Jacob Tobia, Inc.: how to wield celebrity for campus change

—Step 1: Decide whether or not to take on an issue by weighing the time and resources necessary against importance and mass appeal.
—Step 2: Rehearse, pitch and tweak your idea through informal conversation with friends.
—Step 3: Find your allies among student leaders in relevant positions.
—Step 4: Vet the idea with administrators.
—Step 5: Do your research. Look at peer institutions, impact of policies, justifications for policies and national trends.
—Step 6: Gather a core group of three to five people to steer the campaign.
—Step 7: Write a proposal for the administration. (Proposal format: introduction, executive summary, current reality, proposed changes, rationale, potential impacts, common concerns addressed, appendices with relevant research and articles)
—Step 8: Name your campaign.
—Step 9: Create a website to show seriousness.
—Step 10: Approach The Chronicle to write a news article or opinion piece.
—Step 11: Go to DSG and other student groups to get endorsements.
—Step 12: If the administration still isn’t budging, then reach out to national or regional press or host a public demonstration.

This is the blueprint for realizing policy change goals as an activist at Duke, authored by senior Jacob Tobia.

Although many student leaders are making an impact on Duke, none have Jacob Tobia’s celebrity.

With gender-bending attire and a penchant for loud activism, it didn’t take long after orientation week for him to become a recognizable figure around campus. He carries a reputation now that if there is an activist campaign at Duke—not just in his primary focus of queer advocacy, but also on behalf of other minority groups and causes—Tobia is behind it, or more often than not, out in the front.

To a student casually following campus news, Tobia appears to hop effortlessly—and some would say opportunistically—from one cause célèbre to another. But these movements aren’t impulsive. There’s plenty to change about the University at any given moment, so he uses a political calculus to discern which issues are feasible and worthwhile before launching a full-fledged campaign.

His formula, which involves gathering a core team to conduct significant behind-the-scenes work, puts him in the spotlight for nearly every cause he touches. Tobia and his work have received national exposure on CNN, MSNBC, Huffington Post, Policy Mic, The Nation and more. His high-profile campaigns get him in The Chronicle with high frequency. And his high heels make him hard not to notice walking around campus.

There are many leaders who might be well known in their own circles, but Tobia transcends those borders just because he is so visible, said Senior Class President Andrew Hanna.

“People know who he is or at least have heard of him,” Hanna said. “You’re bound to run into him.”

And it’s effective. On a grand scale, Tobia has been involved in successful efforts to bring gender-neutral housing to Duke, encourage voter turnout for the NC Amendment One referendum, increase transparency with the endowment, add sexual-reassignment surgery to Duke health plans and more. He has also participated in numerous efforts representing black students, Asian and Asian-American students and undocumented students. He put up tents in front of the Chapel to Occupy Duke, and he ran across the Brooklyn Bridge in high-rise pumps to raise money for a shelter for homeless LGBT youth.

His long list of accomplishments has given Tobia an elevated position in Duke’s activist community. Students aspiring to make change on campus regularly consult him for advice and mentorship. In a few months time, though, the guru will graduate.

His first public failure at Duke was his recent loss of the Young Trustee election to fellow senior Neil Kondamuri. Tobia largely attributes this to the Duke community worrying that, as a queer activist, he would not represent their interests—a sort of subconscious homophobia.

Some student leaders worry that Tobia’s celebrity can distract attention from the work that others are doing to make Duke a better place. This piece is not intended to simply give Tobia more press time, but rather to analyze what his celebrity means for him as a leader and for the state of activism at Duke. Nearly everyone knows his name, and his involvement—while not necessary for effecting change at Duke—has become a precious commodity for other campus activists because of his pattern of success.

“There’s a lot of recognizable people on this campus,” said freshman activist Zoe Willingham. “There’s not a lot of people who have the brand you might attribute to Jacob.”

Activism, Inc.

The campaign for gender-neutral housing, Occupy Duke, the Black Student Alliance march to the Allen Building, the “Race is Not a Party” rally, the push for endowment transparency and recent fights to change the name of Aycock residence hall and to get aid for undocumented students. Tobia is there for them all with barely a pause for breath between causes.

Being involved in such an array of causes, and with an image that has extended into national media, any failure has the ability to upset his image—particularly as a college student without much experience under his belt. But Tobia has avoided any fall from grace thus far by vigorously vetting ideas so that he can drop a cause that lacks promise of success before taking it to the public phase.

An example: about a year ago, he started to explore a campaign for making nuanced changes to the LGBT course offerings at Duke, adding more policy and history classes about queer identity because the Duke sexuality curriculum focuses mainly on theory. But in the exploratory process, though he found a few students who supported the cause, he realized it would be a complicated message to sell, he would have to navigate faculty politics and it would take more time than it was worth. So he let that idea pass.

“It would take so long and so much advocacy for a minor change that matters but doesn’t matter in a way that I was jazzed enough to work on,” Tobia said. “It’s important, yes, but not that important.”

When he approaches his peers for advice on an issue, he is not easily deterred when they have concerns on the way he is going about a campaign. Although he said his peers and some of his now-graduated mentors keep him in check, he likes to push back because he sees Duke as his activist laboratory.

“What I have to explain to them is that I’ve never really been in this territory before, and I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said. “Your concerns are valid, and I totally have them too, but I want to see what happens. This is a learning experience for me and for other people involved in this campaign.”

Then he goes into the research phase. He does not threaten public demonstration yet. His policy is to give students and administrators a proposal that is so well researched and reasoned that they cannot refuse.

“I don’t think it’s him being indignant,” said senior Patrick Oathout, who has worked with Tobia in numerous settings since they were neighbors freshman year. “It’s just him having a lot of faith in himself.”

When an issue is new to DSG or a public audience, Tobia has already spent significant time with it. This explains why he gives off an air of confidence or infallibility when he becomes the face of a movement.

On the surface, Tobia appears to have reached a pinnacle of visibility and attention in his senior year. But in many ways he sees this year as a flop and a breakdown of his formula.

In the Fall, he underestimated the time, resources and political capital it would take to bring transparency to the Duke University endowment. Wrapping tarp over statues and windows and interrupting a Board of Trustees meeting, as well as reaching out to outside media, DukeOpen has been the only cause that he has carried through to the final step of his campaign blueprint—though he was just days away from staging an Allen Building sleep-in over gender-neutral housing in his sophomore year.

The Board interruption in particular demonstrated his confidence and reluctance to take no for an answer after a campaign is in the public activism stage, possibly to a fault.

Before that meeting last October, the Board and President Richard Brodhead indicated that they would approve certain aspects, but not all, of the DukeOpen proposal. This was not enough, and the DukeOpen leaders felt that because they weren’t allowed to deliver the presentation to the Board, their voices were not being heard—even though the group had had multiple meetings with Brodhead, and Tobia has a position as a student representative on the Board’s Business and Finance Committee.

On his way to the Board meeting, Tobia stopped by The Chronicle office to find a photographer and reporter to go with him.

Interrupting the Board meeting brought them attention, but it did not change the outcome. Tobia said he sometimes thinks his time could have been better spent on a campaign that would have made actual changes.

“In many ways I feel that DukeOpen was a failure,” he said. “There were days where I was like, ‘What are we doing? Why are we doing this?’ I had no idea what I was getting into.”

He also faced a challenge this Spring when launching his run for Young Trustee. He recognized that the slate of supporters that would typically be large enough to push an advocacy campaign were not going to be enough to win the election. He decided to forgo skirts and lipstick and instead “butch up” his image to prove to the student body that he was conservative enough to sit on the Board.

He lost by 12 votes, which—because of his visibility and name recognition—took many by surprise.

The blueprint and the brand

“He’s not just an activist,” Oathout said. “He’s sort of a brand.”

Although there are plenty of leaders on campus, particularly in the senior class, Tobia’s image and visibility that he has built up over the years make his successes more public than others. Because they see him making change loudly, younger activists look first to Tobia for his advice or endorsement.

Tobia agrees that in some ways, his interest in an issue is a political commodity, describing himself as an “easy ally” and a “domino” that is easy to knock over, setting in motion a domino effect that will eventually bring change.

Willingham, president of Duke United Students Against Sweatshops, heard of Tobia before she arrived at Duke. When she saw him at the Activities Fair, she recognized him and said she had to meet him.

“He became the go-to guy for how to navigate Duke’s bureaucracy and really be able to reach Duke’s general population and get them fired up,” she said.

She said the two of them get together frequently for coffee to talk about her ideas. When asked if there would be a go-to activist mentor if Tobia weren’t here, she replied, “I don’t think so.”

For his part, Tobia doesn’t think of himself as indispensable.

“I don’t see myself as a gatekeeper,” he said.

Although he works on issues from the ground up, Tobia’s most obvious contribution to a cause is his visibility. But some student leaders believe that a campaign doesn’t always need a face.

“The issues are so big that it doesn’t really matter much except for being a vehicle for getting the word out,” Hanna said.

Although something like DukeOpen and endowment transparency takes a little more work to get students on board because the issue is complicated and not often discussed, Oathout said policy changes like gender-neutral housing would still have happened without Tobia because they are part of a national movement.

Hanna said some of the most impactful student work happens behind the scenes; the most effective leaders are not always on everyone’s radar, like Tobia.

Regardless, it has created a precedent among many Duke activists, particularly younger ones, that Tobia is a necessary component in an activist campaign.

“Ultimately, there needs to be a really loud voice in the room or the person who goes out and does it,” said junior Karina Santellano, president of Mi Gente. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything behind the scenes.”

Tobia has recently been involved with the Latino student group, working on passing policies on getting financial aid for undocumented students. He has also personally introduced Mi Gente leaders to other student leaders like Black Student Alliance President Marcus Benning and DSG President Stefani Jones, both seniors, in order to help them get their own office space, Santellano said.

Santellano added that other campus activists can make change by themselves, but bringing Tobia on board gives them a boost.

“I feel like they would have momentum, but putting Jacob behind it does get it more attention,” she said. “He is behind so many issues, people take him seriously when it comes to activism.”

Blue Devils United President Daniel Kort, a sophomore, said Tobia’s reputation preceded him. When Kort first met Tobia when he returned from his semester in New York, it was immediately clear why everyone saw him as a powerful activist.

“Anytime I have an idea for a new activism project, I immediately want to run it past Jacob,” Kort said, noting that Tobia will often help him form ideas and critique his writing.

When Tobia graduates, Kort said he thinks it will be difficult to get ideas off the ground or heard.

Tobia will often offer to include himself on emails or in meetings with younger students who have yet to build a rapport with administrators. He said it often helps these less experienced students get more respect and better answers to their questions.

“While we respect that Jacob is serving as a mentor to so many people, the fact that Jacob’s name is included doesn’t give it more validity,” Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta said. “But it gives us confidence in the issue and that they’ve had good advice.”

Benning said he would rather reach out to a wide group of people than Tobia specifically when embarking on a new campaign. He said Tobia is a double-edged sword, because he can bring attention to an issue, but his presence can also distract from the matter at hand.

For example, Tobia had planned a walk-out of Founders’ Day Convocation, a well-attended event in Duke Chapel celebrating the 50th anniversary of integration at Duke. The walk-out—which was eventually canceled after Benning approached Tobia with concerns—was intended to raise awareness of DukeOpen. Benning said he commended Tobia for his commitment to his cause but was offended that he would distract from another group’s successes.

Sometimes the activist community can be territorial, or outsiders might not understand why Tobia branches out into minority causes other than those pertaining to the queer community, Oathout said. But Tobia and his friends and supporters do not see an activist from one minority community supporting another as a barrier or a way to jump into the spotlight.

“I work on all this stuff because I don’t know how to survive at Duke if Duke isn’t a place where students of all kinds of backgrounds can’t be treated with dignity,” Tobia said. “So yes, there is a deeply selfish reason for the work that I do.”

He added that he does not deny that he also gets personal satisfaction and professional development out of his work, and it does help to have his successes on his resume.

Any student who has ever experienced adversity should be able to draw inspiration from Tobia, Benning noted. Tobia typically draws support from those who are comfortable with their own minority identities, however, rather than the “mainstream” students—possibly leading to his his Young Trustee loss.

“He lives his life out loud and in a very transparent way, which produces a certain level of trust between him and the students he’s representing,” Benning said.

The print version of this article stated that Marcus Benning is the former president of the Black Student Alliance. He is the current president of the BSA. The Chronicle regrets the error.


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