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Student activists: still a strong force

While embracing global causes, young people also turn to local issues

By Tricia Cowen Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2001

Ask somebody what happened to real student activism, and they might say it belongs on a shelf with other paraphernalia from the 1960s. Others think it peaked during the Vietnam War and has declined ever since.

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Not so, say movement experts, who point out that activism has persisted through a series of waves - and right now the tide is rolling in.

Current undergraduates belie their reputation for apathy and lack of interest in politics. Today's college and high school students participate more often in some form of activism than have previous groups, and often continue to effect change in their communities after graduation. Current undergraduate activists will fuel nongovernmental organizations and community-service groups of the future, experts say.

"While they're less visible than in the '60s ... we're seeing a real renaissance of student activism - a reflective, thoughtful activism very much tied into their education," says Charles Derber, a professor of sociology at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., whose graduate work focused on activism.

The level of campus activism far exceeds the days of the late 1960s, against which many students are measured. Between 1966 and 2000, the portion of incoming college freshmen who had participated in organized demonstrations during their senior year of high school tripled to 45.4 percent, according to a report by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles.

From the current nationwide anti-sweatshop campaign to local community-service projects, students have many options from which to choose.

The most recent flare-up of student activism revolved around an advertisement that appeared in some university student newspapers opposing the idea of paying reparations to African-Americans because of slavery (see story, page 16).

Earlier this month, students at 56 colleges and universities fasted in protest of corporations doing business in Burma (Myanmar). They hoped to stop US corporations from buying products made in Burma, which is currently controlled by a military regime.

"Ever since Vietnam, everything's been really segregated into single issues, but 'corporatization' has bonded everything together and helps people see that they need to work together," says Annie Sartor, a sophomore at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) protest in 1999 and the Sweat-Free Campus Campaign, a movement to ensure that university athletic wear isn't made in sweatshops, kickstarted activism on the University of Washington campus and at schools across the nation. Activists say the focus has shifted from trying to change governmental policy to alleviating social concerns.

"I always did activism because it made me feel better. But after the WTO came, I'm into activism because I think that we can win," says Ms. Sartor, who is also a staff writer for the Ruckus Collective, an independent student newspaper on her Seattle campus.

With political interest at record lows among students - fewer than one-third of college freshmen say they are inclined to follow political affairs - students are bypassing government protests in favor of calling on corporations to exhibit ethical business standards through shareholder activism.

At the WTO protest in Seattle, some 40,000 people rallied against such corporations as Nike, Starbucks, and Monsanto (a producer of genetically engineered crops). Globalization concerns also brought labor rights, human rights, and environmental protection beneath a single banner in a coalition called United Students Against Sweatshops. One outgrowth of that coalition is the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a corporate watchdog which recently charged that a factory in Mexico that makes Nike and Reebok university apparel employed children and subjected workers to physical abuse.