A Look at Student Activism (Trend Piece)

I had to write a trend piece for my feature writing class…

Students from around the country gathered to march against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Washington D.C. on March 2, 2014 (Sean Davis)
Students from around the country gathered to march against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Washington D.C. on March 2, 2014 (Sean Davis)

“My Hope Lies with Young People” –Jane Goodall.

Despite being derided as “lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow,” by their parents and grandparents, millenials may actually be proving themselves a powerful force for social change. Since late 2011, youth activism has been on the upswing as students have faced uncertain job prospects, exploding inequality, and a changing climate.

The United States has virtually always seen some level of dissent and dissatisfaction manifesting itself in the streets. This tends to ebb and flow, however, depending on any number of things from unemployment rates and opportunity to foreign policy and immigration.

“I feel that the youth are disenfranchised and do not appreciate nor agree with what the older generations have been doing in our name,” said University of Mary Washington first year and progressive activist Noah Goodwin.

Although youth engagement and advocacy have also contributed to the rise of the Tea Party and especially the success of libertarian political figures like Ron Paul, liberal/progressive causes have been the main beneficiaries. The same has largely been true throughout recent history.

“Students have a key role in being catalysts for change because of the privilege given to them. With flexible schedules, extra time, and the given community of campus and education, students are in the perfect environment to throw themselves into movements” – Rabib Hasan

“[During the civil rights movement,] students were able to provide a left flank and do things that if their parents had done they would have been fired from their jobs [or] ostracized further from white power structure,” explained Sierra Club organizer Kendyl Crawford.

“Student organizing is a great opportunity for ‘radical’ demands and to have a voice present bringing more ideas into the conversation that push what the general population is comfortable with,” she said.

Social media’s role in modern organizing, communication, and raising awareness cannot be overstated. The so-called “Arab Spring” and Occupy (Wall St.) movement of 2011 were perhaps the first major illustrations of this.

“Our evidence suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising,” Washington University Associate Professor Phillip Howard told UW Today in September 2011.

If you ask any current student activist, there’s a good chance they have, what’s known as, an “Occupy story,” in which they visited or participated in their local chapter’s happenings.

“We are coming into an age, where knowledge is so easily accessible and because of that we also are able to share that energy towards making the world suck a bit less,” said organizer and Old Dominion University first year Michelle Johnstone.

There’s also the convenience that many non-working students experience.

“Students have a key role in being catalysts for change because of the privilege given to them. With flexible schedules, extra time, and the given community of campus and education, students are in the perfect environment to throw themselves into movements,” explained UMW third year Rabib Hasan

Students marched in their own block in the People's Climate March. Sept. 21, 2014. (Sean Davis)
Students marched in their own block in the People’s Climate March. Sept. 21, 2014. (Sean Davis)

Hasan is part of the school’s Divest UMW movement, which seeks to put pressure on the Board of Visitors to pull the schools endowment out of fossil fuel companies’ stocks.

The national divestment movement, which is still only a couple years old, has chalked up some notable victories including the divestments of Stanford, the New School, and even the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Just last week, The Guardian Newspaper and the U.N. through their support behind the movement.

The UMW campaign recently held an action coinciding with Global Divestment Day, which saw one of the biggest turnouts in the country.

“I got involved in student activism because I’ve always believed that grassroots organizing is the true practice of democracy. All politics should originate from the bottom, and the top should be channeling those interest,” he said. “Student activism is definitely at the roots of our society.”

Hasan is also the newly elected vice chair of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, a group that has grown substantially and gained legitimacy in the state despite being less than two years old.

Last year, members participated in the student-organized XL Dissent protest and were some of the 398 arrested in front of the White House. In September 2014, hundreds of them joined the hundreds of thousands that marched in the People’s Climate March in New York City. They’ve already held two statewide conferences with registration in the hundreds.

Members of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition were arrested in front of the White House. March 2, 2014. (Sean Davis)
Members of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition were arrested in front of the White House. March 2, 2014. (Sean Davis)

“Students are the future leaders of the world,” said Mace & Crown photographer and Ad Manager Jason Kazi, who has covered a number of local protest actions.

Even President Obama has expressed faith in his children’s generation, recently telling Vice’s Shane Smith “you talk to Malia and Sasha… 16 and 13, and the sophistication and awareness that they have about environmental issues compared to my generation or yours – they’re way ahead of the game.”

The climate movement, especially, carries with it a worrying sense of urgency.

“2015 is most likely the last chance we have and take action in order to ensure a stable climate,” Hasan said.

ODU, along with many other universities around the country, saw a sizable protest movement arise after the police killing of Ferguson, Missouri teen Michael brown.

One action in particular saw about 80 students form a human piece sign and then “die in” on the school’s mall – a particularly noteworthy accomplishment for a school with such low student engagement in general.

“We, as young, educated people, have a duty to stand up for ourselves and other people, and raise up other people who do not have the same opportunities we do,” -Noah Goodwin

At UVA, students quickly organized a rally to denounce police brutality less than 24 hours after a Black student was assaulted by police on St. Patrick’s Day.

A defining characteristic of today’s student and youth movements is that they are more diverse, coherent and focused than ever before. Students rarely only focus on one issue, and stress finding common cause at the intersections of different issues.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood, speaking at the first VSEC conference explained that culture plays, and has played, a critical role in uniting different groups of young people.

“When Joan Baez [played] with Harry Belafonte, or when Abbie Hoffman [linked up] with the Black panthers in Chicago – when the cultures linked, then those silos began to be broken down,” he said.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood speaks at the student-organized Virginia Power Shift conference. Feb. 14, 2015 (Sean Davis)
Rev. Lennox Yearwood speaks at the student-organized Virginia Power Shift conference. Feb. 14, 2015 (Sean Davis)

The young left has found a nuanced understanding of inequality and privilege based not just on income, but gender and sexual identity, race, and a myriad of other things.

“If one has privilege, it’s important to know how that differentiates people from one another, and how people with less privilege are still disenfranchised,” Goodwin said.

“We, as young, educated people, have a duty to stand up for ourselves and other people, and raise up other people who do not have the same opportunities we do,” he added.

Ultimately, long term social change isn’t just rooted in students and young people, but the expectation that as they age and become adults, their work will continue.

“I believe that my activism will continue into adulthood because I’ve already established the connections in the activist scene. Once you become embedded in the community you continue to grow as an organizer as you share your experiences with other organizers,” Hasan said.

“I guess we’re all still growing in a sense. But Yes, I hope that I can be an advocate for my community for as long as I’m still standing,” Johnstone said.

Disclaimer- this was for a class , so the same rules didn’t apply, but just to disclose it, I was on the VSEC executive board.

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