Student activists: still a strong force

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

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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.

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.

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"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.

Student activism, however, doesn't only come from the left; it's also cropping up on the right, says Nick Provenzo, executive director at the Center for Moral Defense of Capitalism. He says that people often think that "all campus activism is leftist in nature. On the contrary, there is a growing body of college students who oppose the left's agenda and offer a view to the contrary."

Objectivist Clubs are one example. They are based on the philosophy of author Ayn Rand, and they counter the mainstream activist causes. They promote capitalism and globalization through lectures, discussions, and the occasional organized demonstration. Objectivist clubs protested Elian Gonzalez's return to Cuba in 1999, and defended Microsoft during its antitrust battles, saying the courts shouldn't punish successful capitalists.

"I think there's an ethos of recognition that students can effect change, so students want to be involved in activities that effect change," says Joe Eldridge, university chaplain at American University in Washington. "If there's anything new, students are thinking more strategically about effecting change."

Students are throwing their energy particularly into local issues.

"Local politics is more tangible," says Richard Fox, assistant professor of political science at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Professor Fox taught a class this winter titled "Parties and Interest Groups," in which students created real interest groups that aimed to change policies or practices of local, state, or national government. Overwhelmingly, students chose issues close to home, Fox says.

Even at citadels of traditional activism like the University of California, Berkeley, activism has more of a community-service flavor.

"Activism [at Berkeley] has been sort of normalized, so that it's part of what you would see on a tour," says Daniel Hernandez, a junior at Berkeley and editor in chief of the Daily Californian - an independent student newspaper.

The attitude that "it better not eat into my schedule too much" makes community service even more appealing as a viable form of activism. Students often find community service more manageable with only once-a-week commitments.

"We work from the bottom up," says Wilita Frehiwet, co-chair of the Campus "Y" Cabinet, which oversees the 26 student-run community-service programs at Washington University in St. Louis. "We're college students, so we're trying to make a difference one life at a time for each person who comes along."

Community service has significantly bolstered the student activist movement. More than 80 percent of entering college freshmen have done volunteer work in the past year, according to UCLA's HERI survey.

One group of five Union College students called SHINE (Students Helping Impact Neighborhoods and Education) decided to raise money in the community and organize a network of high school and college student volunteers to run after-school programs for a local elementary school where more than 80 percent of the students qualify for free lunches and 70 percent failed state education tests.

The superintendent and school board were so pleased, they asked SHINE to take on another school in the district, Fox says. The group has even applied for official non-profit status. Even though the class is over, three student groups will continue to do interest-group work.

"Maybe the class is the spark, but there seems to be a desire among students to really tackle injustices," Fox says. "The class provides the vehicle for students who would really like to do good things and just don't know how to participate."

While classes like these are rare, activism continues to thrive at colleges and universities.

"We have to fight in universities - this is where the philosophy spreads and reaches young minds," says Jason Rheins, a philosophy major and president of the Objectivist Club at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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