessage notifications being played from the speakers of a Macbook Pro. iMessage is an app that allows its users to communicate through either a mobile device or a computer. It is similar to texting, but it is unique to apple products, communicating between them independent of cellular reception by using wifi. The sounds are of incoming and outgoing messages: a conversation. In this particular conversation, one party is on a laptop and the other is texting from a cell phone. This convergence represents technology’s ability to disseminate information efficiently, effortlessly, and internationally. iMessage communication (and similar media) are important for social activism because they help spread awareness about issues at a pace unimaginable decades ago. No matter where on Earth a person is, they can hear about something at the rate that their companion can type it.
This sound is of my friend Zoë Kushlefsky introducing herself using her preferred gender pronouns, or P.G.P.s. Students at Oberlin are encouraged to state their P.G.P.s when meeting someone. The most common P.G.P.s on campus are they/them/theirs, she/her/hers, and he/him/his, though other P.G.P.s exist. The attachment of P.G.P.s at the end of someone’s name in an introduction shows the importance of gender identity (or lack thereof) and the investment that students have in respecting their peers’ identities. Marginalized groups have long found asylum at Oberlin, and the implementation of P.G.P.s into the basic act of introduction helps prevent further marginalization of individuals who may not necessarily identify with the gender they were born into. While those born into their genders (cis-gendered people) may not feel it necessary to introduce themselves with their P.G.P.s, the students at Oberlin generally embrace P.G.P.s to create an inclusive and understanding environment.
“Follow the Drinking Gourd” would have been sung by escaping slaves on their northward trudge toward freedom. The “drinking gourd” referenced in the song is code for the big dipper, which is an indicator of the North Star. Following the “gourd” would have kept the escapers on track. Oberlin, as a safe place for escaping slaves in the 19th century, played a major role in the Underground Railroad. No escaped slave in Oberlin was ever taken back to captivity, and when one almost was, the town rallied to liberate him from his captor in the famous Wellington-Oberlin Slave Rescue of 1858. As an important location in the Underground Railroad, Oberlin must have had a soundscape that included “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” The legacy of social activism lives on at Oberlin.