Fainan Lakha (CC ‘17) didn’t feel warm fuzzies when she took Principles of Economics her first semester of college—“It felt like the whole time I was sitting there being like, ‘this isn’t how the world works.’” First semester wasn’t a bust though; by the end of that year, the Bellevue, WA native was “coming to at least begin to have an answer to some of the deep questions that were gnawing at me.” Part of this inspiration had an academic cause—Lakha was taking “a really good philosophy class [Ethics] with Carol Rovane”—but the other cause was political. She had been attending meetings for “all the different lefty groups on campus:” Students for Justice in Palestine, Student-Worker Solidarity, and Students Against Mass Incarceration (now defunct). At the end of her first semester, a new group was founded to fight Columbia’s expansion in Manhattanville, the Coalition Against Gentrification, which she joined.
As an organizer for the Coalition, Lakha researched the histories of Columbia and Harlem, tracing the “really backhanded and sinister ways in which Columbia had attempted to expand its presence in the neighborhood.” The group presented its findings to students and Harlem residents and tried to build relationships with organizers in the community, but Lakha remembers, “it was really frustrating organizing; it wasn’t like we could suddenly mobilize people in the community and students to fight the university—What were we going to do? What were we going to do to stop this multibillion-dollar institution from using the rules of the market and its legal connections and political connections to its advantage? We didn’t have social forces or strategies necessary to do that.”
Despite these setbacks, Lakha’s experiences with the Coalition gave her important insights about organizing. She has since organized with the International Socialist Organization and Columbia Against Trump, helping plan the walkout and rally on Low Steps on Women’s Day last spring, protests of Columbia University College Republicans’ recent events with Tommy Robinson and Mike Cernovich, and many other demonstrations.
As Lakha was developing her political identity at Columbia, she also came to identify as a transwoman. She reflects, “it’s interesting that I came to left-wing politics before I came to understand myself as trans, although of course I had been thinking about it for a long time… I felt a lot of alienation and pain around not having the ability to understand the world and understand why I’m trying to fight against it, what liberation could be, or what justice is. When I started to answer those questions, I realized I actually ended up [looking] a little bit more personally at myself.”
In 2016, Lakha took a year off from school— “At the time I was dealing with heartbreak and also really bad gender dysphoria; my closest friends used to make me feel really bad about my gender, used to sort of pigeonhole me as a man, and it really, really got to me for a time. Really sort of took me down.” She remembers struggling that year to “really do much with myself at all. I took a lot of time to recover, and definitely started really dealing with my questions around gender.” Lakha spent a lot of time with books, too: “I read so much … all kinds of things, from the history of the development of capitalism to contemporary debates around Marxism and postcolonial theory, Marxist philosophy….Anti-Oedipus [by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari].”
Lakha graduates this December with a major in Comparative Literature and Society and a concentration in Philosophy. She thinks she’ll stay active in left-wing politics and plans to tackle some reading lists and article projects. Eventually, she sees herself going to graduate school for South Asian History, Contemporary European Philosophy, or Women and Gender Studies. For now, though, “I’m just going to try to stick around New York and continue the life that I’ve built for myself.”