A Balancing Actstory and photos by Emma Sarappo
People like Melissa Haggerty are often called “student-activists,” but Haggerty is an activist first and a student second.
The Loyola University Chicago junior lives in an apartment in Rogers Park a few blocks from the Loyola ‘L’ stop. Her bedroom is full of posters advocating her causes and her favorite media: above her headboard, Lana del Rey stares out at the door, and Ellen Page looks down from the “Whip It” poster by the door. Above her desk, pinned fragments of paper and notes proclaim her progressive beliefs and showcase sentimental feelings. Buttons in the corner and her laptop stickers also display her varied liberal interests.
However, although her space is cultivated to represent her, she’s rarely home. Haggerty says her schedule in the last semester had her up early in the morning, often not returning home until midnight or later.
That’s because she’s constantly doing activist work. Haggerty is involved with causes varying from radical feminism to socialism to living wage protests. At Loyola, she is heavily involved with the group Students for Worker Justice and focuses on securing higher wages for Loyola staff and employees.
As the newly chosen Action Chair of Chicago’s Feminist Uprising to Resist Inequality and Exploitation (FURIE), Haggerty works with a group of radical feminists to plan actions in the Chicagoland area. She’s currently working with the group to put on a march against rape culture and an emergency action following the Supreme Court’s decision on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
She’s also a member of the Rogers Park chapter of the International Socialist Organization. She says that in both groups, she’s one of—if not the youngest—person there. She speculates it’s because many people her age are student organizers who do not venture off campus, focusing instead on their academic lives and grades. For Haggerty, this isn’t the case.
“Activism is my priority, and I'm just trying to get through school,” she says. Usually a straight-A student, her grades slipped to Bs and Cs in the last semester, mostly because of her heavy involvement with FURIE, she says.
That’s not the only challenge that Haggerty and people like her face. In every aspect of her life, activism is at the front of her mind. She’s a vegetarian only because veganism is cost-prohibitive, and even her Doc Martens are made of vegan leather. She does her best to buy local produce and places the stickers on the side of her refrigerator to remind herself where her fruits and vegetables come from. All of her choices are intentional, and “it’s exhausting,” she admits.
All of this can add up for a student like her. She’s working full time in web developing this summer and as a part-time research assistant for a social work professor to help pay off her student loans, even though the work isn’t aligned with her activist goals. The question of how activists can afford to devote so much time and energy to their work is a very current one—for example, students at Oberlin College recently demanded the college’s administration compensate them for their activism.
Haggerty’s university isn’t likely to do that. Another major obstacle she faces is Loyola’s policies on activism, demonstrations and its opposition to many of her principles. The group she works with, Students for Worker Justice, is denied official group recognition at Loyola, or “the neoliberal university,” as Haggerty calls it. The group must often ask more center-left student groups to book rooms for them; Haggerty has even held meetings in her apartment. Additionally, many of her friends have been suspended by the school for their demonstrations or actions.
"In terms of the administration, I'm on their hit list for sure," she says. Still, she persists in her work. In her senior year, she plans to open a student-run contraceptive center, because Loyola does not dispense contraception for religious reasons.
"I'm 99.99 percent sure I'm going to get in some kind of trouble, but we'll see," she says. For her and many other young students across the nation like her, school is something to figure out as they go, and pushback is no deterrent. Activism is the priority.