The new faces of civil rights
Young activists spend a summer learning the best ways to become effective advocates for social justice
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
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."
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.