November 12, 2007

Grassroots Activism Still Alive on College Campuses

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Correction appended. See below.

College students today are undoubtedly more connected than they were in generations past. Networking tools such as e-mail listservs and Facebook have facilitated communication on campus and elsewhere. But how have such technological changes been reflected in the way students make their voices heard? With a controversial war abroad, an increasingly unpopular presidency and environmental issues framing current history, what are the specific causes provoking college students today to speak out?
The most notable displays of student activism in decades past, such as the Kent State massacre of 1968 and the takeover of Willard Straight Hall in 1969, were framed by national issues, such as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Today’s college campuses, however, have seen a general trend toward more localized, grassroots issues.
According to the Student Activities Office, which currently has over 700 student organizations registered, 87 student groups identify themselves as “political/social action groups”, while 126 groups are categorized as “public service groups”.
Holmes stated that since she began working at the University in 1990, it would be “hard to put a finger on trends in student activism;” it is evident that there are a growing number of students devoted to public service, often on a local level.
Into the Streets, the student-run public service program, has seen a staggering increase in group membership.
“When I joined the board last year, we were gearing up to expect 500 to 600 individuals, which had been typical for years past,” said Brian Barber ’10, director of marketing for ITS. “When the final count came in around double that, with numbers near 1,000 registered volunteers, we were greatly surprised and pleased.”
This year, according to Barber, the group was able to recruit about 1,300 volunteers, which he believes can be accredited to the fact that “Cornell students are becoming more aware that issues in Ithaca do affect us here on the hill.”
The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement released a study earlier this month, entitled “Millenials Talk Politics” that offered an explanation for the growth in volunteer and public service efforts. The study concluded that college students today are reluctant to get involved in the current political environment and are more likely to devote time and effort to local, grassroots organizations.
According to the study, which reflected the views of about 400 college students from 12 four-year colleges, college students today are in fact more engaged than Generation X, comprised of those born between 1965 and 1985.
The study revealed that the Millenial Generation, or those born after 1985, is more involved in grassroots activist causes that invoke more tangible results, such as volunteering. A student at Providence College cited that a possible reason for the trend is that “most high schools now have community service requirements and it’s come to the point where they’ve trained you so much into it, it becomes second nature and habit to do service.”
The study also attributed localized activism to a growing discontent among college students to national politics. According to the study, many college students describe the current political system as “inefficient, corrupt, inaccessible and counter to the genuine welfare of the nation’s citizens.”
“Government is something that’s very bureaucratic. It’s sort of stale. It’s not moving. It’s there. It’s frustrating,” said a student at Princeton.
The Millenial Generation has often been criticized for a lack of activism in comparison to other generations. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman dubbed Millenials as the “quiet” generation, made up of individuals who are “less radical and politically involved as they need to be.”
However, the study found that Millenials are in fact not less engaged, but are rather unsure about where they stand in the scope of national politics, citing that the polarization of current political issues does not leave room to incite discussion.
“Students perceive politics, as it currently exists, as always an ‘either/or’ debate with no other options,” according to the study. “Many [students] have not developed opinions yet, and this may factor into their aversion to political parties.”
Michael Barnoski ’08, a member of the International Socialist Organization, said he “avoided politics for the first four years of school because I was completely dissatisified with either political option.”
In his fifth year as an architecture student, Barnoski became a socialist, “focused on rebuilding the US left, from the ground up, by our rules.”
Holmes stated that those of older generations, specifically people who experienced activism in the 1960s, have “a tendency to kind of look back to when activism really shaped their lives.”
Today, students are “active in a different way that is perhaps not as visible,” Holmes said.
Two weeks ago, approximately 6,000 youth activists, including 30 students from Cornell, were drawn to Washington D.C. to attend Power Shift, the first national youth summit devoted to raising awareness on the climate crisis. The event, according to Carlos Rymer ’09, president of the Sustainability Hub, exemplified the diplomatic activist engagement of the Millenial Generation.
“Power Shift was unique. This wasn’t a group of ‘environmentalists’ demanding bold action; it was a group of people from various ethnicities calling for climate justice.”
While Rymer acknowledged, “educating the masses is important to build public support”, he said, “showing that support with huge action is even better.”

Click here for part one of this feature.

Correction appended:This article incorrectly states that the Kent State shooting took place in 1968. The event occurred in 1970. The Sun regrets this error.