Radical political ideologies have something to teach us about the issues in our society. Through an analysis of radical viewpoints, one can make more informed political decisions. The UNControllables are a radical left-leaning political group on Chapel Hill’s campus. I chose to study this group for my ethnography. I believe the study of radical groups can teach us about society and human behavior. I set out to discover how and why the UNControllables function as a group on UNC’s campus. I did not enter my interactions with pre-conceived notions about their behavior or appearance, as I had never before encountered a radical political organization like this.
2. Background Information
The UNControllables are active through hosting guest seminars and lectures that highlight issues relevant to them. On the group’s heel life page one can find past event flyers which highlight issues they deem important. The blurb on their heel life page states that “Presenters have included former Black Panther Party members, former political prisoners… and many others” (UNControllables, 2020, para. 1). While informative, this text fails to articulate a specific political ideology for the group. Hensby, a researcher of student activism, states that “student activism can be seen to generate multiple layers of collective identity.” (Hensby, 2017, p. 206). The importance of a collective identity in student activism could provide an explanation for the ideological ambiguity on the UNControllables’ heel life page. A common appreciation for radical ideas could make ideological differences within the group less important.
3. Observation and Analysis
First Observation: Email Interview
My first interaction with the UNControllables was through an email interview with Angel, an active member of the group. She clarified that the UNControllables are a non-hierarchical group with no permanent leaders. Rather, power and responsibility are shared, which she states is an effective method of organization for their club. In a way this reflects their political stance against authority and oppression.
The UNControllables work with groups such as Food not Bombs to provide supplies to struggling residents. The group identifies itself based on their real, physical contribution to the surrounding community. They have a common interest in social justice and this gives them a unifying call to action, once again negating the importance of ideology for this group and amplifying the importance of activism.
Angel spoke about difficulties the UNControllables have faced from authority, including police harassments at Fall Fest, denied funding by UNC, and the Carolina Indian Circle’s refusal to collaborate on the basis that the group is too radical. She elaborates that UNC wishes to create the facade of a progressive campus through organizations like the Carolina Indian Circle. This criticism could be driven by her radical political views or by her negative experience with UNC groups and officials. Regardless, the radical status of the UNControllables appears to define how the group is perceived on campus by other organizations and individuals
Second Observation: Thursday, February 27th 2020, 7:00 P.M. – 8:30 P.M.
My second interaction with the UNControllables was through an Environmental Justice forum held in a classroom of Dey hall. The speaker, a representative from Climate Action NC, was invited by the UNControllables to speak on how pollution has negatively affected people of color locally and globally.
When I entered the room there were roughly fifteen individuals seated in the classroom. Some seemed older than the average UNC student, such as Larry; dressed in glasses, a polo shirt, and khakis. When the presentation broke down into smaller discussion groups, Larry told me how a nearby dump had negatively affected the black community. I inquired to him about the diverse ages of those in attendance, and he told me that many non-students attend the UNControllables’ events because the group actively engages in the community. During this small group discussion, a Chinese student talked about the impact of rapid industrialization in her country and how the smog had affected Chinese city-dwellers. The group had a collective mood of attentiveness and respect for the individuals that chose to share their stories.
Everyone in attendance was attentive during the presentation, and many were diligently taking notes. The single-minded focus of the audience on the speaker was almost intimidating. This is a group of highly involved, socially conscious citizens and students that are serious about their cause. Those in attendance did not fit stereotypes one could attach to “radicals”. There was no neon hair, strange clothes, or hackneyed political slogans. The audience acted as a group of concerned activists, and with no better way to put it, they just looked like normal people.
Although I entered my experience with the UNControllables without pre-conceived notions, I was still surprised by the group’s structure and behavior. I found a group that was not entrenched in ideology, but rather in education and activism. This group truly lives up to their radical status as evidenced by their non-hierarchical leadership structure. The importance of collective identity is still relevant to a discussion of the UNControllables. I believe it plays a small role in their group behavior. However, based on my second observation, the group serves as a catalyst for political action more than it functions as a social club. The focus of the meeting was never on the UNControllables as a group. Instead, the focus was on the issues at hand, individual stories, and actions to fix these issues.
Hensby, A. (2017). Participation and non-participation in student activism: paths and barriers to mobilizing young people for political action. London, NY: Rowman et Littlefield.
UNControllables. (n.d.). UNControllables, Heel Life. Retrieved February 22, 2020, from https://heellife.unc.edu/organization/UNControllables.