An Alumni Reflection from Steve Keeney

Steve Keeney ’71

2024

Got a feeling this isn’t all there is? Have a sense a path glimmers through the scattergram of possible futures to a better place? Do something.

Data and knowledge are basic. Knowing how to sort signal from noise is essential. Wisdom is better.

But, like faith, knowledge and wisdom without deeds are dead. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” James 2:26. (NKJV)

Knowledge, wisdom, and faith are applied in action. Their value lies in service to others. This can change the world.

Better still: the skills of organizing and building movements lend themselves to most futures, in serendipitous ways.

Soon after graduating, those skills let me help Connecticut elect Ella Grasso, the first woman governor in U.S. history elected in her own right.

Years later, the first book about me – David Heilbroner’s Death Benefit – was the story of an incompetent criminal lawyer (me) organizing the national team it took to put a female serial killer behind bars after throwing my client’s daughter off a California cliff.

The skills, knowledge, tools, and joys of Trinity are with me still, half a century later. Whatever pain there was – there must have been some (a crushed crush, maybe? Lang Tyler, the swimming champ who died in a flooded quarry? Lynn E. Miles, the anthro T.A. who slipped away? The beautiful Brooklyn gal whose family stood in our way?) – faded into the mists.

My four years of Trin activism, 1967-71, endures. That world, the 1960s and ‘70s, would be alien to you. There were no cell phones, no internet, no PCs, for starters. In lieu of taking you there, zoom out, using a few examples.

When I arrived in 1967, Trinity was all male college. When I left in 1971, it was co-ed. When I arrived, there was no CineStudio, no Sociology Dept., no women’s lib movement, and no Student Bill of Rights. When I left, Trinity had all four. It was a better place. All five came in no small part from student activism, working inside a quilt of alliances. You stand on the shoulders of activists who came before you.

Nationally, the second Civil Rights Act, including fair housing, was signed in 1968 and the Vietnam War was raging wrapped in lies. We linked with national and local groups making the Act real and resisting the War, successfully, a few years later.

All of that was labelled “radical” or “left wing” then. There was outrage. Those labels – left and right, liberal or conservative – always are used to stir anger and put down activists by folks against change. (Better pairs are “new world” and “old world,” or “new wave” & “nostalgia” movements.) When a talk show host said I was “pinko communist,” all I said was “Do you know how old and useless those words are?” Today, those “radical” changes – from ending the war to ending Trin’s all male enrollment – seem ho-hum.

Yesterday’s “radical” ideas are today’s world. Just ask the guys who signed the Declaration of Independence.

When I got to Trinity I had a Harris tweed sport coat, a Smith-Corona typewriter, and a KLH stereo that played 33 1/3 vinyl records. When I left, I had the typewriter and stereo. The tweed sport coat got lost somewhere.

My wife and I found each other in Connecticut. I never would have been there without Trinity. We’ve been together decades.

It all took hyper efficient time management, a gift not listed in the Trin catalog. That degree comes first, and a top notch GPA is not far behind. But you can do more. We did.

Like all successful organizations, activism also needed structure. For example, C3 – command, control & communication – is essential to effective campaigns. So is a well-framed story – what’s now called “controlling the narrative.”

Part of communicating our story – and accurate news – was printing our own publications. That was mission critical when Trinity’s SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), of which I was President, rallied hundreds of students to an April, 1968 sit-in. We occupied the administration building, effectively trapping the Trustees in their meeting room. It was “an action unprecedented in the College’s history,” Trin Archivists Peter and Anne Knapp rightly wrote in Trinity College in the 20th Century. Shocking, in fact – which helped make it work.

That sit-in was the source of the Student Bill of Rights, the Black Scholarship Fund, and the first courses on poverty and urban affairs. (There were 10 black students in ’68 and 87 in ’70.) We published Strike News as often as we could. Pushing our story displaced gossip and administrative spin. We farmed out speakers to radio and TV talk shows. The administration never got in front of our narrative. That hard work also left artifacts for the next generation.

Then I donated copies of Strike News to the Watkinson Library. Where they sat for 50 years. Until an intrepid Tripod editor, Olivia Silvey, unearthed them – for a project in the Sociology department this campus activism helped create.

Let’s never be scared to leave the world a little bit better than we found it.

Steve Keeney ‘71 was one of the leaders of the 1968 sit-in occupying the administrative building, which won a Student Bill of Rights & Black Scholarship Fund. It led to Trinity going co-ed and opening a sociology department while Keeney was President of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) & President of the Senate. He earned a Hartford Seminary M.A. ‘73 and UConn JD ‘80. The first book about him, Death Benefit by David Heilbroner, became an MCA/Universal Studios movie.

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