Activists for the NEW MILLENNIUM Complacent and politically unaware? Student leaders say young people are screaming, but no one is listening.By Kendra Hamilton
Baghdad is burning, and the streets of the world’s cities are full of anti-war protesters — as well as anti-globalization protesters, anti-sweatshop protesters, campus “greens” and much more — but some observers are asking, where are the Black student protesters? When anti-globalization protests paralyzed the nation’s capital during the G-8 Summit last year, for example, the Washington Post dispatched a reporter to Howard University’s campus to find out “why Black students don’t care about globalization.”
African American elders, meanwhile, seem to be echoing the criticisms. Sessions at a recent Black studies conference co-sponsored by the Schomburg Center, Princeton University and the City University of New York revealed a “profound” rift between the activist generation of the ’60s and ’70s and today’s youth, noted the Schomburg’s chief, Dr. Howard Dodson (see Black Issues, March 13).
“What I hear from people is that we don’t know our history, we don’t take education seriously, we’re more into the way we look — the bling-bling! — than what’s inside,” says Descatur “Dez” Potier, 22, president of the Black Student Union and a senior political science major at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “But a lot of people from that [activist] generation just haven’t taken the time to understand and relate to us.”
Danielle Phillips, 21, a junior at Spelman College and president of the school’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, says, “I guess the criticism that makes me maddest is that we don’t resist and we’re not politically aware. Older people think we’re lazy and just don’t care. But that’s not the case at all.”
Rena Johnson, 18, a second-year student at the University of Virginia, had only a thread of a voice left after organizing the buses that took nearly 80 UVA students to demonstrate on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in support of affirmative action on April 1. “Young people are screaming,” Johnson says. “We are literally screaming, and no one is listening.”
The complacent generation?
The allegedly complacent generation was out in force that day — that day being April 1. Sporting Greek insignia or school caps and T-shirts, they chanted, “We need diversity — we gotta have diversity!” and, “Impeachment — NOW!” They carried signs that proclaimed “400 Years of Slavery Is Worth 20 Points.”
There was almost a carnival atmosphere, as motorists honked their horns and passers-by in business attire forgot their professional demeanor and shouted, “Represent! Represent!” But the tone of the conversations one heard as the demonstration wound its way from the U.S. Supreme Court past the Capitol and down the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial was serious.
“I wonder what Clarence Thomas’ mama thinks about what he’s doing?” asked one young woman, sparking spirited responses from her companions.
And while affirmative action was at the forefront, the war in Iraq was ever present in the background.
“This administration made a serious miscalculation when it billed this war as being about winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people,” said a young man to his nodding, dreadlocked companion.
The snapshot that emerged that day was of a generation that is articulate, passionate and politically savvy. It’s a portrait of African American youth that is sharply at odds with stereotypes cherished by the media — and even by a certain segment of the African American community.
The college student population is far less politicized as a whole than it was 40 years ago. More than 60 percent of students viewed “keeping up with politics” as “very important” or “essential” in 1966, according to UCLA’s annual Freshman Survey. That compares with 32.9 percent of freshmen in the 2002 survey — a rebound from the all-time low of 28.1 percent reported by the 2000 survey.
But then a great deal of what comprises student activism today doesn’t fit neatly into the categories established during the civil rights and youth protest movements of the ’60s and ’70s, some observers say.
“There are major differences between our generation and the civil rights generation of old,” notes Brandon Neal, national director of the NAACP’s youth and college division. “During that time period, the period of Jim Crow law, the struggle was clear. People were fighting for rights and liberties that had been denied them.
“For our generation, though, there are issues in understanding what the issues are. Our generation is in the midst of evaluating and defining what our problems are,” Neal says.
For today’s students, “it’s not just all about civil rights — they care about so many other kinds of issues — from literacy to sweatshops to homelessness to LGBT [lesbian, gay, bi-, and transgender]. You name it. Their interests are very diverse,” says Elizabeth Hollander, executive director of Campus Compact, a national coalition of 860 colleges and universities committed to fostering the values of service and citizenship on college campuses.
And Hollander’s assessment is echoed by that of Phillips, the Spelman junior.
“The older generation thinks we’re supposed to resist in the same way that they did, but things are not the same. We have different interests. Even the concept of the Black community has changed since the civil rights movement,” she says. “There are a lot of people involved in gay rights — and that’s something that at one time you just could not talk about or deal with. There’s a growing number of students who consider themselves feminist as well.”
The Making of an Activist
In the “golden age of activism,” students became politicized by direct experience. They went to segregated schools, drank from segregated drinking fountains. They watched dogs and men with water cannons attacking unarmed marchers on television. They saw body bags returning from Vietnam, entered the draft lottery and faced that terrible decision: Fight or flee.
Students of the current generation are politicized, by contrast, by their schools.
Sometimes the critical experiences come in high school. That was certainly the case for Potier and Candice Smith, 21, a senior politics major at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.
For Potier, a Haitian American whose mother is quite active with the immigrant community in his hometown of Boston, the key experiences were an African American history course at his high school, the prestigious Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass., and a week in the Anytown program, a weeklong diversity conference for student leaders.
“You could say that experience pushed me over the edge,” Potier explains. “We were placed in workshops where we’d have to face issues of diversity across a wide gamut, forcing us to develop an understanding of women’s issues, homophobia and heterosexism, ableism. The most important thing I learned was that when you see an injustice, if you don’t step up and say what’s going on is wrong, you’re almost as bad as the person inflicting the injustice. That’s always stayed with me.”
Smith, on the other hand, is a proud graduate of Little Rock’s Central High School. Her keen awareness of her high school’s civil rights history fueled her interest in the Young Democrats. She was the vice president for minority affairs for the state of Arkansas her sophomore year in college and sought a series of leadership posts at her 92-percent White campus.
Smith and a handful of other African American students led a campaign to integrate the college’s student senate. After the group managed to win nearly half of the 15 seats, Smith survived an impeachment campaign and enough smear tactics “to make you think Machiavelli had come back to life,” she says with a laugh. But she remained positive and stayed the course. “I like being a trendsetter, breaking down barriers. That’s how I approach life,” she says, noting that she’s currently the president of the Pre-Law Society.
For Phillips and Johnson, the consciousness-raising came a bit later.
Phillips was a freshman at Spelman taking two required courses, “The African Diaspora and the World” and “Introduction to Women’s Studies.”
“In high school, I was always a disciplined student, but I was always bored because the material just didn’t seem to speak to me. It was from this Eurocentric point of view” — a term she admits she learned in college. But then, that’s precisely the point.
“It’s not as if people don’t have these feelings — they feel marginalized in high school, but they don’t have a language to express it,” Phillips explains. “In these classes, I developed a language to express my experiences and describe my place in the world. And it was so powerful. It made what I was feeling more valid, more legitimate.”
Phillips moved quickly from finding a language to express her place in the world to joining with like-minded women to express their discontent with Spelman’s “ultraconservative” former president, Dr. Audrey Manley. And with the newly inaugurated Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum at Spelman’s helm, Phillips is moving full steam ahead into other issues in which she’s passionately interested: Roe v. Wade, the war and getting out the vote in 2004. “This is such a crucial time,” she says.
For Johnson, meanwhile, the pivotal moment appears to be now. She helped organize an affirmative action teach-in as a midterm project in her “African American Communities” class. Inspired by the speaker, Shanta Driver, the executive director of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and to Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), she suddenly found herself coordinating the affirmative action protest trip to Washington.
“It was just something that was very personal to me,” says Johnson, who’s double-majoring in pre-med and history and minoring in Jewish studies.
Of that momentous day in the capital, she now says, “I couldn’t believe I was actually marching down Constitution Avenue. It was so amazing. I was exercising my First Amendment rights; the Constitution was working in my favor for a change…
“That was something my ancestors could not do, but I felt so strongly I was standing on their shoulders — and following in my mother and father’s footsteps, too,” Johnson says, adding that her parents took part in the 1963 March on Washington.
The New Student Politics
“Think globally — act locally.” One doesn’t see those bumper stickers quite so frequently now, but that may well be because it’s an ethic that’s been completely absorbed by this generation of students.
Indeed, one survey estimates that this may be the most socially activist generation of students since the 1930s. Arthur Levine and Jeanette S. Cureton found in their 1998 study, “When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today’s Students,” that nearly two out of three undergraduates (64 percent of the 9,100 surveyed) were involved in activism. But these days, it’s not just the issues that are different. So are the actions that students take.
“What we’re seeing is that students are much more interested in volunteerism than in political action,” says Campus Compact’s Hollander. “What they’ve told us is, ‘Our service work is not an alternative to politics — it is alternative politics. If we haven’t touched it, we can’t understand it. We need to touch it to know how to make it better.’ “
Some students of this generation are still attracted to traditional political organizations. Smith says she loves the challenge of forcing old-line organizations to diversify. And Potier spent a summer as an intern with Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, which sent him to the NAACP’s national office, where he got hands-on experience working on an anti-racial profiling initiative.
But Potier — like the majority of students of this generation — is also involved in the “new student politics,” as Campus Compact describes it. He has created a mentoring program for Black and Latino boys in Hartford’s inner city. “The true essence of leadership,” he says, “is giving back.”
The point was driven home during one of Potier’s Saturday morning mentoring sessions. “We were trying to define what it meant to be a ‘real man.’ So we started out talking about heroes — Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Then suddenly one of the young men started to cry. It turned out that someone had recently tried to shoot him.
“He kept saying, ‘I’m sick of it. I’m just sick .of it,’ ” Potier recalls. Then the young man added, .” ‘But if you want to talk about being a real man, then that’s Dez. He’s in college — he’s got a future. He could be doing a lot of things. And yet, every Saturday he’s down here with us.’ “
That was Potier’s proudest moment and one that made him realize that “the true leaders are not just the Martin Luther Kings, they’re the people who show up every day.”
That’s an ethic that appears to be broadly accepted by his peers, who are creating an alphabet soup of new organizations suited to their needs and concerns. Some are dialogue-based, groups that help students talk their way through issues of hate and multiculturalism. Others connect with community groups to agitate for things like “living wages” for the minority and immigrant workers whom students see as “enslaved” by paltry wages. Others are faith-based.
Phillips characterizes her generation’s approach as “nontraditional activism.”
“Everyone tends to think that activism is marching in the streets. But not everybody can or wants to do that. For them, writing might be a form of resistance and activism,” she says.
“Rapping,” notes Smith. “If a person likes to rap, to freestyle — or to design, create flyers,” those, too, can be forms of activism. She adds it’s most important to take people as they are, where they are, to speak to them in a language that they can understand and to ask them to contribute those gifts that they have. Indeed, Smith and her peers appear to have grasped one of the foundational principles of organizing.
Activists for the New Millennium
There are a few problems with this alternative politics, however. Student protests tend to be more peaceful — stressing lawsuits, e-mail campaigns, teach-ins and press conferences. But the tactics of the ’60s — the strikes, the building takeovers, the bombings — were the ones that garnered the media attention. So while some researchers speculate that today’s initiatives are actually more effective, a winning campaign hardly ever rises beyond the level of a local news story.
This has several negative consequences. First, the picture of student activism gets distorted in the media — as, for example, when violent students at the G-8 Summit in Washington made world news, while, just two hours away, University of Virginia students who spearheaded a successful “living wage” campaign went virtually ignored.
But there’s another consequence that’s far more important for the youthful activist, and that is the fact that, in the absence of consistent or positive coverage, students tend to feel as if they’re operating in a vacuum.
“You really feel alone, especially at a place like UVA where you’re the minority in all your classes and in the whole community,” Johnson says. “It’s like being in a bubble. You’re so secluded from the world. We’re secluded from our families, from everything.”
But despite all their frustrations, students are buoyed by their dreams of a better tomorrow. Smith has two law school acceptances and is on tenterhooks waiting to hear from a third. But in idle moments, she fantasizes about the public interest law firm she’ll establish one day, dedicated to helping small and minority-owned businesses thrive and grow. Phillips has another year to go, but is thinking hard about becoming a teacher.
“In a way, since I became politicized at school, it might be the perfect way to express my activism,” she says. But she’s torn — should it be college, where she’ll have more freedom, or high school, where the need and the challenges are greater?
Johnson has a vision, too. She’d like to start a BAMN chapter at UVA. She thinks it would be a great bridge between student groups that are working on the same issues but never talk to each other. “And yet at the same time, we can empower the Black person and make the Black struggle the focus,” she says.
And Potier, who’s headed for law school next year as well, isn’t yet sure what he’ll end up doing. He just knows that, whatever it is, it’ll involve “working in the community.” One of his personal heroes is Kwame Kilpatrick, the youngest mayor in the history of Detroit.
“I just believe we have a huge role to play,” Potier says, adding, “The more we as college students believe in ourselves and reach out to the community, the more we’ll be able to put the Jay-Z’s, Nas’s, Snoop Doggs and Kobes into perspective. The more we can be the physical presence in our communities and not the imaginary one that the kids see on TV, the more we’ll have an impact.”
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