This interview is part of an ongoing series profiling young resisters taking actions in their communities and sharing their ideas for countering “protest fatigue” with sustainable ways to keep resisting the Trump agenda for the long-haul.
Emma Tayloe is a student at Davidson College, where she majors in Chemistry. While at Davidson, she has been a part of the Divestment Campaign, which seeks to change the college’s outlook on fossil fuel investment; she has helped in developing Orta Culture, an organization that seeks to get students directly involved with activism to combat the struggles of marginalized communities and institutional problems on campus and in the greater Charlotte area; she has also organized for students to be able to attend the “People’s Climate March” in D.C. and the “A Day Without Immigrants” marches in Charlotte. In addition to intentionally fighting injustice through her work as an activist, she is involved on campus as a member of the Davidson Refugee Support organization and she is the Business Manager of the Civic Engagement Council.
Generation Progress: Since the beginning of your college career, you’ve been involved in activism. Specifically, you have been a part of the divestment campaign pushing your school [Davidson College] to find alternatives to investing in fossil fuels. Additionally, you have helped with the founding and development of Orta Culture, a student-led organization that promotes the creation of venues for activism and change. With this organization, you’ve been a part of ongoing conversations to bring younger trustees to Davidson’s board of education, you’ve attended and organized events on immigration and have directly collaborated with organizations in Charlotte around this issue; and have also pushed a clear and feasible action plan for the years to come.
What brought you to this kind of activism? What drives you to continue your activism in this space?
Emma Tayloe: One of the first organizations I got involved with at Davidson was the fossil fuel divestment campaign. In high school, I knew that I cared about climate change and I knew a little bit about college divestment campaigns, so it was those interests more than a desire to become an activist that pulled me in. Through my involvement in the divestment campaign, I learned about activism and grew into something of an activist, myself. I continue to participate in campus activism because I think it is an effective way to engage students, faculty, and the Davidson community at large.
Generation Progress: Can you tell us about your involvement in Orta Culture and what inspired you to help get this organization off the ground?
Tayloe: I was invited to the first Orta meeting by a friend who had the idea to create a network of student activists in light of the Trump election. I was motivated by the changes in the national political climate after the 2016 election, local policies (such as North Carolina’s HB2 [which mandates people use the public bathrooms in line with the sex on their birth certificate, no matter their gender identification]) and my own experiences engaging with the school administration through the divestment campaign. Since then, I have been part of the smaller team within Orta that has been meeting with the Student Government Association and the College President to draft policy proposals regarding student access to the Board of the Trustees. More recently, I have been planning to work on admission policy reform.
Generation Progress: What impact does Orta Culture have on change on your campus?
Tayloe: So far, Orta has made progress on building communication networks between the student body and the Board of Trustees. Specifically, we have worked with the administration to ensure that summaries of each Board of Trustee meeting will be made available to the student body. We are in talks with the administration about establishing a position for a recent graduate on the Board, to have open sessions for students to meet Board members, to publish biographies of Board members on the Davidson College website, to mandate annual diversity trainings for the Board and to make students more engaged with the Board in general. I see all of this as important in and of itself, but I think that it also should be noted that through this campaign, Orta has moved the campus conversation forward on how students can and should engage with the administration.
Generation Progress: In a previous conversation, you stated that there are people in your life that disapprove of activism as an effective form to foster change. How do you feel about that and in what ways do you think advocacy is the right approach for meaningful change?
Tayloe: I think most people agree that advocacy in some form or another is a good approach to affect change. I think that there is more controversy about what kinds of advocacy are constructive (or about what specifically should be advocated for). I hesitate to make any sweeping statements about what kinds of advocacy are best or most effective. For one thing, “showing up” for a cause will look very different for each individual. For example, physical disability or immigration status may make it unsafe for some people to participate in protests or marches. Furthermore, the tone and tactics of actions/campaigns depend on so many different factors that it is difficult for me to discuss them in the abstract. In general, I think activism is most effective when it has both a targeted audience and a narrow, well-defined issue or demand. I also believe that campaigns for change are strongest when they are led by “true” stakeholders; centering the voices of the people most affected by the issue of concern is critical.
Generation Progress: What is/are your primary goal(s) for the advocacy work that you are involved in?
Tayloe: At Davidson, I think my broader goal is to make students more comfortable with activism. I get the impression that most students at Davidson are not aware of what goes on “behind the scenes.” I want to challenge some of my peers to question the College and institutions in general. One thing in particular I would like to see changed at Davidson would be the admission policies. Between early decision, preferential admission for legacies, and the mandated 50:50 gender ratio, wealthy, white and male students have an explicit advantage. When I have pointed this out to my friends, they are often surprised, but I don’t think many people think “we should do something about that.” I hope that that changes.
Generation Progress: How do you contribute in creating sustainable avenues for activism in your community?
Tayloe: On college campuses, there is a lot of turnover. For that reason, I believe that training underclassmen should be an integral part of any campus campaign. At Orta Culture, we have specifically identified underclassmen who seem interested and tried to reach out to them to make sure that they feel welcome and involved. Building individual relationships within the organization has been a priority for the group, as well. When we meet with folks outside of Orta Culture, we generally try to make sure that there is a good balance of students more experienced in activism and younger students.
Generation Progress: How do you hope to continue to contribute to change given the current political climate? In what ways will you be working with other young activists to promote a culture of change for our future?
Tayloe: As I mentioned, I want to work on admissions policies while I’m still at Davidson and to be intentional about reaching out to underclassmen to share with them what I have learned and to give them opportunities to participate in student activism as early as possible.
Generation Progress: How do you measure success for your on-campus initiatives and what have been some hurdles in making progress (could be anything from divergent student body opinions or campus leadership resistance)?
Tayloe: Most initiatives have an explicit goal (fossil fuel divestment, for example), that are either met or not met. Often, there are intermediate goals, such as getting a certain number of signatures on a petition. I would say that I very rarely felt like I or any organization I’m a part of has “failed;” more often I would say that we have not yet met our goal. The biggest hurdle I think that the divestment campaign faced was disagreement within the student body; it’s difficult to make a case that “students want divestment” if the campus is split 50/50, and I had a difficult time engaging folks on that issue. I think that Orta Culture is struggling to find a balance between creating space for folks to engage according to their different abilities with distributing work and leadership fairly. We want to have a community where someone who can only commit an hour a week can contribute and feel welcomed and included, but on the other hand, it’s not fair for the same people to be doing the heavy lifting all year, and it’s ineffective and unsustainable to rely on one or just a few leaders. I don’t think we’ve really arrived at a good answer just yet.
Generation Progress: What do you think your role is in the larger North Carolina community?
Tayloe: I think that a lot of North Carolina, and Charlotte in particular, pays attention to Davidson. When Davidson takes a stand against HB2 or signs onto climate commitments, it gets noticed by people outside of the campus. For now, my activism has been limited to Davidson and Charlotte, but impact that change at Davidson has outside of the Davidson community is not lost on me.