How to get Gen Y to carry ACLU cards

The civil-liberties group lures students with hip-hop and slam poets

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Harvard's Sanders Theatre has hosted plenty of distinguished orators ranging from Winston Churchill to Martin Luther King Jr.

Rarely, though, has the venue's august wooden stage ever held as odd a double billing as this: pornographer Larry Flynt and hip-hop artists Dead Prez backed up by a record-spinning DJ.

A banner reading "We say yes! To the bill of rights" on the DJ's table hinted at what brought them together - a campus tour organized by the American Civil Liberties Union.

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After becoming concerned about the rising median age of its card-carrying membership, the ACLU has recently begun targeting a younger generation. The 83-year-old civil liberties organization is now using hip-hop artists, comedians, and slam poets as pitchmen.

Eight performances billed as a "college freedom tour" on campuses from Miami to Seattle this fall are free but come with a catch: Attendees must first listen to speakers discussing the ACLU's history and civil liberties today.

The hybrid concerts-lectures are the brainchild of ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, who took charge of the organization two years ago with a mandate to broaden its appeal and expand its membership.

"The ACLU needed to be much more explicit about reaching out to this generation of Americans and making clear that the civil-liberties struggle is not a relic of the past but is a struggle for future generations and this generation," Mr. Romero said in a phone interview.

Thanks in part to new concerns about civil liberties since 9/11, the ACLU appears to be succeeding at reaching out to a broader - and younger - constituency.

The group says its membership has risen by a third to 400,000 in the last two years. At a first-ever membership conference this year, one-third of the 1,000 attendees were below age 27, Romero says.

The "college freedom tour" was designed with a young audience specifically in mind. Rosa Clemente, the ACLU's national youth communication director, greeted the students with an enthusiastic "Wassup," which then segued into an MTV-paced video that traced the ACLU's history - from the African-American Scottsboro boys, accused of raping white women, to the Nazis who wanted to march in Skokie, Ill.

This stop at Harvard drew a crowd of nearly 800 students from an array of Boston-area colleges. Attendees' knowledge of the ACLU varied widely. Harvard sophomore Andrew Kalloch says he's been an ACLU member since high school; Emerson sophomore Tanaya Hilton admitted she had never even heard of the organization before arriving, and only came to hear slam poet Saul Williams.

Still, many were at least sympathetic to the appeal to safeguard civil rights - perhaps not surprising in a crowd where a mention of John Ashcroft evokes hisses and more students identified themselves to a reporter as socialists (two) than Republicans (zero).

The music turned down long enough for a panel discussion featuring students, lawyers, and labor organizers discussing the state of civil liberties since 9/11.

One union organizer, originally from Sri Lanka, described his run-in with federal agents and got cheers when he complained there were "no sweeps of skinny ... white men after the Oklahoma City bombing."

Mr. Flynt received a more tepid welcome from the crowd and quickly drove many of the women from the room with his comments on feminists.

"Freedom of speech is not for the thought you love but for the thought you hate the most," Flynt said.

Finally, after two hours of talk, students crowded into the "pit" beneath the stage as the entertainment started. Local hip-hop duos and slam poets took the stage before Saul Williams performed.

When Dead Prez took the stage singing "We need a revolution" as pictures of lynching victims and slave sales were projected overhead, the cheering crowd danced with their arms in the air.

Attendance may not necessarily translate into new ACLU members. Harvard sophomore Alana Davis, for example, said she enjoyed the music and found the speakers informative, but doesn't have time to get more involved. "I'm already extremely overcommitted."

But Romero says the campus tour was never intended as a membership drive. The ACLU plans to stay connected with attendees via e-mail. "This is an investment in future generations of civil libertarians," he said.

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