The new faces of civil rights

Young activists spend a summer learning the best ways to become effective advocates for social justice

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Omar Tesdell, the college-age son of an American father and Palestinian mother, doesn't look out of place in his native Iowa. But despite blending in with his neighbors, he feels the cultural collisions that are sending tremors through the Farm Belt – the result of a rapid influx of foreign-born newcomers – and wants to do something to address them.

"It's important to make our society equitable and just for everyone who's coming to live in the Midwest," he says. "We're going to have to learn to be more interculturally savvy and learn how to adapt more quickly. "

Mr. Tesdell is one of the new, young faces of the civil rights movement, which has gone far beyond black-and-white racial issues to ones of criminal, environmental, educational, and housing justice.

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This summer he and 20 other college students journeyed to Cambridge, Mass., eager to learn the history of the civil rights movement and gain real-life experience in the trenches of social activism.

They were handpicked from several hundred applicants to participate in Civil Rights Summer, a program designed to reinvigorate the civil rights movement and train another generation of leaders.

"We're trying to tap the energy and idealism of campus activists to give them a set of skills, relationships, and career models," says Christopher Edley Jr. of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. For the past two years, it has collaborated with the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Leadership Conference Education Fund in offering the program.

"Lots of people have the capacity for compassion," he says, "but lack familiarity with the problems or lack the training required to be an effective leader."

The program provided a week of classroom instruction at Harvard, followed by internships in Washington at such organizations as the Urban League, the National Organization for Women, and the National Congress of American Indians.

Given the nation's fast-changing racial and ethnic composition, the old guard of the civil rights movement is under rising pressure to do more to pass the mantle to the next generation.

Professor Edley says national organizations are showing a new commitment to the grass-roots development of young leaders, who may feel isolated.

"Many people want to feel part of something bigger, something broader," he says. "Our hope is that these [young activists], by coming together, can feel that way."

Experiencing discrimination

One of the participants in the program was Kim Borowicz, a junior at Michigan State University, who is emerging as one of the nation's leading young advocates for the disabled.

As an intern at the American Association of People With Disabilities this summer, she moved out of her "comfort zone" to do quite a bit of public speaking on Capitol Hill. One highlight came at a meeting of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she spoke about how being visually impaired (with very limited eyesight) affected her work experience.

She had a minimum-wage job that involved folding T-shirts and similar tasks. This was easy enough, except that she struggled to read the assignments posted for workers each day. When she asked if her part of the list could be made larger, the manager cited the difficulties of coordinating this with other managers for the sake of a temporary worker.

"It was like he was telling me I was a burden and was asking for special treatment," Ms. Borowicz says.

She gathered her thoughts, then replied with Midwestern politeness, "Sir, are you familiar with the Americans With Disabilities Act? I feel this is a reasonable accommodation. I'm just asking you to write a little bit larger."

It was simply a matter of educating him, she concludes.

Encouraging accommodations requires vigilance, which helps explain why Borowicz, now back at school, has joined with several other Michigan State students to revive the college's Council of Students With Disabilities and Supporters.

In sharing what she learned over the summer with this group, she was so excited talking about forging alliances with other organizations and tapping available resources that they had to ask her to slow down. Her zeal is being put to use in coordinating a disability mentoring day at the university and involvement in a project to get Braille/large print signs in buildings and to assess wheelchair accessibility.

A continuing need on her campus is for computers that assist sight-impaired students – one that she emphasizes in discussions with university administrators whenever possible.

Technology has a place on Mr. Tesdell's agenda as well. A junior at Iowa State University and online editor of the student newspaper, he is interested in ways the Web can be a used as an aid in the social justice and human rights movement.

His passion for pursuing this didn't grow out of one dramatic, life-changing experience – at least not in the United States, where he has encountered only a few, isolated instances of discrimination.

Last year, however, his interest in social justice escalated while he was visiting a refugee camp in Jordan, where his mother once lived. The camp's stark conditions sent a powerful message.

"I could smell poverty. I could breathe poverty. I could see how people were living in conditions that were not fit for human beings," Tesdell says.

Back at college, he formed a student group that brings Palestinian Muslims and Christians together with Jewish students in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

This summer he worked at the Friends Committee for National Legislation. It works in diverse areas, including American Indian rights. Tesdell also teamed up with several staffers to develop a website focusing on nuclear disarmament and arms control.

"In advocating for nuclear disarmament, we are also advocating for a redirection of resources into areas ... like educational equality and basic rights," he says of the civil rights connection.

Working on the website proved a good exercise in defining audience and purpose, and it shed new light on the rigors of behind-the-scenes civil rights work.

"I got a real appreciation for the amount of time and energy and resources [that are] required to effect social change," he says. "It's easy to say 'I'm for civil rights' and list off a few problems. Talking in a very broad, general sense at people is something I've done before. This summer I've learned that that really doesn't work."

The better strategy, he discovered, is to identify specific problems or pieces of legislation and deal with them one by one.

He also learned the importance of coalition-building to create a broader base of support. To illustrate, he cites a hypothetical bill aimed at post-9/11 hate crimes. "Let's say Muslim organizations got together to advocate for that, [it] would be something important. However, if there were a coalition with faith groups of other backgrounds – Buddhists and those of the Jewish faith and Christians. ... there is more strength there."

Before coalitions are built, though, issues must be defined clearly. This can be hard work, Borowicz learned this summer while helping to write a law journal article on the definition of disability.

"I have to first prove I'm a person with a disability before I can say I was discriminated against," she explains. "In proving your disability [to a prospective employer], you're disproving your ability. The proof you use to get to that point can be used against you to show that you are not able to do the job. It's a Catch-22 situation."

Organizational skills a must

For Allan Young, an Asian-American from San Francisco, the summer program brought a greater appreciation of the often-invisible aspects of civil rights work. He interned at the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a watchdog group that, among other things, monitors how monies earmarked for disadvantaged schoolchildren are spent.

The work involved lots of reading and research, writing articles, attending congressional hearings, and meeting with lawmakers and their staffs.

"One thing I've learned about civil rights on the national level is that it's very sophisticated, very professional," he observes. "It's not just about protests, but about influencing legislation and opinion. I learned a lot about organizational skills and business principles."

After a tour of duty with the Marines following high school, Young enrolled at the College of San Mateo, a California community college where he became student-body president. It's also where he became aware of inequities in students' educational backgrounds, reflected in the remedial classes he and other inner-city students had to take.

Someday, after perhaps gaining a law degree at Harvard, he'd like to lobby legislators to expand the deductions families can take for educational expenses. He's also interested in contributing to a website – a student activists' network – that he and other participants in Civil Rights Summer began working on this summer.

This type of project intrigues Tesdell, too. He's also curious about "swarming," cellphone networking that can be used to quickly organize face-to-face meetings through the rapid forwarding of messages. "It's very inexpensive and quite an effective way to facilitate intragroup communication," he notes.

Given his mixed heritage, he sees himself as a potential bridge between longtime and new residents of the rural Midwest, where communities are sometimes transformed practically overnight by the influx of immigrants – Latinos, Bosnians, Sudanese – who come seeking jobs.

"Websites can bring the voice of minorities into everybody's computer," he says. "It doesn't have to be political. It can just be what's going on in a brand-new Latino community."

Civil Rights Summer continues to communicate with Tesdell and the other students, as well as with applicants who weren't selected. "This represents an enormous talent bank," Edley explains.

While acknowledging that no program can be expected to produce "lifetime civil rights warriors" or even identify the next César Chávez or Martin Luther King Jr., he anticipates long-term paybacks. "I'm confident," he says, "that all the [participants] will find some vehicle for supporting social change."

There are days when when Borowicz has a few niggling doubts if she has what it takes – if she can continue as a disability-rights advocate the rest of her life, or even through the remainder of her very busy college life.

But advocating for disability rights is not simply an extracurricular activity for her. She knows how important it can be. And her time at Harvard and in Washington taught her many things about accomplishing what she knows needs doing.

"I was really nervous about my new position as president of the MSU Council of Students With Disabilities and Supporters, but after this summer I am really excited about it," she says. "I gained a lot of confidence in regard to my activism. It was really reassuring to spend eight weeks with 20 other student activists. I learned that I am not the only one who cares.

"I have to do this," she says of her rights activism. "It's what I want to do, it's what I'm passionate about. I've not been so sure of anything else in my life."

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