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Activism Reinvented

Activism Reinvented

Talkin’ ’bout this Generation

They’ve been called apathetic. The generation that got lost to Facebook and Britney Spears and too much coddling. Hell, they don’t even protest — they blog. And their motto? W/E, or in text-message speak, “Whatever.”

By Nadene Steinhoff

Pictured above: Trevor Latal ’09 needs nothing more than a cell phone to rally his activism network.

But apathy is becoming so yesterday. While skeptical Gen Xers distanced themselves from the placard-carrying enthusiasm of the 1960s, the Millennials — born between 1980 and 2000 — are ready to believe again. “People my age have a reputation for not caring about what’s going on in the world,” says Michaela Gore ’11, president of the College Democrats, “but there are growing numbers of young people getting involved, and many are dedicated to the core.”

Numerous factors are driving the rise in political and civic engagement, including the urgency of global warming, the shock of 9/11 and the youth-led Rock the Vote movement. “The current historical presidential race has not gone unnoticed by students,” says former ASWU President Tyler Reich ’06. “I think you’d have to be dead or in a hole somewhere not to notice.”

The Internet has also played a role. “Concerns about equality and social justice come along with being more aware of the world,” Gore says. “We’re shocked and horrified by images from Darfur — we haven’t had time to grow complacent yet.”

And the Iraq War has had an impact, according to last year’s Collegian editor Emily Standen ’08, who says the Iraq War caused a huge change in her view of America. “I’ve seen the level of student activism increase dramatically since the war started,” she says. “When our country engages in something so many people disagree with, it opens the floodgates for other causes as well.”

The Decade of Our Discontent

It’s not the first time a war has unleashed a furor. Students protested by the hundreds of thousands in the late 1960s and early ’70s, pushing American society to rethink social structures, morals and politics. “You can’t find another period in our collegiate history that has such significance,” says Tom Edwards ’53, an emeritus history professor at Whitman College who wrote Student Activism at Pomona, Willamette, and Whitman, 1965-1971. The Vietnam War was the fuel that fed the fire, he says. Without the draft, a generation would not have been politicized, and once students began to question authority, they didn’t stop. They questioned racism, sexism, environmental degradation and the war, and they pushed for academic reforms and more open, nontraditional living arrangements.

By 1968 anti-war passions had sparked protest on 80 percent of American campuses. In conservative communities like Salem, college campuses became the centers of anti-war activity, leading to some town-gown antagonism. Willamette activism was polite by national standards (too polite, according to some dissenters). “If you look at those first student activists, they were well dressed,” Edwards says. “Men wore coats and ties and women wore dresses.” In 1965 Willamette students organized Project Truth, writing letters to soldiers to express support regardless of whether they agreed with the war. They petitioned government officials, marched through downtown streets with anti-war literature, and rallied at the Capitol. In 1970 students held a candlelight vigil and a 36-hour recitation of the 44,800 names of the soldiers who had died.

Willamette students march against the Vietnam War, 1970.Willamette students march against the Vietnam War, 1970.

The Civil Rights Movement also made its way to Willamette, beginning in an unexpected forum — the Glee song competition. The 1963 senior class interrupted a half-century of feel-good lyrics about school loyalty and campus romance to sing about the rights of the “American Negro.” According to then-chaplain Calvin McConnell, several Willamette students traveled to Mississippi and Alabama to help register black voters, a dangerous undertaking at the time — three civil rights workers had already lost their lives. Lenore Monk ’65 and Beatrice Perry, a junior at a black women’s college in North Carolina, traded schools for a year in an effort to build intercultural bridges. Other black students followed Perry, and when the Black Student Union was eventually formed, they advocated for recruitment of minority students and faculty, black studies courses and white involvement. By 1971 the University had its first black trustee, curriculum that addressed black culture, and 35 black, Latino and American Indian students.

Willamette students traveled to Mississippi and Alabama to help register black voters, a dangerous undertaking at the time.

Campus activists looked at other issues as well. The Young Republicans organized a 200-person march in support of a senatorial campaign. Students at Willamette and elsewhere played a pivotal role in launching the modern conservation movement, beginning with the first Earth Day in 1970. The Women’s Movement didn’t become a significant factor at Willamette — where male faculty dominated — until the 1970s, but by then campus activism was beginning to cool.

“By the early ’70s, people were weary of protest,” Edwards says. “The war in Vietnam was playing down, the draft was ending, the economy was turning sour, and many students became more concerned about finding a job.”

Willamette and other private liberal arts colleges saw less turmoil and violence than larger universities; they were somewhat insulated by traditions that emphasized moral as well as educational mentoring. Willamette’s Methodist roots and Salem’s conservative culture also served to dampen campus radicalism. At smaller schools like Willamette, a family atmosphere often prevailed — it’s hard to attack the dean when he greets you on the sidewalk every day. While some complained that the “teacup protests” were too tame, many were glad to see the revolution sputter out. “I remember one professor at Whitman saying, ‘When are they ever going to stop?’” Edwards recalls.

The annual Clothesline Project gives voice to survivors of
domestic and sexual violence, outside Eaton Hall, April 2008The annual Clothesline Project gives voice to survivors of domestic and sexual violence, outside Eaton Hall, April 2008

By the time campuses quieted down, academia had been transformed. Students at Willamette and elsewhere held seats on academic councils and helped set university policy. Campus housing regulations had been liberalized. Dress codes had been thrown out the dorm window. Perhaps most significantly, campus unrest had played a role in ending what many saw as an unpopular and directionless war.

“If you graduated in ’64 it was a completely different experience than if you graduated in ’74,” Edwards says. “Some alumni said, ‘What the hell’s going on there? What happened to all the rules?’ But many alumni and supporters came to be impressed with Willamette’s moderate, thoughtful response.” Edwards believes the dissent ultimately revitalized higher education.

Not Your Parents’ Political Activism

Four decades later, students are still reacting to war, social inequalities, environmental degradation and academic policies they disagree with, but their response is refreshingly new. Demographics, technology and political realities are leading to a reinvention of activism. “Our brand of activism is different from the 1960s,” says Gore. “Our generation focuses more on peaceful discussions and negotiation. We’ve seen that confrontation doesn’t work.” In a sense, the Millennials are sometimes viewed as more apathetic simply because they are more pragmatic and conciliatory. They trust people over 30 and want to strengthen the political system, not tear it down. They are also more ideologically based, wanting to put volunteer experiences into a broader political perspective, to understand the root causes of prejudice and global poverty.

“We adopted the University motto as our own and made the argument that divestiture was at the core of our institutional values”

Technology has revolutionized revolution, with online student communities forming around issues like sustainability, poverty, AIDs, homophobia and feminism. Millennials react quickly and coordinate activities on the fly using blog postings, text messaging and mass emails. Case in point: Senator Barack Obama visited Salem in March. The visit was finalized at 2 p.m., the line around the block began forming by 3:30, tickets were given away at 5:30, and by 7:30 they were gone. The news was broadcast via thousands of individual text messages and emails; not one newspaper or printed announcement was involved.

Many tickets went to Willamette students, who abandoned campus by the classful. One professor, walking around the deserted Quad, said, “There wasn’t any point in holding class. No one was coming.” Students across the country have given an adrenaline rush to this year’s presidential elections. In 2000, only 13 percent of young people were paying attention to the presidential campaign. This year, it’s 75 percent and rising. “In the frat houses, people watched the Super Tuesday election returns like it was a football game, and every TV lounge in the residence halls was full,” says Trevor Latal ’09.

Rather than write protest songs, Annie Haury ’09 co-chairs the Oregon College Republicans and focuses on getting students involved in local races.Rather than write protest songs, Annie Haury ’09 co-chairs the Oregon College Republicans and focuses on getting students involved in local races.

The Democratic contest has been the primary focus of student activism, with many conservatives still undecided. “McCain’s too moderate on domestic issues and too pro-war for many student conservatives,” says the president of the Willamette College Republicans, Annie Haury ’09, who has diverted her energy into local races. Willamette students, Republican and Democrat, are canvassing, working phone banks, registering voters and even managing campaigns for national and local candidates.

Willamette’s location across from the Capitol makes it an incubator for political activism, and many students enroll at the University to take advantage of the unique internship opportunity. More pick up fervor for public service once they arrive. During legislative sessions there are so many Willamette interns staffing the Capitol it could almost be called Willamette North.

Dismantling the Ivory Tower

Internal university policies still cause a stir on college campuses. Between 1960 and 1970, the number of American students doubled, and with numbers came influence. In a sense, Baby Boomers initiated the concept of students as “customers,” unleashing a tug of war that is still being played out.

What Boomers, Gen Xers, and now Millennials say they want is an education that is relevant: curriculum that addresses ecology, racism and poverty; a seat at the table when recruitment decisions are made; and representation on administrative committees — with votes. They even want, according to one 1970 Collegian writer, to be “allowed to attend the sacred faculty meetings.”

Institutional reform is often a divisive issue on campus, with proponents quick to complain of fellow student apathy: A frustrated Collegian editor once admonished his classmates to come “out of their caves.” And Willamette activists have sometimes seen a backlash, not for their goals, but their tactics. Members of the Concerned Students for Social Justice, who disrupted classrooms across campus last year, were criticized by students who agreed with the goal but disagreed with the approach; some minority students even staged an anti-rally rally in April to voice their displeasure. Protestors sought a dean of social justice and construction of a fully staffed $2.3 million social justice center to supplement the already existing Multicultural Affairs Office, Willamette Academy, and Council on Diversity and Social Justice. Students of color make up 16 to 18 percent of the undergraduate student body each year, making Willamette one of the most diverse four-year undergraduate colleges in the Pacific Northwest. Activists hope to increase that number to 20 percent, and to achieve greater retention of minority students and faculty, an area of concern shared by administrators.

By and large, Willamette activists in recent decades have sought to achieve goals by working within the system. When students sought to incorporate sustainability goals into University activities in 2006, they gave a poignant and informed presentation to the board of trustees, helping spearhead a movement that has continued to gain support and funding from administrators.

The trustees were also consulted in 1988 by students pushing for University divestiture from South Africa. “We adopted the University motto as our own and made the argument that divestiture was at the core of our institutional values,” says Trustee Eric Friedenwald-Fishman ’88. Numerous well-attended gatherings were held, but no protests were necessary. Board members agreed and voted to create a new investment policy.

Compassion in Action

Today’s student activism is not just political, but humanitarian, with civic engagement at an all-time high. Volunteerism surged 20 percent after 9/11, according to a report from the Corporation for National and Community Service, which says that college students are twice as likely to volunteer as young people who are not enrolled in higher education.

Willamette students volunteered an incredible 57,500 hours last year. Each year they clean beaches, tutor children at local schools, offer probono legal advice, restore streams and feed the homeless. “People are appreciative when 20 football players come help out,” says defensive tackle Aaron McKimmy ’09, who helped his teammates spread bark mulch at Salem’s 90-acre Bush Park. “It would have taken the city staff months.”

For many, volunteer experiences help shape political views and nurture deeper understanding about classroom concepts, such as social justice. “I decided I shouldn’t blame myself for every injustice in the world,” says Peter Henry ’11, who spent spring break helping the homeless. “I don’t have control over that. But I can volunteer, which I do have control over.”

Students take the University motto to heart even after they graduate: Among small undergraduate schools, Willamette University ranks third in the nation for the number of students who enter the Peace Corps, and the University outranked every other Oregon liberal arts school in Washington Monthly’s college rankings, which are based on civic engagement and volunteerism.

2008 "In the frat houses, people watched the Super Tuesday election returns like it was a football game."

Altruism aside, simple curiosity fuels much of the humanitarian outreach at Willamette. “There’s a commitment among the faculty and administrators to inspire debate, and there’s also a more diverse student population with different backgrounds and ethnicities and understanding of the world,” says Reich. “When you put those two together, it sparks conversations at a much deeper level.” This generation, more color-blind and likely to celebrate diversity, is diverse itself: 40 percent are black, Asian, Latino or racially mixed. And in this historic election year, gender and color are simply non-issues for many younger voters.

Reinventing Activism

Instead of raising a sign in protest, Kirsten “Kiry” Nelsen ’08 hauls soil at a local community garden that assists needy families.Instead of raising a sign in protest, Kirsten “Kiry” Nelsen ’08 hauls soil at a local community garden that assists needy families.

One study suggests that Millennials may be the most socially active generation since the 1930s, when the Depression spawned widespread labor struggles. “We need to see today’s student activism in the context of our current political climate and understand its enormous power,” says Diana Alvarado, researcher with the American Association of Colleges and Universities. The generation known for rewriting the rules has reinvented activism, she says. They’re savvy enough to understand that it’s easy to protest, but solutions are more difficult, requiring inclusiveness and pragmatism.

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is simply a page in a history book — or on the Web — for today’s students, who were born long after it was given. But they have discovered their own dream and are taking former columnist Molly Ivins’ advice to heart: Go forth unafraid and raise hell. “We may be young, and we need to respect our elders, but we have a voice, too,” says McKimmy. “There are days when I think the world is hopeless, but I’m idealistic. One day the pieces will all get put together.”

What were the achievements of your class or generation? Share them online at comments/ or write to The Scene, Willamette University, 900 State Street, Salem, OR 97301.

My Education, My Way

In 1969 when Willamette students became frustrated in their efforts to have more say in grading, graduation requirements, curriculum and faculty tenure, they established the Willamette Free University. Open to the community, students taught courses on poetry, race relations, sex and love, and “Scenarios of the Year 2000.” The effort was short lived, but the legacy of students wanting to shape their own educational experience is alive and thriving.

Leaving Mom and Dad at Home

During the heady 1960s, students seemed hell bent on pushing experience to the outer limits, bringing drugs, psychedelic rock and more liberal sexual mores to American campuses. At Willamette, the earliest intimations that the “Leave It to Beaver” era was over came in 1961, when students organized a successful boycott to protest compulsory chapel attendance. They also protested rules in the Student Handbook: one page for men and six for women, including a requirement that women sign in and out of dorms. Students complained that deans shouldn’t be able to tell them what to wear, when to go to bed, or who could visit their rooms. “They wanted to throw off the chaperones,” says Tom Edwards ’53. Across the country, schools eventually dropped the parental rules, with the small private schools like Willamette being the last to give way.

The New Activism on the Streets of Portland

Yuki Sugisawa ’09

“Some students said the Take a Break volunteer trip is a very nice experience, but I had few English skills so I didn’t have the courage to join,” says Yuki Sugisawa ’09.

Until last spring, that is, when Sugisawa spent eight days on the streets of Portland with the homeless. Students organize alternative spring break trips each year and fan out across the country, volunteering in homeless shelters, inner-city schools and impoverished rural neighborhoods. They also take their first steps toward stewardship of their local and national communities, addressing literacy, poverty, racism, hunger, homelessness, HIV/ AIDS and the environment.

“This was my first intense exposure to the volunteer experience,” Sugisawa says. “We talked to the homeless people, and they were very kind. They tried to take care of each other and of us. For their community, we were visitors. We asked about their lives, but we The New Activism on the Streets of Portland didn’t ask directly. They are careful and so we used appropriate language.

“This trip made my point of view expand. If I don’t talk to those who have different perspectives from my own, my vision will be very narrow. Before I thought studying was much more important, but now I know I need experience, too. For me, this connects my education and real life. Volunteering is important to understand how we are linked to each other.”

“Student activism is a lot stronger than when I was a student,” says Tyler Reich ’06, who graduated just two years ago. “I think students are idealistic and see the real possibility of change, and they’re not going to let others make that change — they want to affect their surroundings in a more personal way.”

Sugisawa, called the “philosopher of the trip” by his teammates, is majoring in international studies and hopes to work at the United Nations someday. “I would like to change even a little piece of the world.”