On Solidarity, or What ‘90s Rap, Role-Playing Games, and Labor Activism Can Teach Us in Times Like These

One of my earliest exposures to the concept of empathy came in the form of Everlast’s 1998 one-hit wonder “What It’s Like,” a slow rap on a backdrop of folksy guitar with all the requisite sound effects and turntable wiggles of the era. It’s no masterpiece, but it was overplayed on the radio beyond all measure of sensibility when I was in middle school, meaning it’ll stay lodged in my head for the rest of my days. Still, with its lyrics about the pain of addiction, poverty, and loss, it was among the first times I can remember hearing and thinking about the phrase “walk a mile in [someone else’s] shoes.”

This article is not about the bizarre pop hits of the late ‘90s, though hit me up if you ever do want to have that discussion. I bring up “What It’s Like” because, musical merits notwithstanding, it has an important lesson to share: empathy isn’t possible without understanding. And understanding isn’t possible without the story, detail, and background of what someone else is going through. The word “narrative” serves as a good catch-all for story, detail, and background. In society writ large, certain narratives get more airtime, representation, and discussion than others. The system of U.S. higher education is no exception to that, nor is Olin as a particular location within that system.

Because we live in a society, the narratives of certain groups do not tend to get attention at our institution.1 But we need information in order to empathize, and because the narratives of certain groups do not get attention, information that could lead to empathy for those groups goes unheard. Without that informed empathy, people become akin to non-player characters (NPCs)—characters in games that are not controlled by a human player, like the iconic “Hello, my friend! Stay a while and listen” guy from Diablo.2 They are creatures without agency that do not exist as ends in themselves but rather as a means to an end for others, perhaps moving one narrative along while not having a narrative themselves. It’s also tempting to assume you know what’s going on with NPCs when you don’t, because it’s easy to stereotype someone or assign their motives when you don’t consider them to be fully human.

Understanding and empathizing with each other takes effort, though, and if there’s one thing we don’t have a surplus of right now, it’s energy. Earlier this semester, I had a conversation with students about the cognitive dissonance between acknowledging that people are burned out and over capacity and needing to try harder than we normally would to be patient and understanding with each other. A friend at another institution who serves as a vocal labor advocate in her faculty union suggested to me that the extra expenditure of resources—if it’s truly in the name of supporting one another—is worth it, even (if not especially) when we’re this exhausted. It’s a rare case of pushing ourselves in a way that does not have to be exploitative, but instead can lead to what labor activists and sociologists call solidarity. Quoting the Wikipedia3 entry: “Solidarity is an awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies creating a psychological sense of unity of groups or classes4, which rejects the class conflict.” You could think of students, staff, and faculty as separate groups or classes, and you could think of what might unite them as solidarity. To know what might unite these groups, you need some amount of understanding about what each of them is experiencing. Without that, you’re prone to start seeing members of groups other than your own as NPCs.

As I’m writing this in late November, there are abundant reasons to be annoyed, scared, and furious at larger forces in the world, at the U.S., at late-stage capitalism, at the criminal justice system, at tech giants, at the construction of pipelines on stolen land, at the COVID cases ticking back up yet again, at the effing Omicron variant. Not one of us asked to be living through history, and here we are, muddling through a watershed event with no end in sight. It’s valid to feel overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of these things. That said, if we work to build understanding, empathy, and solidarity, we might find ourselves with a way forward. This is not a solution, nor is it a new construction, but instead is a common ground we might be able to stand on if we try to find it.

There are many barriers to solidarity at Olin, as there are anywhere (again, we live in a society), but the big one I want to leave us thinking about is the compartmentalization of students, faculty, and staff. These roles have a meaningful functional difference and this is no argument for dissolving them, but true solidarity can and should overcome categorical distinction. If we can find no solidarity between students, staff, and faculty, this effectively denies the potential, and perhaps the very existence, of higher education. We also need solidarity between faculty and staff because as we try to walk the walk of incorporating ethics, inclusion, and humanities into our mission and offerings, we cannot deny the importance of expertise and lived experience of all kinds in this work. Not to mention, a lack of solidarity between different types of labor in any workplace is a liability when any one of us wants to push for better working conditions.5 Many members of our three groups want to see a better world, and many of us have quite similar visions of a better world, and that looks like a path to solidarity. This is not healing, or resilience, which asks us to impossibly return to a “before” state that can no longer be accessed and often negates our experience. This is not turning a crisis into opportunity. Instead, solidarity asks us to find a shared reason to come as we are, broken and mistrustful, from different levels of the system and with our pain validated. It’s a shift away from deficit logic, not toxic positivity6 or a denial of what we’ve been through, and therein lies its power.

The last line of the bridge in “What It’s Like” is this: “You know, where it ends, it usually depends on where you start.” We might try to start from a place where we acknowledge there are many larger and smaller intersecting systems impacting us inside and outside our Olin bubble, where all the players are seen as human, where we’re patient with each other’s mistakes, where solidarity helps us keep going as a group even when individuals feel as if they’ve got nothing left. In the uncertain times of COVID, we are all “stuck in a route of confusion, changing and waiting and seeking the truth of it all.”7 So let’s try to walk it together, if for no other reason than that the forces in the world we want to stop and reverse would like nothing more than to see us breaking off alone.

  1. See “Olin: An ‘Alien’ Perspective” in Frankly Speaking vol. 14, issue 3.
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2alFLXjty9o
  3. Spoiler alert: Librarians actually love Wikipedia, and many of us help keep Wikipedia entries up to date.
  4. Note that this is an oversimplification; of course there are many subgroups of identities, class years, job types, and much more within these three, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll keep it zoomed out.
  5. https://www.upbeacon.com/article/2021/11/university-of-portland-faces-staffing-issues-beyond-the-labor-shortage
  6. https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/mind/well-being/toxic-positivity
  7. I’m quoting a Swedish death metal band here in hopes of balancing all the Everlast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhohQNdSt7g

Quiz: Is This QEA, or a Scene from Inception?

  1. People keep repeating certain numbers and you don’t know why.
  2. A team is working together to solve a near-impossible task.
  3. You have no idea what’s going on.
  4. People keep falling asleep.
  5. Some things feel purposefully ambiguous.
  6. Time feels like it’s moving much slower than it actually is.
  7. You have to keep track of so many confusing things that you feel like you’re losing it.
  8. People are constantly asking themselves “how did I get here?”
  9. You’re still confused after someone tries to explain what’s happening.
  10. Things are happening very quickly and you feel that it would benefit from slowing it down so you could understand it better.
  11. You think you get it. Wait, just kidding, no you don’t.
  12. Even after the end of it, you still have so many questions.

Answer Key:

QEA: 1-12

Inception: 1-12

The New NATO Phonetic Alphabet

First of all, the NATO Phonetic alphabet is a spelling alphabet, and not a phonetic alphabet at all (if you want that, look into the International Phonetic Alphabet on Wikipedia). In case you don’t know, the NATO Phonetic Alphabet is the system of using the words Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, and so on to spell out words (typically over the radio).

However, while it is not a true phonetic alphabet, real phonetic alphabets exist to provide symbols for every type of sound that humans make while speaking. It’s an incredibly powerful tool. Want to learn an accent? Simply go to something like www.dialectsarchive.com, which attempts to collect every common accent of the English language. From there, you can listen to real people talk and go through each word replacing the sounds in that word with a symbol. Compare your own speech with those symbols and practice the differences. If you made your own symbol you’re well on your way to making your own real phonetic alphabet. However, try to use the NATO Phonetic alphabet to sound out words, and you will sound like you’re one of those crazy theater people.

By the way, the NATO Phonetic alphabet isn’t even its official name. It’s officially called “The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet”. The IRSA went through many revisions before it landed in its current state. By the way, why they landed on spelling Alfa with an F and not a PH I will never know. Words were swapped out and it was worked to be optimized to include distinct words and sounds common to all languages. The last update to this system, devised to clear up pronunciation misunderstandings, was on 1 March 1956. Because of the lack of an update, I have taken it upon myself to propose an update that is clearly superior in every way. Please use only this henceforth.

Symbol                Code WordTraditional International Phonetic AlphabetPronunciation
BBuscemi,Stevebuːˈsɛmi, stivboo-SEM-ee, steev
CChesterˈtʃɛs tərches-ter
EEcstaticɛkˈstæt ɪkek-stat-ik
FFuddle-dum-rumpleyˈfʌd l dʌm ˈrʌm plifuhd-l duhm ruhm-plee
JJabberwockyjab-er-wok-eeˈdʒæb ərˌwɒk i
LLigmaˈlɪg məlig-muh
MMancy ˈmæn siman-see
OOrwellˈɔr wɛlawr-wel
PPneumaticsnʊˈmæt ɪksnoo-mat-iks
SSchadenfreudeˈʃɑd nˌfrɔɪ dəshahd-n-froi-duh
UUranusyoor-uh-nuhsˈyʊər ə nəs
YYeastyˈyi stiyee-stee
ZZaddyˈzæd i-zad ee

An Open Letter to Current and Future Olin Improvisers

As this semester comes to a close, I find that I do not have time to teach all that I know about improv. I write this to impart some last bits of knowledge to you, the reader, in the hopes that it helps you improve the quality of your improv performances at least a little. The following are things that I have picked up from either books, or other improvisers, or my own experience that I feel I must share.

1. Freedom, Power & Responsibility

First, there was nothing. Then, there was improv. When two people initiate a scene, the person who speaks first, whether through words or actions, has the freedom to do or say whatever they want. When the stage is empty, you could walk on and say, “Shit, that was a wrong turn,” or ,”Doc, my face feels like it’s on fire,” to quickly establish part of a platform (Who’s there? Where? And what’s happening?). Actions like digging or fishing can also help establish who your character is through the use of body language. As the improviser to initiate the scene, you walked on and had the freedom to make the empty space your own.

Now, the person who responds has the power to interpret your words or actions and establish a direction for the scene. For example, in response to the wrong turn line, your scene partner may respond, “Oh! The scenic route!” or, “Jackie, at this rate, we’re going to miss the wedding!” Even an audible huff establishes that your character often misses turns and that your partner character’s patience may be wearing thin. Responses need not always be words. Let’s say that you begin a scene by digging. Your partner walks up, crosses their arms, and watches. By not helping (and with their body language), they are saying that yes, you are digging, and I am supervising. If they were not helping, but were holding a shovel too and wiping sweat from their brow, then they have used their power to say that you two are coworkers, allowing the scene to have a very different set of interactions.

The initiative now shifts back to you. After your freedom to do anything and your scene partner’s power to interpret your anything, you now have the responsibility to continue the scene using that same interpretation. If your scene partner responds to you saying, “Doc, my face feels like it’s on fire,” with the statement, “I am a cardiologist. I barely know what a face is,” then you have the responsibility to continue the scene in that direction, wherever it goes. In this specific case, we’ve established a precedent of asking for help in all the wrong places, which is a very funny pattern to continue in the same scene or future scenes with that character.

To summarize, the first person has the freedom to do or say whatever. The second person has the power to take that and establish a direction for the scene to go. The first person then has the responsibility to continue the scene in that direction. This is the idea of freedom, power and responsibility.

2. Give gifts, generously

In improv, giving a gift means giving a scene partner something to work with. The general suggestion is that you should give gifts as much as possible, and that the best improvisers make their scene partners look amazing through gifts.

Gifts in the context of improv do not need to be physically handing someone an object. Usually, a gift takes the form of an idea that can be further explored. Take, for example, a scene where two improvisers are talking over lunch. They may touch upon the minutiae of their day to day or describe the food they’re eating or restaurant they are in, but that is world building if anything. The scene really gets going when one person says something like, “Let’s get down to business. You say you want my house?” This question has the obvious, interesting answer of, “Yes, I want your house,” and gives the other improviser both a strong motivation and the power to answer the question of why their character wants the other’s house. Giving gifts tends to take the form of statements or questions with obvious, interesting answers that elaborate upon motivations, shared history, or other relationships a character may have. Good gifts help further the development of the scene, the characters as individuals, and their relationship with each other.

Newer improvisers sometimes struggle with establishing strong characters or inserting themselves in larger group scenes. A gift in their case may be a strong and clear character trait to help them find their footing in a scene. Easy characters to gift are spouses/ significant others, bosses/the president (of anything) or business partners. These characters are easy to support and explore around, allowing for other gifts to be given during the lifetime of the character.

3. “Yes, And” means agreement between actors, not necessarily characters within a scene

The backbone of improv is the idea that actors must agree with each other to fully create and explore a scene. The quickest way to do this is by agreeing to ideas your scene partner brings.

For example, say there is you and another person initiating a scene. The other person approaches and says, “Mother, I wish to attend a party at David’s.” If we apply the idea of ‘Yes, And’ to the characters themselves, then the Mother must acquiesce the request. The child gets to go to David’s party.

But if we apply ‘Yes, And’ to the actors and not the characters, then the mother has the power to say, “No, Honey. I’ve never met David or his parents.” And can respond like a mother. This allows the improvisers to explore and resolve the conflict that has been presented, exploring the world of the child and mother along the way.

4. The performers are in charge, not the audience

A long, long time ago, we held a show that did not go well. We as performers gave the audience so much power that it hindered our ability to perform and our general consensus after the show was that it could not have gone much worse.  For complete transparency I will name this event as the rotten food show from 2 years ago. The best thing that came from that show was a decision to never do it again. But I think it’s worth saying why it didn’t work because that topic comes up in other places.

As improvisers, we learn how to bring ideas from our head onto the stage. We also have a filter for words and topics that the audience does not. To that end, and for the comfort of the actors and general audience, the final say of what happens on stage is in the hands of the performers and no one else’s.

For example, take the game of Pillars. Audience members are sat onstage and tapped on the shoulder for words and phrases to fill in the blank. Let’s paint ourselves a scene where a parent and child are cleaning out their car. The child finds an object that they do not recognize and are unsure where to put it. They ask their parent. The parent says, “Oh, that? Just put it –” and then taps one of the pillars, an audience member, for a suggestion. Let’s say the pillar replies with the phrase, “in my ass.” While the response is funny in a non-sequitur sort of way, and the improvisers may be able to continue after the audience calms down, there is nothing wrong with hitting the pillar for a second time and saying, “again,” or, “another one,” to get a different word or phrase. One of the joys of working with an audience is not knowing what you’re going to get, but I dare say the experience is so much better when it’s collaborative in nature and no one is trying to trip up the other.

Remember this and remember it well: the word of the audience is not law. Do not chase the audience’s laugh. You can control what is brought on stage.

5. An improviser is a storyteller

Again, improvising is hard. There are soft boundaries everywhere that you hit and have to bounce back from. Sometimes, especially when improvising with individuals new to the world of improv or experienced with a different troupe, these boundaries will appear within improv scenes.

Sometimes scenes will begin or move in a direction that you, as an improviser, will not like. Maybe your character is pushed in a direction or given qualities that hit you personally. Maybe the scene is delving into a topic that is making you increasingly uncomfortable and you know is heading in a bad direction.

Change it, I say. This is not real life. This is a story in your head. Your character is an ass? A bully? Not anymore after a quick personal epiphany. Now they’re nice and work to lift up others. Stuck in a bad situation? Feel like you have no control? Good thing you’re the undercover boss. The secret audit officer.

There is no reason you should be trapped in a story you are helping to build. Improv scenes are a collaborative storytelling medium. A good scene partner can recognize discomfort and help shift the scene away from that direction.

Final Thoughts

I swear this was supposed to be light-hearted. I started writing it that way and then realized there were other things to say.

Like many things in life, there’s so much knowledge you only gain through experience and I just wanted to share these tidbits as a parting gift. I wish you all the best of luck going forward and am glad I got to be a part of your journey.


Luis Francisco Zuniga

I’m A Guy You Just Met, And I’m Already Mansplaining Python To You

Hey, it’s great to meet you. Did you know that Python uses whitespace instead of brackets? I’m sure you didn’t, because even though the internet exists and there are thousands of tutorials out there, I must be the only person in the world who has ever taken a Python course. 

Isn’t it so amazing that I know basic information about Python syntax that anyone would get from a W3Schools tutorial? Having opinions on the relative merits of camel case and snake case makes me feel like a fully formed human being.

What do you think about the latest Python release? You haven’t thought about it? You must not be a real engineer. I, of course, read the Python changelog on a daily basis, and I tell everyone I meet about it because I think it makes me a well-informed citizen. 

You know, I really feel like being able to use Git is a defining personality trait. Yeah, I’ve only ever used Git to write commit messages like “asdfjkasldflaksdfj i hope this works” and “changed something”, but being able to type two-word commands into a terminal shows that I am a very intelligent person.

Sometimes I feel threatened by the fact that software engineers that aren’t white males exist, but then I go to my room and read the James Damore memo and tell myself that I’m special because I once read the first few chapters of a book on object-oriented programming and then I feel all better.

What’s that? You’ve used Python before? You’ve used Git too? That can’t be right. If you’re not spending all of your time on r/programming, how can you even call yourself a coder?

Well, I just checked your Github account, and my contributions graph has more commits than yours does because I don’t understand the concept of rebase, so I must be a better developer.

Have I told you how cool Elon Musk is? Wait, where are you going? Come back so I can tell you my take on the Cybertruck!

This article was inspired by fun moments as a woman in STEM.

dASSember Whoreoscopes

Very chaste and conservative predictions for the Franklin Walter Olin College Family.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Among the most oily fries lies a piece of gold. It’s your destiny calling, pick up! If you don’t, they’ll call again soon, but man are they going to be pissed. It’s not every day that destiny calls, and you can’t even get yourself off the toilet to answer. Is this because of the oily fries?

Aries (March 21 – April 19)

Have you ever built a snowman? Do you want to build a snowman? Come on, let’s go and play! If you make a mess, that’s okay. Self-forgiveness is important, but make sure to buy some Clorox wipes! And definitely use those wipes to clean your laptop screen. Also, join ASs club.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

When the SolidWorks file crashes, you will crash with it. Beware of zero thickness geometry and always have a license on hand. When the circuit shorts, supply power again and again. The circuit just needs some time. Give it some time!!! Try plugging the USB into your belly button.

Gemini (May 21 – June 21)

After today, never eat chickpeas unless peeled beforehand. It will thank you. Embrace your inner child and you will receive 20% off your next purchase. If you call 1-800-CHILD right now, you’ll get two for the price of one! Now that’s a steal! DO NOT try this for jlcpcb.com purchases unless you are willing to lose a finger.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

In seven years look towards the sun. Close your eyes, though! But keep your third eye open. But if you keep it open for too long, it might get cold! Get some warm green tea and then feed it to the birds. They get cold too. If your corporeal form gets cold, try sitting in the 3rd floor endcap of the MAC.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Your elbow grease is leaking. Get a hold of yourself! It’s going to get all over your Cup Noodles™. You wouldn’t want that to happen– your Cup Noodles™ are so delicious all on their own, now with 50% less sodium! When life gives you lemons, make a battery. But don’t eat it.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

It seems they are watching you eat that cookie. Is it good? Do it for yourself – not others. What if you put a little bit of peanut butter on it? For yourself? Or maybe, you can eat it with ice cream. Or, if you are dairy-free, just stick to the peanut butter. Have you tried jelly on a cookie? Be open-minded. For yourself.

Scorpio (October 24 – November 21)

Call your mom. You need her. Like a servo motor, you spin when someone tells you to. Like an Arduino, you can be programmed. If you would like to opt out of being programmed all you have to do is let us know. Scream “妈妈” really loud in the dining hall. That’s the best way to reach us.

Libra (September 23 – October 23)

Scratch those armpits while you contemplate why you are alive. It’ll be a fruitful meditation, as long as you scratch those armpits. Whose armpits? We’ll never tell! If you say AC instead of MAC, we will tell. That’s unacceptable. One day Olin will consider naming a building after you.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

How do you wipe? You need to figure this out ASAP. Even if you think you know, you should definitely double-check. Once you find out, please let us know because now we are invested. Speaking of investing, the stock market is down <3 i hope this helps :) Now is the time to buy!

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Turn away from your demons at your earliest convenience. That spinach in your fridge is going bad. Eat that pie too! You need to clean out and unplug your fridge or else you will have a stinky surprise (metaphorically). When you are done with the cleaning, take a look inside? Are you clean? What is clean? I have a mop if you want to borrow it.

Cancer (June 22 – July 22)

Hey partner, have you been suffering? Colony Care is a free resource for all Olin College students, and you should reach out if you want someone to talk to. Email Laura Kinney at laurakinney@colonycare.net to schedule an appointment with a Colony Care provider today! Also, tell the person to your left their shoe is untied.