Charlie Hoffs ’22
How can we bring people together?
This year, I was given a challenging and ultimately transformative opportunity. I was appointed as the Haas Center’s affordability issue area coordinator (IAC) in the second year of the program. My fellow IACs and I were entrusted not only to advance action in our respective areas, but to help further define the IAC program itself.
The program’s goal for the affordability IAC role is to “build partnerships among Stanford students, faculty, and Bay Area community leaders to address challenges around affordability” - in other words, bring people together to advance economic justice.
And that is how the work unfolded: All of my efforts as the affordability IAC centered on convening coalitions and building bridges. I worked with over 30 student organizers from 11 campus organizations to host a tabling event in White Plaza, raising awareness about nationwide college student food insecurity and homelessness.
I organized a panel, “How to End Hunger in America,” in which Hunger Free America CEO Joel Berg and UCLA Community Health Sciences Professor May Wang spoke to a virtual audience of 60 students, staff, faculty, and members of the public about strategies to strengthen the US social safety net and achieve food justice.
Fellow campus affordability activists and I founded Students for Affordability to advance economic justice on and beyond campus. We have begun building a website to centralize campus affordability resources, from undergraduate on-campus work opportunities to graduate student housing stipends to postdoctoral child-care benefits.
I also helped convene meetings for students with organizer Marshall Ganz; brought together alumni spanning decades who have advanced economic justice work in their full-time careers; and helped connect peers with volunteer opportunities, including the Stanford Pop-Up Food Pantry and Heart and Home Collaborative, a student-run nonprofit shelter serving unhoused women in Palo Alto.
Each of these efforts was an attempt to build community. Each was an experiment tackling the question: “How can we bring people together?”
Sometimes I tried to organize an event and only one or two people showed up. Sometimes I sent invitations and almost no one responded. Occasionally, people didn’t reflect on an event the way I hoped they might. But there were also countless moments during events and meetings where I was left speechless at the commitment and enthusiasm that students invested; where participants and co-organizers brought so much more to a space than I could ever have imagined; where bridges were built on foundations I never thought could form.
Reflecting on this spectrum of experiences, I revisit the question: “How can we bring people together?” A single word sums it up for me, at least at this early point in my lifelong journey to work with others towards a more just, sustainable, joyful world:
Before you cringe and disregard the rest of this article as a fluffball of ineffectual optimism, hear me out.
I believe that the magic ingredient for sustaining successful movements is friendship. I saw it in the archival photos of Stanford organizers’ April Third Movement, which protested the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1975. I saw it when SCoPE 2035 filled Palo Alto City Hall in 2019, advocating to include more affordable housing and equitable development in the Stanford General Use Permit. I saw it this February on the Columbae lawn as campus activists planned action together over lemonade and vegan brownies.
Most people who attended the “Act to End Campus Hunger and Homelessness” tabling event did so because they cared about addressing the issue of college student food and housing insecurity. However, I think the reason many people stayed—to chat with fellow organizers, read up about ways to engage their political representatives on the issue, and enjoy a donut out on the grass—was because they were spending time with old friends and making new ones. I saw members of the Graduate Student Council and ASSU scheming together, watched frosh join the Rethinking Economics mailing list, and noticed strangers leave the event together laughing.
Deepening friendships with my fellow organizers made our work so much more effective. It’s true that ideas flowed during our scheduled brainstorming meetings and Jamboard sessions. But even more visionary plans were born as we planted asparagus in the Roble Garden together on Saturday mornings, caught up over brunch at Lakeside, and circled Lake Lag on endless walk-and-talks, getting to know one another as people and friends.
I don’t often see the word “friendship” explicitly stated in the mission statements of organizations or the manifestos of social movements. But every day, powerful coalitions harness the collective power of friendship as one of the greatest secret weapons in their arsenal.
With anxious excitement, I consider future career pathways where I can work with others towards justice, stewardship, and sustainability. What power can we build together by mobilizing community? What solidarity can we foster by radically expanding our definition of “we” and our capacity for friendship to include all those eager to envision a more joyful, equitable world?