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.

One Time Some of My Friends Got Arrested at the White House

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about the protest pictures I posted a couple weeks ago from the #XLDissent protest in Washington D.C.

Why did they get arrested? What were they Protesting? What is The Keystone XL Pipeline?

The funny thing about KXL is that if you know about it, you probably already have a very strong opinion about it. It’s very polarizing, and yet if you haven’t heard of it, it sounds like an oddly specific thing for so many people to be so worked up about.

Protesters await arrest in front of the White House. March 2, 2014. Sean Davis
Protesters await arrest in front of the White House. March 2, 2014. Sean Davis

On March 1, 2014 I joined members of the ODU EcoReps organization, as well as the ODU chapter of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, as they traveled to the nation’s capital. It was one of my favorite VSEC road trips because we didn’t leave until noon.

I was still late.

They were making the trip up to join with just under 2000 other student activists to rally and march against the pipeline. The event was called #XLDissent (hashtag included, it’s 2014 duh).

While it wasn’t the biggest protest against KXL, many have claimed that it was the biggest act of student civil disobedience since the Vietnam war.

Instead of explaining why so many young people are angry about seemingly this one little thing, I’ll let them explain…

Jugal Patel is a junior at ODU, majoring in Political Science and Philosophy. He works with CCAN and contributes to The Borgen Project.
Jugal Patel is a junior at ODU, majoring in Political Science and Philosophy. He works with CCAN and contributes to The Borgen Project.


Erin Fagan is a Senior at ODU, majoring in Marine Biology. She's the VSEC founder as well as a campus rep and committee member, the EcoReps event coordinator, a Greenpeace community coach, and she's associated with a ton of other campus and environmental organizations I don't have room to list.
Erin Fagan is a Senior at ODU, majoring in Marine Biology. She’s the VSEC founder as well as a campus rep and committee member, the EcoReps event coordinator, a Greenpeace community coach, and she’s in charge of or part of a ton of other campus and environmental organizations I don’t have room to list.

What was XL Dissent?

Erin: “XL Dissent was the first event in the long line of anti-kxl protests/marches/rallies (after Tar sands Action, NOKXL, and Forward on Climate, as well as some smaller ones) that was organized by, and facilitated nearly completely by students. It was an opportunity for students to demonstrate that we aren’t taking this sitting down, and that we are willing to put our bodies on the line in opposition of KXL, and to prove that we aren’t just fighting for, but fighting with people from frontline communities.”

So whats wrong with the pipeline?

Erin: If the pipeline is approved, it would carry over 800,00 barrels of tar sands oil through Montanan, right by North Dakota, through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, down to Houston and Port Arthur, every single day. Although we’re told this is for the U.S., it would definitely be China-bound.

This would spell absolute disaster for not only ecosystems, but all of the communities along the way. These communities are largely those of indigenous people, communities of color, and low-income communities who are being taken advantage of.

A part of the Keystone Pipeline already exists… All of the terrible things people hear are not just rumors or speculation. They are based on whats already been happening.

During the six-month study conducted by the State Department, there were 1,692 pipeline “incidents…” this rate has not slowed down. We know that we can expect regular leaks and spills everywhere that pipeline exists.

The safety regulations are sub-standard at best, and not at all worth the 38-42 permanent jobs that we would get, in an economy of 322 million people.

We could be creating more and more permanent clean energy, technology and engineering jobs.

“I have been involved in this particular cause since 2011, and it is a fight that I will be involved in until the end.”

Jugal: As a scientific consensus, fossil fuels such as the tar sands oil contribute significantly to the problem of climate change. Unless the burning of fossil fuels is phased out to make way for clean and renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar problems that we’re already seeing with the with the climate will continue to worsen.

Therefore, it is necessary for our generation to do all it can to stop the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline- or else we are risking the future of the planet.

Why did you zip-tie yourself to the White House gate?

Jugal: Those who face the worst effects of climate change are those who have done the least to produce it. The lives of people within developing nations and future generations are at stake if action is not taken. It is for this reason that I hope to make the strongest political statement possible: that my generation is very serious about environmental problems and that we intend to address them. Acts of civil disobedience have been integral to correcting injustices throughout history and I fully intend to be a part of the movement that makes the world a better place to live.

How was the experience?

Jugal: Because of weeks of communication between organizers and DC police departments, the experience was very smooth. The police are fully aware of the role that civil disobedience plays into politics and understood that our nonviolent political action was justified.

The most favorable aspect of the experience, from my perspective, was getting to know the other activists risking arrests. Many of us were stuck at the white house fence for up to 5 hours, so it was plenty of time to get to know each other! 

Explain your protest sign.

Erin: Martin Luther King Jr’s quote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I chose this because I can never stress enough how important it is to understand how everything is connected.

It may seem like this is happening so far away, but the destruction of vital ecosystems and resources (water?!), the suffering of fellow human beings, and the human-caused extinction of animals along the way all relate directly back to us.

KXL is Pandora’s Box. Once we begin to become reliant on this dirty form of oil, it will be infinitely harder to stop using it.

This social/environmental injustice that may seem completely disconnected from us is really threatening the entire planet in every way.

How did this thing come about, and how did you get involved?

Erin: I started organizing for Virginia about a month in advance, recruiting not just at ODU and Norfolk, but across the state as well. The idea for XL Dissent came from the historic 2011 sit-ins and rallies which played a huge role in drawing attention to the issue and breaking the, then, consensus among politicians.

After the State Department’s January report that the tar sands and pipeline would not negatively impact climate change, it was time to be more innovative and begin escalation and radicalization.

There was a lot of planning and organizing that went into this event to keep it under control and nonviolent, why is that?

Erin: With a march of this size, it is still very important to be respectful. DC sees plenty of non-peaceful protests too, so letting them know what’s going on and working with the police instead of against them (they’re doing their jobs, after all), ensures not only that residents who know what’s happening will not be scared, but it protects the safety of the protesters.

A huge group is intimidating, and more so when they are unexpected, so we try to avoid a scenario where we could be physically harmed for no reason.

The arrests were planned because it was important to make history. There are lots of small arrestable events that happen here and there, but unless something about them is different and innovative, no one ever hears about them. Planning ahead increases the chances of reaching goals like this.

Had it not been permitted, we never would have made it to the White House– we would’ve been kicked off the streets at the beginning, and anyone who didn’t obey would’ve been in jail under entirely different circumstances.

It is important that these events remain non-violent because we do not want to be made into the “bad guys”. If we use scare/intimidation tactics, harm people and their property, or make people feel unsafe in any way, we’re becoming a part of the problem, being hypocritical, and only gaining negative attention, which would be very well-deserved.

Why do you believe protesting and nonviolent direct action are an effective means for change?

Jugal: In a democratic political system, it is more than necessary for direct action to be a fundamental aspect of popular involvement within the political process. History has proven time and again that significant change for the better can occur with protest.

In a society where the institution of business has monumental political influence, the perspectives of people from lower socio-economic classes are often neglected—resulting in widespread injustice. Therefore, popular protest and direct action is necessary to allow for democracy to fulfill its intentions.

Erin: NVDA is absolutely effective, but not by itself. We still need to meet professionally with politicians and “make nice”. We need to find common ground with shareholders and decision-makers. We need to focus on educating people, and most of all, involving those in frontline communities–anything that we could say to convince someone would be dwarfed by what they have to live with every day.

NVDA is a means of campaign escalation, an issue is not getting the attention that it needs, or when it is not being taken seriously. We need people to take on these different roles so that we cover all of our bases. An arrestable action of this type is usually the first step in radicalization and escalation, which draws attention to the issue to reach more people. Historically, these events are often able to sway politicians’ opinions.

What similar actions have you been a part of?

Erin: I’ve been involved in at least a dozen large rallies/protests (“large” meaning over 1000 people), with the largest being Forward on Climate last February (50k people! Largest environmental rally in history).

While this was not the largest, the energy of the mass arrest was very unique. It felt much more drastic, because nothing like this had been done for the last few years (and even then, it was over a couple of weeks). Each time, I find myself re-energized and re-inspired to work on bigger campaigns and causes, both here in Norfolk and on a larger scale.

The most important thing about events like this is that we ride this new energy and take advantage of our enhanced motivation to make waves.

Finally, what’s happening at ODU, and what would you like to see happen?

Erin: ODU’s environmental group EcoReps has been growing rapidly since the introduction of VSEC. With this change, EcoReps is making the move from passive action to direct action, and demanding real change from ODU.

Other groups, such as the Marine Bio Student Association, Social Entrepreneurs Council, and the Environmental Health Club, are all taking a new, special interest in environmental aspects that relate to their core values.

I will be working on plans to increase our STARS rating 🙂 (currently bronze, booo). Ultimately, my larger goals for ODU are for them to form a permanent, full-time sustainability board, to get a divestment campaign off the ground, and for ODU to join the other universities who have demanded that Aramark take on more sustainable policies.

More important than this, however, is how we get there.

The reason this hasn’t happened already is because there’s a huge lack of student accountability and and a surplus of apathy.

If more students at ODU demand action from President Broderick, the Board of Trustees, shareholders, and high-donating alumni, then they would take us seriously. They do want to make their students happy, but not nearly enough students are demanding change. It’ll take more voices and more action for them to be be convinced.

Jugal: With discoveries in regard to just how vulnerable the city of Norfolk is to sea level rise from climate change, the ODU community is beginning to become much more active politically.

I hope to see this continue and expand because Virginia’s political system is currently very environmentally negligent. Students also have much more political power than they may feel at times, so it is very important that we continue to organize and get involved in the political process.

If we fail to do so, the problems that we face both in the present and the future risk being unaccounted for.

Powershift 2013

After two days back in Virginia- waking up after a full night’s sleep, sitting through classes that don’t inspire me or make my blood boil, and being surrounded by people that could give a fuck less about fossil fuels, sustainability, or environmental injustice- I can say that Powershift was actually really great. And I say that with a healthy distrust for big (even environmental) organizations headed by white men and/or more-mainstream liberal organizations like moveon.org.

So first off, Pittsburgh. I’m sorry, I just always thought you would be dirty, at best. This city is fantastic! I saw some of the coolest architecture I’ve ever seen there, as well as a really thriving arts scene. I don’t actually know much of anything about local politics, but they were apparently the first city to ban fracking, as well as exhibiting a number of progressive, green infrastructure projects. The convention center itself is actually the first green convention center in the world and featured many encouraging elements such as hundreds of solar panels on the roof, and an impressive recycling/composting system. This really is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to as well.

Also Anti-flag is from there…

The (in)famous giant rubber ducky!!!
The (in)famous giant rubber ducky!!!
The Allegheny River at sunset

The first night we missed the keynote speeches, but spent hours walking around looking at the different tables, talking to the people from different organizations. They ran the gamut of encouraging Pittsburgh tourism to ending capitalism…

It was really encouraging looking at the different groups of young people, from literally all of the country, sitting, talking, exchanging ideas, spreading awareness. There were mohawked punks and long-haired, bare-foot hippies and stoic indigenous representatives, and faith leaders, and radical anarchists, and average-looking students. There were green tech executives and ex-coal miners. There were artists and rappers, and occupy-era social media legends. It was a really great moment of “aha! these are our people!”

I really liked that none of the panels or speeches involved proving climate change or skepticism(save for the panel on how to talk to CC skeptics). As a movement, a nation, and as humans in general, the sooner we stop giving legitimacy to fossil fuel industry-backed “skeptics” and disinformation, the better. (if you disagree with that, that’s a whole-nother post..) I was also pleased to see a lot of the focus on impoverished communities and indigenous peoples fighting tar sands, fracking, pollution, environmental degradation, etc- important voices that are, too often, not represented. Being more inclusive and less white/middle-class was also a major theme, although the ability to pay for the registration and travel still reinforced that trend…

I missed it, but during one of the keynotes an indigenous woman was cut off during a speech. I don’t know if it was a time issue or something more nefarious, but it seemed to highlight the divide between the big-box environmental groups and the more radical, smaller ones. During a speech by a, black, ex-Obama organizer, a section of the audience stood up chanting “The EAC (Energy Action Coalition- the main organizer of the event) doesn’t stand for me!” There was at least one speaker that resigned in a show of solidarity.

Similarly, somebody put up a banner in front of the snack bar that read “Don’t support Coca Cola,” and promoted local, sustainable food over the corporate, Convention Center-contracted company. In one of the panels I attended on capitalism and the climate, one of the panelists- a more radical, indigenous organizer- broke away from the pack and argued against using solar cells because they are made from copper, which is just as destructive as other extractive processes. This was really interesting because it blew up one of the two big paths to energy sustainability that virtually everyone else was calling for.

I was kind of surprised more instances of protest within the conference didn’t occur, with such a huge variety of people, organizations, and opinions. That being said, many of the speakers and workshops surprised me too- there were(really, really good/ productive) anti-oppression workshops that focused on male privilege, white privilege, and class divide as well as panels on ending capitalism and what to do if you get arrested protesting. It wasn’t all just a “lefty” feel-good, flower power, tree-hugging fest.

With such a huge focus on sustainability, and food, it was a wonder that nothing sustainable/environmentally-conscious was offered. Somebody brought up that Food Not Bombs had provided food at a similar, smaller, event. Somebody else pointed out that they could have had food trucks, which could’ve provided a wide range of dietary options and supported small businesses. On Saturday, a colleague and I wandered through downtown looking for anything that provided good vegan/vegetarian food for over an hour.

Maybe I just have an over-affinity for the days of Occupy, but I would really like to see something with this content, and size, happen in a more-democratic, more-egalitarian, grass-roots fashion, with no registration fees or costs, but suggested donations, allowing environmentally-minded people from every walk of life to attend. Similarly, I feel like many of the panels were not as productive as they could have been, strictly because of the time constraints.

A couple of the highlights for me were the male priviledge workshop- I don’t remember the speaker’s name, but he(and he was very adiment about not assuming a person’s preferred gender, so this shows how much I listen..) completely kicked ass. A lot of time was given to audience members voicing their concerns and ideas, and I feel like it was really productive, especially to anybody that hadn’t ever thought about sexism before; and the “Social Media All stars” and photography panels. There was an interesting panel on connecting the “School to prison Pipeline” to environmental justice that featured at least one member of the Dream Defenders- one of my favorite movement-organizations right now.

Really though, my biggest complaint is that I couldn’t attend absolutely everything.

members of The Overpass Light Brigade take the stage behind Rev. Yearwood.
members of The Overpass Light Brigade take the stage behind Rev. Yearwood during the Saturday keynote.
ODU student, Tynell Johnson, with Kandi Mosset of The Indigenous Environmental Network. Mosset spoke at the Saturday keynote address.