by Jacob Wallace
Alana Kessler was not always sure she could be an activist. In fact, it wasn’t until the election of Donald Trump that she began to find her voice.
“It was a night that I knew I was going to remember forever,” said Kessler, “rather than getting pessimistic and scared, I decided to get inspired.”
Since last November, Kessler, a senior studying religious studies, has made more and more connections with activists in the American University community and in the greater Washington area as she builds a network to protect communities she sees as vulnerable. Her work includes founding the student organization AU Resist with other activists on campus.
“[AU Resist] is a Facebook group on campus or online that is a platform for AU students and people in the DC community to share events and protests and social-justice oriented things going on in the city,” said Kessler.
The AU Resist Facebook group currently has 540 members, and sees posts almost daily. The group’s stickers have been posted around American University’s campus to build awareness.
Through AU Resist, Kessler is hoping to create a community where activists on campus can learn from each other and develop coordinated ways to impact a variety of issues on campus. Kessler hopes to create “equal, inclusive and accessible spaces for anyone from any community.”
“I just think that everyone has a passion that can be engaged to make a difference,” said Kessler.
Kessler has received outside mentorship from activists she has met from the greater Washington area as well. In particular, Kessler describes how a chance meeting at a farmer’s market with Chris Otten, one of the founding members of 411 Collective, an activist group in Washington formed after the Standing Rock protests in South Dakota, has shaped her.
“There was this loud guy with a megaphone and a clipboard talking about ‘saving our plaza,’” said Kessler. “He introduced me to Save Our Plaza Initiative.”
Save Our Plaza Initiative was the campaign that first interested Kessler in 411 Collective.
Active since 2016, the Save Our Plaza Initiative is a partnership between several activist organizations in the area, including 411 Collective, the Kalorama Citizens Association, and Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development. It aims to preserve an equal amount of space for a farmer’s market and other community events in the SunTrust Plaza space even as a new mixed-use plaza is created by developer PN Hoffman, one of the largest developers in the greater Washington area.
In a statement on its site, the group describes itself as “homeowners, renters, and residents living, working, and playing in Adams Morgan who are concerned about the future of our neighborhood.”
411 Collective specializes in combining arts with activism, and has hosted graffiti parties and wheatpasting workshops, a method of sticking posters up in public spaces.
Since meeting Otten, Kessler has begun to attend events hosted by 411 Collective in community spaces like Uptown Arts House and the North Columbia Heights Green.
Kessler hopes to bring some of the skills and mentorship that she’s learned through 411 Collective to her activism in AU Resist. Although she is pursuing a Master’s degree at American University, Kessler hopes to pass on the organization to undergraduate students on campus to allow them to lead the charge.
“I really hope that we’re going to have a team of leadership that’s ready to mobilize,” said Kessler, “I’d love for this to be an undergrad-led [organization.]”
Kessler struggles with maintaining active involvement, and worries that many members of her Facebook group aren’t willing to take the time to attend events in person.
“I think we’re going to make some changes in how we’re going to engage our membership,” said Kessler, “because it’s really difficult to get people to show up.
As Kessler grows her movement, she is chiefly preoccupied with maintaining momentum. For her, the ultimate goal is creating an organization that can continue long after she’s gone.
“It’s really easy for people to like and follow a page,” said Kessler, “we’re just gonna hold our members to a higher standard, because we want to hold people accountable in AU Resist.”
As Kessler learns more about activism, she hopes to hold more workshops related to creating inclusive spaces at American University that connect with Washington at large.
“They liked a page for a reason,” said Kessler, “let’s make it as accessible as possible.”