While on a trip to Cuba last February, I lost my right to assemble.
There, in Fidel Castro’s land – where social gatherings without the government’s permission are outlawed – sitting squished between two middle-aged women intently listening to a sermon in a small house-church, I realized the privilege of American political activists. It dawned on me as if it were some wonderful secret that everyone already knew. In the United States, we have the freedom to assemble in protest of our government, and for the first time in my life, I realized the value of this oft-forgotten first-amendment right.
On the way home, I contemplated several of the great protests of our nation’s history – like the civil rights marches of the 1960s and the rallies against the Vietnam War in the 1970s. These were the headlines of my parents’ generation, but when I tried to think of similar assemblies in my years, I came up short.
These days, it takes a great deal more to motivate a college student to march in protest. Political activism is no longer sexy. Even with the recent bout of nationwide marches, students have largely stayed home.
For the 21st century’s 20-somethings, the passion for political activism has been usurped by the lure of community service. Bono and Invisible Children have made global health disparities and humanitarian crises the cool causes of the decade. Even bake sales to help a local charity are now the thing to do.
Even as interest in politics continually declines among our age cohort, involvement in service organizations is steadily increasing. More than 70 percent of incoming college freshmen in 2005 said they had done community service at least once a week in high school, according to an annual survey by the University of California at Los Angeles. College students do everything from cleaning up after hurricanes to tutoring inmates to make an impact.
The question, of course, is whether all of this is a good thing. As many of today’s students hang up their parents’ political gloves and step instead into service, will this help our generation make a bigger mark on the world than our parents?
Don’t get me wrong – the service efforts of students are much needed, and the new wave of humanitarianism is poised to reach incredible heights in battling disease and poverty. These are all good outcomes, but the betterment of the human race cannot wholly be done on the backs of NGOs and community-service organizations.
There are some things that cannot be achieved through service alone but must instead be fought for. Lawmakers must be coaxed into legislating environments that eradicate inequality and bring about prosperity. Without this action, all the charity in the world won’t bring the poor out of poverty or the sick into health. Just ask aid workers in a place like Haiti or Darfur. Not surprisingly, most oppressive governments will not reform themselves unless a loud voice demands change. Even in liberal democracies like the United States, political change often needs the impetus of a coalition of concerned citizens.
This is precisely why students’ conspicuous absence from recent rallies is troubling. Political movements need young adults to be loud, to prove to those in power that the resistance won’t go away in future generations.
But it seems we students aren’t even slightly interested. The same UCLA survey showed that only one-third of entering freshmen feel it’s important to even keep up with politics, let alone take actual action.
We flock in droves to night-long fundraisers to help little kids recuperate (not a bad thing in itself), but ask us to work a petition drive or lobby to increase health care subsidies to those same families and, apparently, we are too busy, tired, broke or just plain apathetic.
Social justice is a noble cause, and the hundreds of thousands of students who dedicate their college careers to service are certainly not wasting their time. But we cannot divorce ourselves from our political responsibilities, and we must not be naive when it comes to creating sustainable change. Sometimes it is appropriate to take to the streets – and we shouldn’t be afraid to do it.
Hildreth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.